Cheap but cheerless at Pho Ta
6 Cope St, Dublin 2 (01) 671 8671
A hundred years ago, I spent a college summer living and working in Paris.
After a few false starts on the job front (au pairing in the 16th, where my duties included ironing Monsieur's boxers and making industrial quantities of carrot purée for the bébé in my charge, and chambermaiding in a snooty small hotel where my principal task was to count the towels and robes in the rooms as their occupants checked out, and then sprint down the stairs to challenge them to open their suitcases at reception), my then-boyfriend and I found employment at Habitat, the household goods and furniture store founded by Sir Terence Conran.
The store was in Les Halles and it was a great place to work; the legacy of my stint there an obscure French vocabulary of which I am still proud. Ask me the name of any kitchen implement you can think of in French and I'll probably still know the answer. Go on, I dare you.
One of the best things about working at Habitat was the luncheon voucher system that it operated. Once a month or so, we were handed a booklet of Ticket Restaurant coupons, which could be redeemed at many different restaurants. Rather than use them to buy lunch each day, we saved ours up, and used them to fund a blow-out meal every couple of weeks.
One of the restaurants near to where we lived that accepted the vouchers was Vietnamese, and we returned many times that summer. For someone whose only previous experience of Asian food had been birthday dinners at the Mandarin Chinese Restaurant in Bournemouth, where the gloopy sweet and sour pork was enough to set my 10-year-old teeth on edge, the food was a revelation: light, fragrant, and exciting, utterly invigorating.
Since then, I've eaten Vietnamese food in London and New York but, until my visit to Pho Ta a couple of weeks ago, never in Dublin. Neither have I been to Vietnam. So I can't claim to be any class of an authority on Vietnamese food. To make up for my lack of knowledge, I brought along guests who had spent time travelling in Vietnam last year in the hope that they would be informative guides to the menu and able to assess the authenticity of the food.
Sitting at our table in the window of Pho Ta, watching the rain pouring down and a man relieving himself in a doorway opposite, Ellie remarked that it didn't feel much like Vietnam. It's not the most atmospheric of rooms - there's a large wood carving on one wall and the lampshades are made of rice hats and that's about as far as it goes - but the girls said that was par for the course in their experience of eating in restaurants in Vietnam. The waitresses were smiley and helpful, although perhaps taken aback by the quantity of food that we ordered.
It was hard not to over-order: the menu at Pho Ta is enormous. It's divided into sections - starters, Pho (soups), Pho Xao (stir-fried noodles), Pho Chine Phong (crispy noodle cakes), Pho Tron (cold noodle salads), Bun (rice vermicelli dishes), Banh Cuon (steamed rice rolls), Xoi (steamed sticky rice dishes), Banh Mi (baguettes), Com (rice dishes) and Com Rang Viet Nam (Vietnamese fried rice). Altogether there are almost 70 dishes to choose from, and that's before you get to dessert. So it's a little overwhelming.
It took us while to navigate through, but in the end we ordered a good cross-section of starters and main courses. Universally the food was of a high standard, and I don't expect there are dud dishes on the menu. In particular, of the starters, we liked the Goi Cuon cold summer rolls, stuffed with pork, prawn, herbs, vegetables and rice vermicelli wrapped in rice paper and served with a peanut sauce, and the Nem Thit Cua, deep fried crab spring rolls with pork and mushrooms with a sweet-and-sour fish sauce for dipping. Bahn Cuon Nhan Thit, steamed rice rolls with minced pork, were super tasty too, while a sour lotus root salad (Goi Ngo Sen) was zingy and delicious.
Of our five main courses, one of our favourites was the Bun Bo Hue, spicy Hue soup, a harmonious balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavours with a predominant flavour of lemongrass in a broth that contained noodles, beef, pork and vegetables with a kick of chilli. Bun Cha was excellent too - grilled meatballs served with rice vermicelli noodles and generous handfuls of lettuce, mint and coriander with more of the sweet-and-sour fish sauce to pour over everything. At €11, the most expensive dish we tried was Pho Tron Tom, a mixed king prawn noodle salad with peanuts, herbs and a fried shallot and chilli oil to add to the fish sauce to give it a bit of extra oomph. The girls said that the food felt authentic.
For dessert, we tried a combination of three sweet soups - red bean, green bean and lotus seed - with coconut milk, about which the best that can be said is that it was an interesting experience. Sua Chua Nep Cam - home-made yoghurt with glutinous rice topping and coconut milk - was more to our taste, although it's not a dish that you'd wake up thinking about in the middle of the night.
With a couple of soft drinks, jasmine teas, water and a single helping of ice-cream, the bill for five came to €110.50 before service. We ordered without any attempt at restraint, and you could eat well at Pho Ta for less. Our fellow diners included several solo eaters, regulars we assumed, slurping their way through huge bowls of noodles which cost around a tenner.
On a budget
Pho Ta is not an expensive restaurant, so nothing you order is going to blow the bank. The pho soups look pretty filling though - Pho Bo Tai, rice noodle soup with rare beef, is €9.50 - and should be enough to satisfy any hearty appetite.
On a blowout
A portion of crab meat rolls, a mango salad, and mixed Pho noodle king prawn salad, followed by homemade caramel would cost €27.
The high point
Lovely staff, reasonable prices.
The low point
There's not much buzz to the restaurant.
9/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
At The Great Taste Awards in the UK earlier this month, Ballyhoura Mushrooms in Co Cork won a coveted three stars each for their Cep Oil and Mushroom Vinegar, two stars for their Mushroom Ketchup and one star for their Wild Garlic Vinegar. Lucy Creegan and Mark Cribben of Ballyhoura supply cultivated and foraged mushrooms to some of the country's best restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Chapter One in Dublin, and Cafe Paradiso in Cork, but you'll also find them at Cornmarket Street, Mahon Point and Midleton Farmers' Markets. Get there early to avoid disappointment.