Things have been unusually positive and free from torrents of florid invective on this site recently. Since most readers I have met claim to prefer articles in which I am rude I’m a tad discomposed to report this is going to be another eulogistic one.
Those who prefer ungracious bluntness will be saddened to learn that when last in London the editor and I visited Banh Mi Bay and had the best sandwiches of our lives. They transcended the ubiquitous, and all-to-often indistinguishable from baby-food-in-bread experience that they generally provide and so deserve exposition. I tell you what; to soften the blow of niceness I’ll write a bit of really offensive abuse at the end about the sandwiches of incalculable vileness I had at the local CAMRA-rated boozer a week ago.
Obviously, you all know what sandwiches are: 11 billion of them are made and consumed in the UK each year. Banh mi have probably ceased to be the coolest of sandwiches by now and may even be considered reasonably commonplace by many even if they are not readers of Elitistreview and avoid mentions of food in the media. However, someone from Peterborough might read this so I had better describe them.
Banh mi are Vietnamese sandwiches: baguettes made with some rice flour (to increase their crispiness) as well as wheat stuffed with such diverse fillings as pate, pork roll, satay chicken grilled pork and others generally accompanied by mayonnaise, pickled, grated carrot and giant radish, cucumber fingers, coriander leaves and some crushed chilli. They are seasoned with salt and pepper and generally Maggi seasoning sauce, although some die-hards still mix their own umami-brew. Baguettes may sound odd coming from Vietnam, but when I remind you that it used to be a French colony you can imagine that the Vietnamese incorporated some of that food culture into their own.
As with all things, some are better than others, but generally one hopes for a degree of complexity in both flavour and texture of that make them not mere sandwiches but into the zone of quite interesting food. Banh Mi Bay’s three offerings we tried far exceeded even this level: they were masterful fine-dining creations served in wicker baskets.
The Bay Special was stuffed with a few fillings usually served individually: Vietnamese pate with slices of pork roll and spiced pork. Vietnamese pate can be a tad greasy and slimy but this had not been pulped to pap and had just the right fat/meat balance to make it throbbing with sensual flavours. The meatiness was given additional complexity thanks to the distinct but complimentary flavours of pork roll and spiced pork which were of far higher quality than we’ve experienced elsewhere. The additional richness imparted by amazingly characterful mayonnaise was noticeably improving. Minor variations on this sandwich are served at many banh mi establishments; comparatively speaking they seem like trying to eat the wreckage resulting from a boiled cabbage and aerosol cheese delivery van smashing into a warehouse full of mirrors.
Our other two sandwiches had hot fillings. First to hit my sensory papillae was the grilled pork. Meltingly tender strips of pork, with a suggestion of char on the outside, had been judiciously dosed with a subtly spiced sauce making this so tasty I’m sure it that a single bite would make even Ayatollah Khamenei weep with shame for having ordered people to avoid the noble hog all his life. The sandwich moved me beyond grins and chortles to grunts and groans of manifest carnality. Definitely an experience of visceral delights but also had much to engage my more refined sensibilities.
Last, but far from least, was the grilled beef. Before it was grilled the beef seemed to have been marinated in some quality chilli sauce. During cooking the sauce became caramelised and augmented the already fantastic flavours of the beef to quite mind-blowing levels. The beef itself had plenty of meat loveliness and was drooling-provokingly tender. Cat’s arse good, man!
All these three had some common features worth relating. The Vietnamese baguettes themselves were brilliant; crisp and crunchy on the outside with a super-fluffy inner. The bread had a great flavour, something all too lacking in most sarnies and, indeed, most bread in the UK. The shredded carrot had been lightly pickled so was pleasingly restrained and was, as were the cucumber fingers and coriander leaves, not dripping with water that less perfectionist creators would have not purged from the vegetables.
Indeed, this dryness was a perceptible and definitely gratifying property of the banh mi in general. With small bits of tender meat, pate, sauce and vegetables inside the baguettes it could be quite easy for them to become moist and limp. I detest water-soaked bread almost as I much as I am disgusted by anointing the stuff with a tight-fisted amount of low-calorie ‘spread’ as an odious attempt to hide the fact that you are too devoid of passion and interest to use something as nice as decent butter. Whilst they did not require massive Saigon beer consumption in order to wash them down, these banh mi were quite dry and we both remarked on what a super squirrel character this was. The balance in all the sandwiches was perfectly judged to retain palatable tenderness without becoming repulsively wet.
These banh mi hit all the pleasure points one wants stimulating. There was the raw carbohydrate rush from the easy-to-metabolise bread whilst the combinations of flavours from that and the fillings stimulated both basic biological urges and sophisticated critical faculties. Quite, quite brilliant and they cost £3.80 each. Good, eh?
Banh Mi Bay, 4-6 Theobald’s Road, London WC1X 8PN
Now, as promised, some abuse! As soon as I approached the CAMRA-recommended pub The Black Prince in Woodstock the twisted bunch of pleasure-hating deviants who run the place went out of their way to make some things clear. The main entrance of the pub was locked with no sign of how to access the interior, suggesting the business of attracting customers was just either beneath or beyond the ability of the owners. Once I went the longest possible route they could have made the entrance from the main road there was a poorly-signposted, generally-concealed, head-bruisingly low door next to the kitchen windows and extractor-fan vents. The emetic range of rancid grease aromas these belched out, foretold eating there would result in feeling more unwell than when I spent two weeks projectile vomiting after some dodgy oysters and also that the collection of slack-jawed food warming staff waving huge knives at each other probably wanted to push me to suicide if I wasn’t poisoned by their grease toxins.
Gaining entrance in was beyond this is horror. The pub’s interior was decorated like a medieval torture chamber and when looking at the appalling beers and stomach churning array of twisted weirdness they served in place of food my incomprehension at why I had not yet run away screaming was beyond my understanding. When I heard myself ordering a sandwich I realised some unconscious part of my mind wanted to punish me for a long-passed crime and was going to do so in a terrifyingly cruel and unusual manner. I managed not to sob uncontrollably whilst waiting in the grim chamber convinced I could hear the screams from diners of previous generations echoing with the lobotomised laughter of sadistic food staff. I was promised a roast beef and melted stilton sandwich. There must have been some problem with the grill they usually employed to melt the cheese as its appearance, consistency and taste suggested one hadn’t been near one; rather it seemed like the cheese had been ingested by a member of staff who then regurgitated onto the bread. The beef was so dry and hard Australian mining firms would be confident of a pretty penny selling it to the Chinese to run their power-stations. The bread was three-dimensional, had a small amount of mass and in every other imaginable way was utterly devoid of character. I left and ran as fast as possible to the most distant bus-stop in the village.