'Fast casual dining', it serves that middle ground between quick meals, good ingredients, a fuss-free serving experience and culinary edge, with about 20 minutes of chatting thrown in for good dining measure. But with such a whopping amount of pygmy eateries trying to suck in the London crowd, it takes mighty notoriety to stand out. I went to Pho & Bun to see if the the fast casual Vietnamese haunt could cut it:
Say an urban dive bar, fresh with a sense of adventure headed East, got amorous and had one trendy bun in the oven, you'd have Pho & Bun. Blending the contemporary with Vietnam, this Shaftesbury restaurant was an intimate space of bare brick, cutesy Eastern graffiti, authentic street food elements and a lush yellow hue. While small, Pho & Bun also harbours a downstairs space that not only echoes the same interior ingredients as upstairs, but is both hidden behind a seemingly 'nothing' shutter, and boasts more group friendly crannies and corners than that of the upstairs space.
The Food and Drink
I'm not a picky eater, my problem is that i'd eat almost anything. Noting that from the very off, our waiter gratefully brought out an edited and pescatarian friendly P&B platter for me to try, rather than humming through the starters for any more minutes. While I roared through summer rolls with both prawn and tofu alongside chilli squid and a mango salad (£13.95, so reasonable for the amount of fare), my friend did terrible and hungry things to the chilli salt and pepper squid and their chargrilled pork lollipops with shiitake mushroom (£5.95). While dissapointment came in the shape of loose tofu and lacklustre prawn summer rolls (both lacked seasoning, and that Vietnamese panache that we all hope for when it comes to Eastern dining), the chilli squid was stunning yet humble with a punchy dipping edge, and the award-worthy mango salad was a stunning and fresh blend that i'm dying to try at home.
Steamed bao buns, it's what they're known for here, and they didn't flounder by any means. Not only was their crispy tiger prawn with wasabi mayonnaise and house pickle (£7.50) a truly meaty edge on the fish alternative with a sauce that kept the bun in touch (showing that bao can convert to burger whenever it so well pleases), the 8 hour confit pork belly with shallot and an apple mayonnaise (£7.95) got groans across the table that i've not a chance in hell of writing, or spelling up in a review. Rich, moreish and packed with Eastern attitude, these buns not only redeemed the rolls, they showed that Pho & Bun have Vietnamese street food down to an art. While the cocktail selection at Pho & Bun is more intimate than the main menu, these mixology morsels promise Eastern alternatives to classics, that are hand-made to a T.
The great thing about Pho & Bun was that although upstairs seemed almost too much like a tussle for tables (Shaftesbury Avenue's fast diners known how to cram in), downstairs was such a hidden dining space that we almost had the intimate area to ourselves (in fast-dining, this isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world). Not only comfortable and with just enough low-lighting to feel like dinner, but not fine dining, Pho & Bun is a great place to chat hearty. Not only was our server fun and upfront with his favourite menu choices, the bar staff were snappy with drinks and consistently open to chat.
While I don't rate the elbow-wedged location that Pho & Bun might find itself in, and I'm not sure the summer rolls might live up to Vietnamese standards, Pho & Bun has something of an irresistible charm about it, where buns are celebrities and their cocktails come with punchy passion.