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Restaurant review: Madame Pho on Belfast's Botanic Avenue

17 Botanic Avenue, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 3585

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Madame Pho

Madame Pho

Stephen Hamilton

Madame Pho

Madame Pho

Stephen Hamilton

Madame Pho

Belfast sets its own pace in the game of food trends. While Peruvian causa, Keralan appam and Korean kimchi have been embraced in the last five years by New Yorkers and Londoners, we are content to have reached 1998 and, with very few exceptions, most Belfast restaurants are happy there.

We like our chateaubriands charred and rare, the crab on toast to feature capers, chopped chillies and sourdough, and the creme brulee to have a wafer thin, brittle little lid.

This is good progress. Five years earlier we were still in 1978 and asking for BBQ sauce, a twist from one of those big black pepper mills and a bottle of Piat d'Or.

I'm only mildly exaggerating. We are very proud of Belfast's (and the rest of the north's) culinary repertoire. Three Michelin-starred restaurants, a healthy selection of mid-range, high-quality bistros and brasseries and now, a new generation of tiny street food huts, trucks and shacks serving reliable excellence at student discount prices.

But where are the high-end Indians, the super-posh Chinese or the forensic artistry of the Japanese? Why don't we have the crazy molecular chemistry stuff we see in the kitchen laboratories of Alain Ducasse and Heston Blumenthal?

The answer is simple. Belfast is not big enough and there aren't enough of us with the right size of wallet to sustain that level of brilliance, adventure and innovation.

Belfast is punching far above its weight in terms of its restaurant culture, but the truth is: we have peaked. These are the golden years.

The three Michelin restaurants are at the top of their game and, while I'd humbly say Ox is nudging close to a second star, there is not much further up for them to go. The restaurants which have been consistently high quality for a decade or more such as James Street and Deanes at Queens are bomb-proof reliable. They have found their mojo and they're happy with it. Also, most of us punters are creatures of habit and we don't really like to venture beyond the norm. Even Eipic and Ox are a bit too edgy for some.

If it's something new you're after then you have to climb back down to the cheaper end of the market. The bao thing took hold a couple of years ago; Mexicans have become mainstream, and there's even a Canadian van selling authentic poutine; so what's next?

Vietnamese. Madame Pho (pronounced fuh) is a homely, warm and cosy little bistro with perfect manners. Staff are smiling, hospitable and attentive. The menu is exotic because few of us know anything about Vietnamese food. And the prices are very attractive. The dearest thing in here is £15.95 and prices start at £4.95 for a light lunch of fried vegetable spring rolls.

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Madame Pho

Madame Pho

Stephen Hamilton

Madame Pho

The caramelised chicken wings are crunchy crisp, sweet and sour with the sriracha mayo and tender from slow roasting. I could eat a hundred of these. The Saigon speciality bahn xeo, a crispy crepe featuring rice flour pancake, coconut cream and pork and prawn filling with beansprouts and scallions comes with a homemade nuoc cham sweet chilli sauce. Pho, the noodle soup, is made with 8-hour simmered broth using local beef brisket, bones and bone marrow, spices and herbs. You can have Irish cooked beef, medium rare sliced beef, beef meatballs, BBQ pork neck, chicken, vegan or a combination of the lot.

It's wholesome, you can feel the health benefits as it flows down your throat, and the additional lime, chopped chillies and coriander on the side allows you to spice it up, and it does need a bit of a gee-up.

There are banh mi, the French Vietnamese fusion sandwich, made with fresh baguettes, and any amount of options including chargrilled chicken, Vietnamese ham, pickled veg and the like. There are rice dishes which come with fried egg, noc cham and those pickles, salads and curries. And that Vietnamese coffee is a wonder with its sweet back notes and rich flavour.

It's good, it's cheap and most importantly, it's the new thing.

The bill

Pork and prawn rolls......................£5.20

Chicken wings.................................£5.95

Chicken Pho.....................................£9.95

Fresh lime soda...............................£2.95

Banana fritters................................£4.95

Vietnamese coffee..........................£3.25

Total ...............................................£32.25

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