Restaurant review: Mekong Street Food
7 Magazine Street, Londonderry. Tel: 07835 330360
Derry-Londonderry is awakening to a culinary new dawn. In recent weeks and months I've been to two outstanding restaurants. Both of them show all the signs of sector leadership you may remember seeing 30 years ago from the likes of Paul Rankin and Nick Price who would later be acknowledged as seminal in Belfast's resurgence as a foodie destination of note.
I'm not suggesting that the men and women from Michelin are waiting at the gates of the Maiden City to pounce with their stars and bibs gourmands just yet.
Rather, the new wave of eating out which features street food and local produce is being embraced in Derry at a level which offers both excellent quality and value for money. There are the hugely popular and well established Pykes & Pommes, the relatively new Nonna's Wood Fired Pizza and now the Lo & Slo food van.
The first restaurant of the two I mentioned is Ciaran and Melanie Breslin's Primrose Cafe which is very a classy evening venue for dinner. The couple, he a butcher, she a baker, have hospitality in their veins as well as a nose for quality, service and environment but it's Primrose's chef, Bryn Evans, who is giving the other great Derry chef, Ian Orr of Brown's, a run for his money. Primrose is worth an overnight stay in Derry.
The other new favourite Derry restaurant is Mekong, the result of a love affair local man 'Saigon' Stephen Forbes who has enjoyed repeat visits to Vietnam and the rest of South East Asia in recent years. Every time he goes there he comes back with fresh recipes and cooking techniques.
Housed in the famous Nerve Centre, Mekong looks like a cheap canteen where impoverished artists and musicians might seek some nourishment. The ventilation is noisy and doesn't really work that well, the furniture is just on the wrong side of shagged-out chic and the garish murals clash merrily with a series of framed classic European film posters.
Yet, I wouldn't be anywhere else because the food that Chef Forbes puts out is staggeringly good, fresh, enlivening and very entertaining. He has nailed that Asian magic of blending the base flavours and textures to produce a selection of beautifully balanced dishes.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Take the Hanoi-style roast duck with asparagus, steamed jasmine rice and fried duck egg. A substantial shallow bowl heaped high is a riot of colour and beneath that egg lie dark shards of crispy duck, generous spears of asparagus and a light and zingy chopped salad of pineapple, chilli and scallions. It's just the kind of emergency service food you need if you happen to be feeling low.
A broth of spicy chicken strips and noodles is a deep reservoir pepped up with galangal and lime leaf. It comes with additional fun elements of chopped chillies and a home made chutney.
Pork ribs which have marinated in honey and five spice have been so slowly and gently braised as to fall off the bone at the slightest touch of the tine are bursting with savoury flavour and offer a second wave of pleasure with a spicy after-taste.
Mekong does everything you want it to. The Banh mi selection of French style baguettes includes the Saigon (honey and chilli chicken, the Hanoi (BBQ pork) and the Hoi An, an omelette with fresh herbs. These are all only £6.
A dinner menu allows Forbes to make full use of that bandana to keep the sweat from his eyes as he cooks up Panang curries with chicken or prawns, pan roasted duck breast with poached carrot, summer greens and duck sauce or his own version of pad thai with chicken, crispy pork belly and king prawns with crispy tofu.
There are fish and vegetarian dishes as well. For such a modest looking operation, the Asian themes continue through to the drinks cabinet which boasts actual Mekong Street Beer. They'll even make you a proper Mai Tai.
Ginger beer £2.50