Vietnamese food is trending across London, exerting further influence and delivering more food diversity to the capital’s cosmopolitan dining scene. There are a host of distinctive Vietnamese regional products and styles that one new restaurant owner is sourcing from London’s wholesale markets to tempt trend-setting diners.
The ultimate in casual dining, Moc Kitchen celebrates the different kinds of Vietnamese regional fast-and-furious food and its main star: fresh herbs.
Set into quaint little arches at Charing Cross train station, Moc Kitchen is modest and unassuming in its set up. The 30-cover restaurant is canteen-style, but with grace. Where other restaurants of its type may be brisk and bright, the warm welcome complements the warm colours, low lighting and soft furnishings, whilst its semi-open kitchen cooks orders day and night from scratch.
This is the dream concept of Hanoi-born, Lan Huong, who after a career in finance, wanted to go back to her roots and recreate for busy, health-conscious city workers the experience of the fresh, vibrant food she grew up eating.
“Growing up with just the food basics, as we all did before everything was so accessible, our mealtimes in Vietnam focused on vegetables and herbs, as those were the items readily available and in abundance,” explains Huong, who has set up the restaurant with the financial backing of her family, which has its own restaurant in Vietnam, and a business partner. “Herbs are the core of the food. Cookery has become more luxurious now, compared to 20 years ago and now protein such as prawn and fish are not as readily used, but herbs are still the key ingredients that bring all the flavour out. From Vietnamese street food to our high-end restaurants, the secret is simple food that is good for you, with lots of flavour. I want to share my experience of Vietnamese food with London.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the Moc Kitchen experience (don’t let the meaning get lost in translation; in Vietnamese moc means pure, wholesome, transparent and true) is the diversity offered on a relatively small menu that spans the regions of Vietnam. According to Huong, the south-east Asian country has three main culinary regions: the north, which is heavily influenced by French cookery and the area where you find the famous Vietnamese baguettes; central, which is by Cambodia and the south, which has more of a US and Chinese vibe to it, with sweeter foods and in general more complicated meals.
“Vietnamese people can tell the difference between the regions from the first bite,” says the entrepreneur, who is from northern Vietnam. “Northern food is purer and less sweet and I do prefer it, but we also offer food from every region to provide variety and educate the customer about how different the food can be in Vietnam. People travel all other the country and I didn’t want to limit the restaurant to just one taste.”
Despite its diversity, the menu is verging towards street food, and is concise and short. Regular deliveries from New Spitalfields Market, keep the concept ticking over, says Huong, who works alongside the restaurant’s head chef, who she met through a friend of a friend, to keep the constantly changing menu fresh. “London is completely different to anywhere else in the world when it comes to suppliers,” she shares. “All the niche herbs and spices, that I thought I would only find in Vietnam, you can find here. Even in any [other] city in Europe, the herbs are not as available. It is amazing. Every few months, I go down to Spitalfields myself to check what’s new and see if there’s anything I’d like to incorporate in the menu. It really surprised me – I can get everything here and just communicate what I need to the wholesalers and they get it for me. My chef has a very good relationship with a lot of people on the market too.”
But of all the niche herbs such as wild betel leaf, Vietnamese mint and rice paddy herb, featured in her dishes, Huong’s favourite herb in Vietnamese cooking is Vietnamese dill, which grows longer and is more robust than the regular type. “We use it in so many different dishes and not just fish ones,” she explains. “The fragrance is everything to me - it emphasises the flavour, rather than masking it. There is a story in Vietnam that when God was giving out names to the herbs, he couldn’t think of an apt name for dill, so called it the equivalent of [an appreciative] ‘Mmmm’ in Vietnamese.
“A lot of the herbs we use can also be used for medicinal purposes, like the wild beetle leaf. I grew up with it being chopped up into soups to make you feel better, and I hope our food has a touch of this feel-good element here.”
Having newly launched in April, Moc Kitchen would be nothing without the views of its customers, says Huong. The restaurant owner makes sure she listens to feedback and requests, even if it is as simple as asking for a different flavour of spring roll, as well as staying ahead of the trends. “People don’t want heavy food,” she says, “and this is where herbs are so important. We need a balance of vegetables, protein and citrus juice, not only for that beautiful balance of taste, but for our bodies.
“Vietnamese food is basically what people need now. Back in the old days, when our parents had to deal with work that included heavy labour, putting too much weight on made it difficult to get work, because you were slower. In London, everyone is rushing around and needs light, wholesome food.”
Huong is also ahead of the street-food trend with an adjacent shop unit set up in the arches, providing a takeaway, which she calls “a reflection of street food”, that is prepared in front of you. “I still spend a lot of time in Vietnam and I can see that the trend is now going towards organic fruit and vegetables,” says Huong, who aims to continue to open restaurants across London, as well as provide street food outlets. “Organic cucumber is amazing and brings a whole different taste. I go to the farms and I see how they work and understand the process. The way I see it, our food is just going to get fresher and fresher.”
The Moc Kitchen herb portfolio…
• Wild Betel Leaf (LA LOT) Valued as a mild stimulant, digestive, stimulant, expectorant and carminative, as well as anti-bacterial
• Dill Weed (THI LA) Strong, distinctive taste that is like a combination of fennel, aniseed and celery, with warm, slightly astringent undertone
• Vietnamese Mint (RAU RAM) “Coriander on steroids”
• Rice Paddy Herb (RAU NGO) Lively, fresh flavour bursting with citrus and lemon zest
What to try…
Best dish: Grilled ‘Cha Ca’ Fish, which is marinated pieces of monkfish in a spicy crumb, served with fresh raw Vietnamese dill, spring onions and roasted peanut served with rice noodles. It’s refreshing and filling all at the same time. Now I know what God was going on about…
And for something different: The Hot la lot rolls are beef mince grilled until almost sweet and wrapped in the bitter-tasting betel leaves. It’s a ying-yang taste sensation that has to be tried at least once.
Drink: Lan has paired the food with a couple of Spanish wines particularly good with spicy flavours. The red is smooth and thirst quenching, and goes very nicely with the Hot la lot rolls.
For coffee lovers: Try the Vietnamese coffee, Ca phe. It’s strong, sweet and has a real kick to it. Made with condensed milk, it’s a dessert in a coffee.
Where: 2 The Arches, Villiers Street, Charing Cross, London WC2N 6NG
Open: Monday to Friday 11am-10pm Saturday 11am-11.30pm Sunday 11am- 10.30pm