Thanh Binh is the quest’s first Vietnamese restaurant, and I am certainly glad to metaphorically cross the mighty Mekong River – represented somewhat inadequately tonight by Elizabeth Street – into the refuge of a non-Thai cuisine. Love my Thai and all, but 3 in a row is enough. Tonight we’re looking forward to some Vietnamese and a complete absence of number 37.
We’ve been to Thanh Binh before, but not for a few years. I have a mental block about the name, I always think of it as Tres Bien – probably something to do with the French/Vietnamese thing and a very short, subliminal restaurant review. It doesn’t appear to have changed much, still packed on a Friday night.
Tonight we are joined by John, Pauline, Jill and Roy. Old friends who are desperate to join the quest and see their names in print. It turns out that not only are we are having a good old get together, we are also celebrating Strop’s new job. So fizzy alcohol in tall glasses is required. Well done Strop! Can I retire now?
We are just getting used to Strop’s new celebratory status when John announces that in order to give me something to write about he has selflessly arranged for Pauline to be put on a strict diet that only allows her to eat not very much at all. I am sad to say that my first thought – goodo, all the more for me – was not a worthy one. Poor Pauline. Oh well, now what are the rest of us eating?
I glance at the menu and decide that it requires more attention to detail than I am prepared to give as all the names are in Vietnamese, so Strop does the ordering. The waiter is very helpful arranging some plain chicken to meet Pauline’s dietary restrictions. While all this is going on, I get on with the chatting. We are on a circular table, perfectly suited for 6 diners so you can actually talk to everyone else on the table. This is a very fine arrangement, and in order to keep Roy happy we have also done a very fine job of boy-girl-boying so everyone’s partner is opposite them. This seems very auspicious to me and I wonder if there is a Vietnamese equivalent of Feng Shui that we have accidentally stumbled upon.
The first food to arrive is Pauline’s special poached chicken, complete with coriander garnish which is immediately disallowed and banished to an empty glass. The chicken sits in the middle of the table looking a bit lonely until some other dishes start to arrive. Once the food starts though, it doesn’t seem to stop. I rather rashly told Strop to over order, and for once she has listened to me.
There are rice paper rolls and vegetarian omelettes to start. Then clean plates arrive along with DIY kits for making more rice paper rolls with very tasty pork fillings. Lots of reaching and passing is involved as we all take turns struggling to produce strange, misshapen and leaky parcels. It’s a wonder any of us made it through kindergarten with fine motor skills like this. But luckily they taste very good, particularly the lemongrass pork, so we persevere.
More new plates appear on the table heralding the arrival of some stunt ‘cook at the table’ food. Jill can’t help being helpful and starts passing the plates around the table, only to be chastised by the waiter who needs them right where he put them, thank you very much. This turns out to be tumeric fish in a clay-pot, although the clay pot turns out to be a little wok on a gas burner, and this is good too.
The conversation covers a lot of territory. We learn more than we need to know about John’s predilection for bicycles called Beyonce, and being stalked by a bicycle mechanic. Then suddenly we’re in Tasmania and Roy is talking about the famous wall-of-vaginas at the Museum of Old and New Art. Now I know why people talk about MONA as a theme park for adults – I’m definitely going. When Jill starts talking about Roy’s obsession with wooden boats, I butt in to float my theory that Margaret Thatcher is the victim of misogynist misunderstandings. Luckily more new plates arrive just in the nick of time.
This time they are for twice cooked aniseed duck, salmon in tamarind sauce and water spinach, Strop’s Vietnamese equivalent of number 37. Water spinach, or rau-mung, as it is known in our household, is the dish she always orders in a Vietnamese restaurant, no matter what. There does seem to be some confusion about what it is actually called, but it will always be rau-mung to us – and we’ve been to Vietnam, ok? Tonight’s incarnation of rau-mung comes with lots of crunchy bean sprouts and okra. Jill and I approve of this innovation. Yum. The only real disappointment is the salmon, which is in a syrupy tamarind sauce.
So, Thanh Binh – tres bien.
Next week we’re fronting up to that vegan’s delight, the Green Gourmet. Is it a coincidence that I have just realised that this end of King Street is crying out for a decent steakhouse, or is it just my carnivore stomach talking.