25 May 2009

Vietnamese with flair: Restaurant 88

For a long time I'd pass Restaurant 88 on my way to Moore Wilson's and, drawn by the green-seated bicycle rickshaw parked out front, curiously peruse their menu (I do this a lot when walking past restaurants alone). I had never tried Vietnamese cuisine, but everything always sounded exotic and tantalising. Then I went off to Southeast Asia for a few months with the intention of visiting as many countries as I could and sampling the local fare. Well, those 4 months went by in a flash and somehow I ran out of time to visit Vietnam... so I returned to Wellington without having tried authentic Vietnamese food.

As soon as I moved a couple blocks away from Restaurant 88 (and wasn't just passing by with hands full of groceries), I had no excuse not to try out this restaurant. So, while I don't know what Vietnamese food tastes like in Vietnam, I can tell you that Restaurant 88 does a pretty good job of replicating a lot of the flavours that I had gotten so used to in the rest of my travels. I had the pho bo, the signature Vietnamese beef noodle soup: rice noodles, clear beef broth, sliced rare beef, bean sprouts, fresh herbs (I could taste at least basil and coriander if not more), and a side dish with the ubiquitous hoisin and chilli sauces found all over Southeast Asia. (It's telling that, although this was my 2nd time here, I ordered the same dish I had the first time - I usually try something different every time!)

(Actually, pho bo is pretty similar to a dish I had from street vendors in Thailand (I think it's called Guoi Tiao - someone correct me if I'm wrong!): to my amusement, each component was wrapped in its own plastic bag (noodles, broth, beef, herbs, bean sprouts) for me to assemble when I got back to my accommodation.)

This soup, if you've never had it, can only be described as light and meaty all at once. The beef is toothsome and juicy, the broth full of umami, and the bean sprouts and herbs give it a fresh kick. You can either dip the beef into the condiments, or mix them into the soup as I did (is this authentic?! sadly I haven't been to Vietnam or been schooled in pho etiquette, so I had no idea, but it tasted good, that's for sure). At $19.50, it's definitely a lot more expensive than what you would pay in Vietnam, but the flavour was exquisite, the portion size was generous enough that I couldn't finish it all.

Ok, so I got a little ahead of myself - we also ordered an entree: con so sau ($14), pan-seared scallops with a caramelised blue ginger sauce and assorted vegetables. Suffice it to say that the scallops were succulent and exquisitely accompanied by the spicy chilli and gingery bite of the sauce. I'm a sucker for sweet, savoury and spicy combinations, so needless to say, these disappeared quickly (as you can see by the Monkey's fork attacking the veggies in the photo).

(Just as a side note, the Monkey and I, both having grown up in the US, wondered why on earth the orange roe is never served with scallops served over there? Sure, it's a different texture, but it's a pretty substantial portion of the meat and the flavour - creamy and decadent - doesn't warrant discarding it! Can anyone tell me why I've only ever seen scallops with roe attached in NZ?)

As I mentioned above, Restaurant 88 has a green bicycle rickshaw parked out front, and the green theme doesn't end once you get inside: the whole interior is a cool, classy delight, with its hallmark green lanterns, bamboo stalks and funky Asian-inspired artwork throughout. Service was prompt and professional (though we did go on a Sunday when it wasn't so busy), but not overbearing. Definitely somewhere to go on a special date that won't break the bank!


Restaurant 88
88 Tory St

04 385 9088

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