Madame Pho – 17 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, BT7 1JG Tel: 028 9023 2283 madamephobelfast.com
IF ANY building is going to see its tenant change through the years, it’s going to be one housing a restaurant. That said, the building on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue next to the Victorian Kinghan Church – which has provided a ministry to a deaf and hearing-impaired congregation for more than 120 years – has, over the past 10 years alone, housed seven different eateries, with six of those in residence over just the last half-decade.
Teatro, a cabaret restaurant where the patatas bravas came with gypsy jazz guitar, was there the longest – about five years – and after it closed in 2015 it was followed by a sushi place, a Thai/Italian dual-menu place called, God help us, Foo-kin Gusto, an all-Thai place and somewhere called Sizzle and Smoke that would probably be best described as a meat place.
Now there’s Madame Pho, its street food flying the flag for Vietnam on the most cosmopolitan food street in the north.
It joins Chinese, Korean, Cuban, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Taiwanese, Italian and Nepalese, along with chips and burgers and kebabs and – count ’em – three different falafel providers.
What’s remarkable about Botanic Avenue isn’t the breadth of options but the fact the vast majority are very good. Madame Pho doesn’t let the side down.
Colourful lanterns hang from the ceiling. Painted wooden shutters form squares on the far wall, just up from a mural of an ever-so-sophisticated-looking lady taking a drag from a fag. Maybe the smoke is evoking the steam rising from a perfect bowl of pho. Maybe it’s just trying to look cool.
It’s cosy too – which is just as well, with the weather howling so hard outside they’ve had to name it – and the smells as soon as you walk through the door convince you you’re in the right place.
The phos – huge pools of broth and rice noodles – are the backbone of the menu. The stock, all eight hours in the making, carries a beautifully mellow beef flavour. It’s remarkably delicate given it’s been simmering full of brisket, bones and marrow for a third of a day, and slivers of blush-pink beef floating in it yield immediately.
The slippery ribbons of noodle, meanwhile, hold up just enough.
On the side, to be thrown overboard at your leisure, is lime for zip, beansprouts for crunch, little discs of incendiary chillis for heat, Thai basil for fragrance and coriander for sociopaths.
Especially given the wind rattling the front window, consuming this feels like an absolute good.
There’s more good stuff in a plate of rice with spring roll, pork neck, prawns, a sweet but creepingly hot coconut curry sauce and a little pot of absurdly moreish sweet, gently chillied vinegar.
Slivers of pork – with crisp skin crunching against soft meat – and shatteringly crunchy spring roll are expertly done.
The barbecued prawns stick out a mile because, well they’re on sticks, but they’re also tough. With everything else so poised and on point, they jar badly, but it’s a blip.
It’s all topped with a fried egg and given that a fried-egg-topped Boris Johnson would almost be palatable, imagine what it does to this lovely stuff.
The friendly, bright and breezy staff keep everything ticking along, never failing to remind everyone that “just to let you know, everything’s cooked fresh”.
It’s their way of telling you the stuff will come when it’s ready, which means the pho drops first, followed by sweet, sticky chicken wings, then nuggets of salt and chilli squid, then the rice.
That’s not a problem until dessert time when deep-fried ice cream hits the table and, by necessity, is almost gone by the time banana fritters arrive.
As the only two deserts that involve any sort of cooking, delivering them both to the same table at the same time shouldn’t be beyond the capabilities of an obviously skilled kitchen.
But that, and the bouncy prawns, are aberrations.
We finish with Vietnamese coffees, one slaked with condensed milk, hoping this occupant of the building next to the Kinghan Church on Botanic Avenue is still here long into the future.
Chicken wings £5.95
Salted chilli squid £6.95
Beef pho £10.95
Combo rice plate £15.95
Deep fried ice cream £4.95
Banana fritters £4.95
Black coffee £3.25
White coffee £3.50
San Pellegrino lemon £2.95
Lime soda £2.95
Source: Thanks https://www.irishnews.com/lifestyle/2020/03/07/news/eating-out-here-s-hoping-new-vietnamese-restaurant-madame-pho-stays-put-1858724/