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Restaurant Review: The Real Deal at MOC Kitchen

MOC Kitchen
Unit 2, 9, 10 The Arches, Villiers Street, Charing Cross, London, WC2 6NG
020 7839 1420
Cuisine: Vietnamese
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Mike Gerrard: First indication that we're in for a culinary treat is the Ca Phe Da Tini, a kind of combination of a Martini and a Black Russian.  It's divine, the kind of cocktail you want to knock back so you can order another one.

Sidcup and Dartford, Hastings and Ramsgate – those are the usual names you see on the departure board at Charing Cross Station. But now there's a new destination: Vietnam. Instead of boarding a train to Bexleyheath, head underneath the station to The Arches off Villiers Street. In the Dickensian gloom of barbershops and fast food places now stands MOCkitchen, a casual-smart Vietnamese restaurant. It's an unlikely spot from where you can be whisked to Indochina, but that's exactly what happens.
Step through the door and the darkness of The Arches gives way to soothing green and white walls, while the noise of the outside world is replaced by the gentler tones of Norah Jones. In Vietnamese, Moc has various meanings, but essentially it's something or someone that's simple in style, and modest. It's an apt name as MOC kitchen is just that – unassuming but still gently stylish.
The brick wall that backs onto The Arches has been painted white, retaining the old London feel but lightening things up considerably, with other walls are done out in a shade of green that's as calming as the music. Several mirrors on one wall both make the room look bigger and reflect the colourful paintings of Vietnamese life on the opposite wall. On one wall are prints showing various herbs, like something you might find in a second-hand book somewhere up the Charing Cross Road, while elsewhere in little alcoves are contrasting vibrant examples of propaganda art from when the country was being rebuilt after the Vietnam War and its people encouraged to keep chickens. It's a décor that's full of contrasts and surprises, yet it all blends beautifully well together - rather like the food turns out to be.
In one corner stands the bar, beyond which you can see the chefs working in the kitchen, and hear the frequent chop-chop-chopping sound, probably cutting the fresh herbs that are such a feature of the dishes.
Not that I know this yet as this is the first taste of Vietnamese cooking for both my wife and myself, and we've no idea what to expect. The helpful waitress brings over the owner, Lan Nguyen, who talks us through the menu and helps us choose some dishes. Lan's originally from Hanoi, and some of the dishes are from family recipes, and sound mouthwatering.
There's a short and affordable wine list, along with a choice of three beers: Hanoi Beer, Saigon Beer and the ubiquitous Tiger Beer. Other options for a drink are Vietnamese teas, fresh juices, and hot or iced Vietnamese coffee. However, Lan suggests we try two new cocktails that aren't even on the menu yet, which she's introducing in time for Vietnam Day on 2nd September.
First indication that we're in for a culinary treat is the Ca Phe Da Tini, a kind of combination of a Martini and a Black Russian. It mixes vodka with coffee made from the Robusta pea berry coffee bean, which not only has twice as much caffeine as a regular bean but also gives it a chocolate kick. It's divine, the kind of cocktail you want to knock back so you can order another one.
We also try the second cocktail, a Rau Ram Riot. Rau Ram, we learn, is Vietnamese coriander, and this has a real citrus kick from fresh lime juice, all mixed with ginger, Grand Marnier and gin that's been infused with serrano peppers. The cocktails are a real triumph, as both of them could also double as desserts.
If this is what the drinks are like, bring on the food. I start with a Salt and Pepper Squid, which is the lightest and tastiest squid I've ever eaten. It's more like eating a chunky fish like monkfish than the way it's more typically cooked in Greece or Spain, say, when it can be a little chewy if not perfectly fresh. My wife opts for the Hot La Lot Rolls, which are Vietnamese wild betel leaves stuffed with beef strips that have been infused with lemongrass. The meat is deliciously delicate, light as air, and both starters come with dipping sauces which are gently tingly, with hints of chili rather than handfuls.
One of the sauces appears again with my wife's Grilled Cha Ca Fish, and we're delighted to enjoy it over. It was perfect for the squid and it's perfect for the grilled monkfish, which has a smoky taste and is cooked with dill, onion and roasted peanuts. There's a salad with herbs so fresh you can taste every single one – more dill, parsley, chives, lemongrass, all as tasty as if they'd been picked from the garden two minutes ago. There were also noodles that were so light they ought to have been impossible to make.
Lan's description of their Sizzling Aubergine Hotpot dish was so good I abandoned the meaty habits of a lifetime, skipped my favourite sea bass too, and went vegetarian. It was a chewy (in a good way) stew of aubergines that did in fact taste meaty, with onions, peppers, and again those fresh herbs adding zings of flavour in contrast to the rich sauce. I chose the garlic option though it's also available in prawn, pork and tofu versions.
MOC Kitchen's dishes are surprisingly reasonably-priced, given the quality, and also the central London location. It's even worth a trip from Sidcup. The only drawback was an unexpected cost: we now have to go to Vietnam!
Opposite the restaurant MOC Kitchen has a takeaway outlet, where you can buy boxed versions of some of their dishes, freshly prepared in the same kitchen. We weren't surprised to find that it was popular with time-strapped local workers.
MOC Kitchen
2 The Arches, Villiers Street, Chairng Cross, Lonon WC2 6NG
Mike Gerrard was a guest of Moc Kitchen
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11 August 2015
By: Mike Gerrard
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