301 Old Street,
I had wondered about praise on Cay Tre’s website, which calls it “the best Vietnamese canteen in Hoxton” – just how many Vietnamese canteens could there possibly be in such a small area? However, after an enlightening walk down Kingsland Road and Old Street, passing on my way more Vietnamese restaurants than I could count on my fingers, I realised that this praise is high indeed. If the canals behind Paddington are Little Venice, Hoxton is – unofficially – little Vietnam.
Approaching the restaurant it was clear that if nothing else Cay Tre is the most popular Vietnamese in Hoxton. At 8pm on a weeknight there was quite a queue outside. It’s a very young and Hoxtony clientele that Cay Tre attracts. There were lots of think-rimmed glasses, lots of denim shirts, skinny jeans and scuffed old pairs of brogues, so vintage that they probably predated their owners’ births.
Cay Tre is the sister restaurant of Viet Grill, which is just round the corner and which is also disposed to having hungry queues outside it. While there are overlaps on the menus of the two establishments, the atmosphere in Cay Tre is very different. Viet Grill, though fun and casual, is more of a restaurant where you might spend a long evening taking time over your meal, and perhaps enjoying a drink at the bar. Cay Tre is by no means a fast food joint, but it’s buzzing, and is the sort of place you could go for an early bite to eat before a night out. It is one of the noisiest restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, (perhaps it’s made louder by the noise of people’s stomach rumbling in the queue outside). The atmosphere is more like that of a bar than a restaurant; it’s packed, there are bright colourful lights on the walls, and black and white doodle-patterned wall paper. Most of all though, it’s very noisy. This is not a complaint, but it is worth bearing in mind when you go there. It’s a specific kind of atmosphere for a lively kind of evening.
My guest – tired after a long day’s work – did not enjoy the noise, and commented that the food must be “bloody good” to make it worth putting up with. It was. We started our meal with các món rang muối, “chilied, salted & peppered prime soft shell crab”. The crispy legs and shell were magnificent, not to mention, quite a novelty eating something that is ordinarily part of nature's own version of packaging. We also tried the gỏi cuốn, “fresh soft summer roll with king prawns, viet herbs & vermicelli, wrapped in rice paper”. We’d seen this dish being eaten by the people at the next table (which was all of six inches away from us… they pack in as many people as they can with queues that long.) It was a shameless case of “we’ll have what they’re having”. This method of ordering is the best way to do things in Cay Tre (and Viet Grill too for that matter). Everything on the menu just sounds so fascinating that you’d do well to ignore it all together and look at the live picture menu around you.
For our main courses we had “sizzling seafood” and the fantastic “campfire sirloin steak”. You’d think that these descriptions were just to make the menu more poetic, but no. The “campfire” beef was presented on a flaming plate (which almost set fire to a passer-by’s pashmina), and the seafood merrily sizzled away. I’d happily order most of the dishes we had again, however, there were some intriguing things on the menu that I’d be keen to try another time. The “wicked crispy frog”, their “crunchtastic shrimp cake”, of maybe even the “piggy grilled aubergine” were amongst the most charming descriptions on the menu.
Cay Tre is a lively evening out, and the food is “bloody good”. Bring a big appetite, and maybe a hearing aid too. For more information, or to check out the menu, visit the Cay Tre website.
**Reviewed by: **Emily Boyd