Pho Manchester is a place which gets in your face with freshness and seriously funky food, says Emily Oldfield.
There’s a cheeky new addition to the Corn Exchange – the Vietnamese restaurant, Pho. It already has successful braches in major cities such as Leeds and London, and, as my companion remarked, its quirkiness is so much more welcome than the artificial atmosphere of most chain restaurants.
“So much is
and for those
brilliant to see.”
On a cold November evening, we were welcomed with a low-lit, relaxed interior. The no-nonsense wood and stone design draws your attention to the colourful collection of sauces and pickles on every table. This includes a big bottle of hot sauce, and what I later found – due to my own naivety and a massive mouthful – to be pickled garlic! Here flavours reign, rather than being tamed.
Friendly staff were immediately with us, upholding an important concept which I believe defines the restaurant – choice. For example, we were told seating was available across three floors – authentic wooden benches for a quick bite to eat, a dining area which looks into the impressive atrium of the Exchange itself and a bar.
We were seated in a cosy corner on the second floor and asked if we’d like to sample a phojito. Whilst I was left thinking that my headphones truly had ruined my hearing, the bartender was quick to rustle up Pho’s signature cocktail. Yes, it really is called a phojito – a creative blend of Nếp Phú Lộc (clear rice spirit), loads of fresh mint, lime and soda. It was seriously fresh – a tasty tipple which doubled-up as a palate cleanser and also a great excuse to have another.
Choice is central to the menu, too, with a real array of starters and main courses to choose from. But unlike some restaurants, where the menu feels overwhelming, here the dishes are split into sections and carefully explained. The waiting staff are more than happy to help and make recommendations, too.
You might find it hard to find something if you don’t like vegetables as most of the dishes have plenty of fresh veg and herbs packed in, but their creative cooking has the power to make even the blandest beansprout into a taste sensation. Just try it. Everything is cooked fresh to order, including options as inventive as leaf-wrapped beef (try saying that after a few phojitos), baby squid and even banana blossom salad! We decided to try a combination of starter and main course items which you can have served up together or separately. Choice again.
First thing, think rice – revolutionised. It is easy to assume that east Asian cuisine is going to be focused around the inevitable piles of rice which restaurants often use as cheap filler but at Pho, the simple grain gets a real identity change. In the starter Gỏi cuốn, we were served up summer rolls made with fresh rice paper, which was almost sticky to touch and tasted amazing. Nothing like a taste of summer in the winter, I say! The filling of finely chopped vegetables and light spices was perfectly matched with what has to be one of the best dipping sauces I have ever tasted-the peanut sauce. I’m sorry if I offend anyone here -and this is a difficult admission to make- but I think it might even be better than Nutella. The light colour and smooth texture exploded on the tongue to deliver the ultimate punch of peanuts. How could such a small dish of the sauce possibly taste so peanutty? Let’s put it this way, if it was bottled and sold, I’d be bankrupt.
We also tried the Chả giò – crispy spring rolls served with a spicy dip. These nicely hot numbers made my local takeaway spring rolls look like some sad excuse, though I think I few accompanying wedges of lime would have just added a nice clean finish to the crunchy coating.
Everything was served on simple white porcelain, ideal for allowing the food to speak for itself – which it does Pho sure (sorry). My companion particularly enjoyed the Bánh xèo which came to the table as an impressive looking pancake – actually a savoury Vietnamese crispy crepe. We had great fun creating our own spring rolls from the crepe and its soft filling of onions and bean sprouts, using the generously supplied rice paper, too.
A crepe may sound stodgy and eggy, but it was actually the opposite – made from rice flour and beautifully thin. In fact, most of Pho’s menu is dairy-free and the dishes are quite light. That’s why, if you have a big appetite, I would recommend a starter and main course, or sharing a few dishes between two. So much is suitable for vegetarians and for those with intolerances, and that’s brilliant to see.
By this point, I was quite pleased with myself for winging eating with my hands in a way that seemed acceptable! A word of warning. No other utensils are provided other than serving spoons and chopsticks. I think this is a good point of authenticity, though I’m sure if you were really struggling then the staff would be happy to provide you with some cutlery. You’d just have the face the shame.
Fortunately, I only managed to cause myself the usual levels of embarrassment as, sticks in hand, I tucked into the main course option of Cà-ri– a Vietnamese curry with tofu and vegetables. The flavour was full without it being too spicy, helped by beautiful tones of coconut in the fragrant sauce. It was served with just the right amount of rice, cooked to perfection, which meant it could be eaten with the chopsticks and not gloopy at all.
Fi fy Pho fum, along came the giant of the meal in a great big bowl – the Phở itself. It’s an aromatic rice noodle broth with more choice available here, too, because the type of fragrant stock used -meat, fish or veggie – is up to you. There is a range of mighty meats you can add too if you so wish including flash fried steak, slow cooked beef brisket and king prawns. Complete with a long plate of fresh herbs to stir in, it was certainly the tastiest soup I’d ever tried (sorry, mum!). In fact, we hardly needed to touch the accompanying sauces and pickles, because everything we were served was full of flavour. For me, this is an excellent sign.
Another excellent sign was how busy the restaurant was – clearly being enjoyed by many. It’s open until 11pm, which makes it great for a late night pick-me-up, and you’ll be glad to know they do take away, too. Plus it’s busy without being too noisy. Having a conversation was easy, the atmosphere chilled and the staff completely accommodating – providing complimentary water for the tables and chatting about the food.
Pho is a place which feels positive and the food does too with enough fresh greenery and spices to make it feel like a detox . It’s certainly one to keep in mind for fighting hangovers. We also felt this made it OK to have a dessert! Although the selection available is relatively small, they still manage to pack in those big flavours. The chocolate truffle slab with green tea ice cream sounded tempting, though perhaps best after only one course. My companion opted for the banana fritter served with coconut ice cream, whilst I tried the strawberry and basil sorbet. I know that strawberries and black pepper is the typical daring combination, but I think basil was even better, as it enhanced the sweetness of the fruit and added a lovely fragrance. The fritters were cooked fresh, with a crisp batter and lovely hot filling. A bit of cinnamon would have taken them up another notch. My companion loved the coconut ice cream, though as a self-confessed ice cream fiend she thought more was needed for the generous portion of fritters.
Our time at Pho was most certainly enjoyable. Their inventive fresh food is certainly Pho-nomenal and the relaxed atmosphere means it’s suitable eating for any occasion. A few more serving bowls and utensils over the course of the meal would have been ideal in order to share our food more easily, but when we asked staff, nothing was too much. In fact, it’s probably our fault for enjoying so much of the menu and taking so many plates already. We will certainly be back. With a big bowl of pho for around £8, even just calling in for a taste of something different is certainly possible. Don’t Phoget.
Pho, 15, The Corn Exchange, 37 Hanging Ditch, Manchester M4 3TR