Review: Urban Orient, Crystal Palace SE19
June 21, 2016
All points south-east at this cheap and cheerful Vietnamese in the golden triangle of Crystal Palace
High above the sprawling city, with soaring views, an enormous park – complete with bonkers Victorian dinosaur court – and a patchwork of thriving, independent coffee shops, restaurants and pubs, Crystal Palace is an authentic London village.
Thanks to laborious transport connections, its occupants have been allowed to evolve in isolation, like the animals of Madagascar. So there’s an independent book shop, a charcuterie and cheese place, a pleasing density of pubs, from the gastro variety to the Wetherspoon’s, lunatic-fringe churches, an aquarium-cum-lizard shop and a number of decent Oriental outlets on the Crystal Palace triangle. These include no-frills sushi at Edo, the always popular Thai Crystal and Urban Orient.
Urban Orient sits on the southerly point of the triangle formed by Westow Hill, Westow Street and Church Street, at one of the gateways to the hell of the one-way system and opposite the White Hart pub.
It’s the perfect example of a good local restaurant – unpretentious, unpricey and unpacked with tourists. Although they serve alcohol – Hanoi or Saigon beer – you can shave more off the bill by bringing your own bottle and there’s a Sainsbury’s conveniently situated next door. And there’s another twenty per cent off before 4pm on weekdays.
A beautiful carved wooden screen and oil lamps, copper kettles and old typewriters lined up in the window lend Urban Orient a shabby colonial chic. And a relentlessly squeaking ceiling fan might drive you as mad as Captain Willard in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now. Service is smiley but slow, which is preferable to miserable and fast.
I was eating with a vegan, so the location had been chosen with care. There is plenty of tofu on the menu, the pho can be made with vegetable stock and there was an intriguing sounding ‘vegan duck’ to be sampled. We started with summer rolls with tofu, rice noodles and an accompanying peanut sauce. I’ve tried rolling these at home, and it was liking watching a five-year-old trying to roll a spliff. So it was good to have one prepared by an expert. Another starter of vegetable dumplings came fat, curling and unctuous as snails, far too appetising for something steamed and containing only vegetables.
My vegan partner had screwed up her courage and opted for the ‘vegan duck’ (£8.80). Mock duck simulates the colour, mouth-feel, oiliness and even the goose-bumped texture of a plucked duck. Disguised in a thick dark sauce and served simply with plain rice, it lacked the great bunches of herbs that usually accompany Vietnamese food and might have made it a greener, vegetarian/vegan choice.
For meat-eaters, there’s a delicious beef carpaccio Vietnamese-style, cured in pineapple juice, the always dependable salt and pepper squid, all manner of pork, chicken and fish, a fiery Hué noodle soup and a Hanoi speciality, “blooming noodle soup”, which includes egg, prawn, chicken and “a little Belostomatid essence”. The belostomatid is a giant water bug, and “blooming hell” might well be your reaction on learning that this creature is contained within your dish.
On this occasion I went for the bun noodles – a generous, almost unfinishable helping of rice vermicelli, vegetables and succulent lemongrass grilled pork to be drenched with a spicy, refreshing sauce (£8.50). All washed down with Hanoi beer (£3 a pop), its honeyed taste cloying on its own, but perfect with spicy food. Or you can try iced tamarind, aloe vera or guava, coconut and lime leaves for around the same price.
Like all good Vietnamese food, it’s well balanced, hearty and addictive – no doubt the reason Urban Orient has been sitting pretty here since 2012.
74 Westow Street