NGON NGON – London’s No.1 Vietnamese restaurant?

June 09, 2024 - 11:00
Ngon Ngon is worth a visit. It offers an interesting perspective on Vietnamese cuisine adapted for the palates of likely clientele.

By Alex Reeves - @afreeves23

You may have spotted the news a month or two ago, Hà Nội was voted by Tripadvisor, the world's largest travel guide platform, as the best food destination for 2024.

This puts the capital on the map for wanderlusting foodies and makes me feel vindicated in the many pro Việt-cuisine rambles I have subjected people to over the years. It also made me reflect on my experience at Tripadvisor's top-rated Vietnamese restaurant in London earlier this year – Ngon Ngon (Tasty Tasty).

LONDON FAVOURITE: Ngon Ngon has become popular in a trendy area of London. - Photos courtesy of Alex Reeves

The food was undeniably tasty, which explains both its name and the ever-growing popularity nearly a decade after opening. I’ve sampled numerous bowls of phở outside of Việt Nam, always searching for one that could at least imitate the balance of aromatics to fool my senses. This was the closest I’ve come in the UK, and my dining companions – one who has enjoyed phở stateside and another, a former Hà Nội neighbour – felt it nearly transported us back to our early days in Hà Nội over five years ago.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: The broth reminded my friend and fellow diner of his time in Hà Nội

The broth was aromatic, flavourful and less oily than usual. While the beef wasn’t overcooked, it lacked the variety of texture I’m accustomed to, a likely concession to avoid caution or complaint from unfamiliar palates. The clientele was predominantly non-Vietnamese, though I’ve since learned there are other spots in town where the diaspora gathers for a taste of home. This bowl had a true depth, which many foreign imitations lack, but was not in the traditional style. That, I must add, is an unrealistic expectation.

For each step further away we take, it feels like the flavour is less familiar. Is this a trick of the mind or a reality? This culinary expedition begs the question: how far can one stray from the source before flavour changes? Logan Hester, head chef at Chôm Chôm in Hong Kong (check them out), and I recently discussed how even with the right ingredients and recipes, something can still be amiss. The nuances of ingredients, processes, and environment mean that just enough can be lost to be noticeable.

ALL BUN, NO CHA: Their take on Bún Chả was delicious, though not traditional enough to warrant the title.

The service was warm; our waiter, soon returning to Việt Nam, appreciated the VNĐ500,000 tip given in a red envelope – lucky money, left over from visiting my new family arrivals, is not something I’d envisaged using, but it seemed to bring some joy.

He was polite, receptive to conversation and knew how to manage curious customers and a busy night without looking remotely flustered. The setting is cosy when busy, it carries an atmosphere and the London buzz that makes you feel part of something bigger.

However, contacting the founders for more insights proved challenging. They were reticent, mirroring perhaps a London-esque reserve. Multiple failed attempts to engage them left me with more questions than answers about the restaurant's backstory. When calling, the staff had no idea about the place and were unwilling to provide anything other than an email address. After such a pleasant in-house experience, I was disappointed at the curtness and lack of interest I encountered afterwards. Even the North Korean establishment, I visited this year was more forthcoming with details and pride in their operation.

INAUTHENTIC?: The restaurant offers an interesting perspective on Vietnamese cuisine adapted for the palates of their likely clientele.

Ngon Ngon is tasty, truly. Yet, it lacks the authentic vibe and flavour of the dishes it aims to replicate. The ‘Hanoi Fish’ used monkfish, an apt substitute for catfish, but the presentation on a skillet with sliced onions and carrots strayed too far from traditional chả cá.

The duck in a thick black pepper sauce was delicious but like nothing I’ve seen in Việt Nam, and their take on bún chả with much larger chunks of pork was rightly referred to as grilled pork on vermicelli noodles, the lack of resemblance to chả wasn’t sufficient to label it so.

In Việt Nam, the passion of a proprietor shines through in their establishment to the extent it almost adds to the flavour. Here, it was impossible to glean any passion from the owners about their culinary vision, which perhaps explains the diluted authenticity of their offerings. This asks the question to what lengths authenticity translates to profitability or even sustainability in such a competitive market.

Trip Advisor’s No 1: The restaurant is highly ranked by punters, coming out on top in Trip Advisor ratings.

Nonetheless, if you find yourself in London, Ngon Ngon is worth a visit. It offers an interesting perspective on Vietnamese cuisine adapted for the palates of likely clientele. It’s an excellent introduction to the flavours of Việt Nam, bridging the gap between expectations and the culinary reality of Hà Nội waiting on the other side. VNS


Ngon Ngon

Address: 144 Clerkenwell Rd, London EC1R 5DP, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 20 7278 4123

Price: VNĐ3 million / US$120 for three people, two dishes and a beer each. One bowl of phở VNĐ400,000 / $16

Dining companions: Anybody curious about Vietnamese cuisine.

Top tip: The more the merrier, share food and enjoy as many different dishes as you can.