I believe that honesty is the best policy, I’m just a prat like that. I don’t understand why people lie when it would be just as easy to suck it up and take the consequences; Lord knows I’ve never done it. So, from the very start I have to mention that the people at Viet Cafe are liars: the 170 Rbs Business Lunch that they advertise next to their front door is a figment of someone’s overactive imagination and does not exist in any way. They do have a business lunch – in fact they have two: a European variant for 200 Rbs and a Vietnamese for 300 Rbs – but the door price seems to have been picked out of a hat, and smacked of perfidious solicitation. Okay, having got the truth telling and slander out of the way I have to say that while the proprietors of Viet Cafe may be somewhat challenged in the virtue category, they make a mean Kom Rang Chai, and isn’t that what’s important anyway?
Located on Gazetny – just down the way from FAQ cafe which, by the way, offers a Business Lunch that really
costs the 159 Rbs they say it does – through a set of rather imposing wooden doors and down a flight of stairs – this is Moscow after all – Viet Cafe offers a tasty, if not particularly authentic, take on Vietnamese fare. Just watch your head on the way downstairs, because we nearly killed ourselves on the suddenly low ceiling. The decor is certainly more Moscow than Mekong, with an elegant ebony bar lining the first half of the left wall, and the requisite enormous fish tank just beyond. The businessmen – who made up at least 75% of the clientele on the Tuesday afternoon that my intrepid partner and I were there – offered no end of amusement as they stared gapingly into the tank as its colourful denizens darted to and fro; I got the same disturbing feeling as when you see a child staring longingly into a television set, actually.
Overall the restaurant has a semi-elegant but not too imposing demeanour, making it comfortable for anyone to enjoy without feeling overly anxious about attire or terrified about sanitary conditions. We sat, like everyone else except the tank worshippers – at a well apportioned black table covered with a bamboo place mat that only made me spill on myself about fourteen times as it slid back and forth with the slightest touch. The square white plates were standard for this day and age, as we seem to have witnessed the death of the standard circular model some years back now. After hitting us with some steaming hot towels our waitress was quickly with us to take our order, and that’s when the fun started.
I don’t eat meat. I don’t eat fish or chicken or shrimp. That’s what being a vegetarian means. While at most Moscow restaurants that makes ordering a treacherous affair, for fear of being told when your tofu arrives smothered in shredded pork or finding a piece of chicken floating in your vegetable soup that: “everything comes with meat. It’s vegetarian,” the menu at Viet Cafe actually warned me that the vegetable soup was made with chicken stock! And while the menu didn’t have a separate vegetarian section – there was a section called “Meat and Bird” – there were plenty of veggie friendly dishes in the “Rice and Noodle,” and “Hot and Cold Appetizer” sections to stuff myself with. Now I don’t want you to worry that, having got this far in the review it’s going to skew towards the grass and roots only tastes of the dirty hippy writing it; for the heavy lifting I brought along my side-kick Marusya, who sampled the meaty fare after which she submitted to a thorough brain and taste-bud picking.
Let’s begin at the beginning. From among the plentiful “Cold Appetizers” menu I chose the Go Chua
(120 Rbs), a small dish of pickled vegetables, not unlike your usual zakuski in so many ways but one: it was spicy. Really spicy. For me that was a great start. The vegetables were crispy and firm, and the sauce wasn’t too vinegary or overpowering. Next came our appetizers, Marusya choosing the Gao Kuan Tam Txit
(210 Rbs) – rice paper rolls with shrimp, tongue, egg and more – while I went the crunchy roll route with the Nem Chau
(150 Rbs). Marusya assured me that her rolls were fresh and not too fishy, although she had to rip off a piece of the rice paper to have me test the firmness (it was just right). My rolls were tasty if not particularly inspired, but I’m a real snob when it comes to rolls. Having said that, they are definitely the best rolls I’ve yet had in Moscow, not the least of which is due to the delicious Nuak Mat
sauce that came with both sets. The sauce was so good in fact – a salty and garlicky treat – that we kept it to eat with our main dishes.
Marusya really went the extra mile for you here kids: she braved the sure-to-come stomach ache and ordered two main courses, one a bowl of the traditional Pho noodle soup that is the staple of Vietnamese cuisine, and the other a juicy stir fried chicken filet in oyster sauce. The Pho Doga
(185 Rbs) was probably the low point of her meal, which says a lot considering that she actually liked it. Her gripes were that all its contingent parts seemed to have been prepared separately, which didn’t allow for the flavors to mix well, and that it was a just a bit too salty for her tastes. She was much more taken with the stir-fry, which just about had her collapsed on the table at the first bite. The Ga Cao Khat Geu
(210 Rbs) consisted of the aforementioned chicken and sauce, fried with assorted mushrooms, cashews and spring onions. From what I could tell as her eyes rolled ecstatically back in her head, the meat was in fact juicy and tender as they advertised, with the delicate sauce highlighting the flavors, not overpowering them.
My main course was less of a hit, but it was also less of a main course. I had the vegetable fried rice
(140 Rbs), which, in the one instance of Moscow culinary confusion I experienced that afternoon, came with eggs even though they weren’t on the menu. The main problem with the dish was that the vegetables seemed to have come straight from the freezer, burn and all. The rice was fine, it just seemed like it would have been more at home in a shopping-mall food court than at a relatively fancy restaurant inside the circle. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
At this point I expected Marusya to bow out, leaving me to cover the varied and enticing deserts section myself, but she soldiered up and ordered the fried banana
(130 Rbs), an interesting and traditional take on the staple desert. I followed suit by ordering the fried pear
(180 Rbs), which although glazed with some type of wine-sauce, was not too sweet at all, but a great light finisher.
All in all, including the great pot of Jasmine tea we washed down our meals with, the whole thing only set us back $50. Marusya was less impressed with the service than I was, but she certainly didn’t think it was bad enough to preclude recommendation. If you can put up with the misleadingly-advertised price for Business Lunch – seriously guys, take that crap down – Viet Cafe is a great place to stop in for a lunch or dinner that won’t break the bank, and will leave you feeling satisfied and very, very full.