I love, love, love Vietnamese food. I’ve frequented restaurants, supper clubs, cooking classes – the lot. So when I moved to Kentish Town I was itching to check out the local Vietnamese fare. Having met Binh, the owner of Thanh Binh on Chalk Farm Road we were encouraged to check out her restaurant.
We were charmed by Binh’s eager attentiveness, her personal recommendations and keen enquiry as to how we found our dishes. A little intrusive at times but sweet all the same. More importantly, the food was divine. I’ve never liked squid, but gave their salted chilli and garlic dish a try. It was soft and buttery, the coating delicate and crispy; I was converted in a mouthful. Every one of the (many) dishes we tried was extremely good.
The drab interior left a lot to be desired but the delicious food, friendly vibe and reasonable prices more than made up for it. I dreamt about that squid for weeks. So much so that when my birthday came around I excitedly booked a table, salivating at the prospect of more yummy squid. Sadly, our experience wasn’t quite so charming this time.
We called ahead to ask if we might push our booking back a little as friends were caught in traffic. The answer was no – fair enough – but we were bluntly warned that we better hurry up. Not a great start.
On arrival, a few minutes late, we received a friendly enough welcome. But before we were even seated Binh pointedly remarked that she’d had to turn customers away. Red-faced, we made our apologies shuffling through to a dark and soulless back room, bemused to register a few empty tables on our way.
Last time we’d brought our own drinks having heard that was the deal. It turns out it’s not, but Binh very kindly made the exception for us. Fascinated by our bottle of spiced rum, she vowed to add it to their slightly limited range of spirits. Happily, we noted its appearance on the menu this time. Unhappily, when I ordered one I was told they had run out. No whiskey, either; I grumpily settled with vodka.
The food was equally impressive as last time. Morning Glory, Vietnamese salad and, of course, the squid were particular triumphs; full credit to the kitchen team furiously cooking up a storm in that tiny cellar. But we just couldn’t enjoy the experience thanks to lacklustre and intermittent service. Although perfectly friendly and polite when we did see them, we had to seek out a waiter or waitress to take orders several times and at no stage did anybody check on us. It felt that they simply didn’t care.
In stark contrast to our previous visit, the only time Binh herself came to our table was towards the end of our meal, when a couple of our party had already left. Eagle-eyed, she immediately spotted the empty seats and wanted to know whether anyone had gone or if we had over-booked, eager to pounce on us for yet another misdemeanour. It was at this point I resolved not to return. I was so excited about sharing a place I’d raved so much about but came away bitterly disappointed.
Although aware of the occasion, no attempt was made to make our party feel special, or even remotely valued. We were given the distinct impression that we were an unwelcome inconvenience on a busy Saturday night.
I so wanted to love it; based on the food and pricing alone it has all the potential to be a buzzy, vibrant hotspot. But as a hospitality proprietor myself I consider the customer experience to be paramount and that’s where Thanh Binh misses the mark for me. I guess I’ll just have to keep on dreaming about that salted squid.
Words: Susie Clarke
Susie is the co-owner of the new Grafton pub, soon to open on Prince Of Wales Road.