Damon Bui’s mum and dad arrived in Australia as Vietnamese refugees not speaking any English.
Having witnessed their struggles in those early years, as well as the opportunities given to them, he believes in “responsible capitalism” and supporting his employees. As well as 100% of the service charge going to the staff, “they are also set to share in the profits”, he says.
Not a bad philosophy for the chef-patron of a brand new opening in a slightly unusual location – ten minutes’ walk up from the all-consuming King’s Cross development, and a mile or so from Kentish Town, Camden and Holloway in turn.
What of the name? “It came to me in a dream,” he says. In it, he was back in his childhood home in Sydney and his mum was cooking her legendary butter fried chicken. “All the kids were running around saying ‘Cô ba, cô ba, I want your fried chicken!’”
Cô ba simply means “auntie number three”, which is what Damon’s mum was called in the family. “When I woke up, it was as if I could smell the heady aromas of that fried chicken, and all that was great and comforting about my childhood came rushing back.”
And so his baby was born. “I see it as a way to honour both my parents, the great life they’ve provided for me and my sisters, and the amazing food that mum cooked at home and passed on to me when I left to Australia to move to the UK eleven years ago.”Rewind three years, and Damon started to think there must be more to life than working in a bank for twelve hours a day. Starting out small, he ran supper clubs in his flat with his partner MJ, as well as catering for parties and running the occasional street stall as Table for 10. He began by feeding friends, then friends of friends, then caught the attention of a wider audience of food lovers.
“With all the positive feedback, I thought I had something special to offer, something that London needs, so I became hellbent on creating my dream restaurant.”
The menu at CôBa offers a mix of classic Vietnamese dishes alongside some more modern interpretations. It’s split into barbecue meats, cooked on a charcoal grill and served with a noodle salad, and soup noodles (classics such as fragrant pho and spicy beef noodles made with a 24-hour broth).
The drinks list includes a potent blend of tea-based and sorbet cocktails: all the favourites from Damon’s supper club days, although on our visit we eschewed the booze – well, some of us – in favour of a slightly-too-sweet non-alcoholic house cocktail. But no matter. It was fine with a splash of sparkling water.Our starters, if a little pricey, were undeniably flawless: prawn toast (£7.50) was so chunky and moreish it far outweighed its dreary takeaway-resonant name, while arguably better still was that much-hyped fried butter chicken (£6), with a very dippable spicy mayonnaise.
Best of all though, at least for our table? Finger-lickin’ lamb cutlets (£8), chargrilled, sticky and red-rare – worth a revisit alone, a sentiment echoed by my friend who’d just to Cambridge from London.
We all needed warming up on such a bitter night, and both the vegetarian pho and duck ramen (deep earthenware bowls heaving with carrot, cucumber, spring onion, red cabbage and some fiery peppers) took a deliciously lengthy time to eat, an almost meditative experience on such an evening.“The duck ramen is a combination of two Viet dishes,” says Damon, by way of explanation, “the traditional pho and a dish called mi vit tiem, which is also a ramen dish. However, I’ve always found the original to be too sweet and lacking depth. I experimented with adding some of the pho spices to the dish, and one day it all clicked together into the smoky flavour that we ended up with on our menu.”
Result. In short? CôBa is a destination restaurant, really, with a genuine buzz in its packed (and did we mention uber-stylish?) dining room. Surely worth the hike to that industrial bit of York Way where leafy Camden Square meets King’s Cross. And if you’re with friends who don’t know the area, or prone to moaning about difficult locations, watch their faces light up as you enter.[review]
Kentishtowner pays for all meals in our reviews section. More on this here