There's a lazy beauty in eating Asian cuisine that you don't often find in any other: allowing someone else to order for you. With English, French, and Italian, you'd choose your own food and it would seem almost perverse to allow someone else to choose for you. Perhaps tapas isn’t included in this sweeping statement, but there you usually have a voice in the group decision. Three times in the past week my dinner has been chosen by someone else. Malay, dim sum, and Vietnamese. Each time, I occasionally nodded my head or said ‘spicy squid’ just to pretend that I had an opinion and show that I was still breathing.
At Mien Tay on Kingsland Road I was more than happy to let someone else order, my head spinning from an afternoon of drinking and clouded by the stench of fish sauce that greeted us upon opening the door. And I do mean stench. It’s not a great introduction to a restaurant really, a strong pungent smell. Anywhere else, I would have left; but I had been warned in advance, the diners already seated weren’t bothered, and I was quickly distracted once the first of ten dishes landed on the table. Nothing at Mien Tay could be faulted, even the tofu pancake was good. Soft shell crab in a spicy batter, fried quail with a spicy dusting, summer rolls with a spicy dip. My tongue grew progressively more numb with each new dish. Not in a bad way. This wasn’t the spice that has you bleeding heat, not even the spicy that leaves you dripping in sweat. A gradual warming - good as the fake Spring was rapidly disappearing and I had no socks on - and definitely not enough to ruin the more delicate flavours of the star dish: a whole baked seabass. No real spice here, just a flavourful infusion of herbs and lemon grass - at least that’s what I could taste - and spoon after spoon of delicious light white fish. A dish so disgustingly healthy, I could feel it replacing the lost brain cells of the afternoon.
Judging by the endless newspaper clippings in the window and the fact that the restaurant has expanded into the neighbouring site, this is popular place, no mean feat given the endless Vietnamese competition on this street. Don't be put off by the take-away-like exterior or the smell when the doors open, take a friend who knows what they’re doing, sit back and wait for the seabass.