Nep Nep – the Vietnamese Cafe all Stations Need.
Tucked away just around the corner from Marylebone Station, Nep Nep is the kind of restaurant you need to know about. You might hesitate to go in, it looks a little worn around the edges from the outside. But, if you want something freshly cooked, beautifully flavoured and served with a smile while you are in the area, this is a much better bet than the chain coffee shops and bars in the station itself. And, it’s all very well priced for this part of town – a beer will set you back £4.50 while most main courses are around £10.
Inside, this tiny cafe is brought to life by the smiling and happy staff who clearly love the food they are serving and welcome everyone.
We noticed that they were careful to ask how much time each table had – and that they were more than happy to explain the nuances of a menu which might be otherwise just a little daunting. Whilst I dine regularly in London’s Thai restaurants I really know very little about Vietnamese food.
At their recommendation, we ordered Bo La Lot and Nem Vuong as our starters. The former is a dish of grilled beef and minced pork wrapped in betal leaf and served with vermicelli noodles all served in baby gem lettuce leaves with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. It looked just a little intimidating, but was actually delicious, light and refreshing with just the right level of heat for me. I loved the mixture of textures too.
But, the winning starter, in my opinion, was the Nem Vuong, a crispy crab parcel filled with crab meat, prawns, pork, bean sprouts and glass noodles served with vermicelli. I was surprised at how well the fresh crab flavours cut through and the light, crispy wrapper added just the right amount of crunch.
We’d asked our waitress for a favourite and she’d recommended trying the Bo Luc Lac, a dish of sauteed cubed beef with onions peppers, garlic, lettuce and butter. In some fit of trying to eat less red meat, I left that one to my companion and then, on tasting a morsel of the beautifully tender flank steak, was really quite jealous. It was a pretty and apparently delicious dish that my companion guarded fiercely once he’d let me know what I was missing.
Meanwhile, my lighter but no less delicious dish of Ca Sea Bass Nuong La Choui, half a sea bass, marinated in lemongrass, chilli and dill and grilled in a banana leaf was delicious in it’s own right – with firm seabass flesh piquant with the taste of chilli and lemongrass and lifted by the aromatic dill.
We both loved the Rau Muong Xao Toi, a dish of stir-fried water spinach (morning glory) with garlic and one portion of Com Trang (steamed rice) was quite enough for two.
As normal, dessert was not really necessary, other than for the purpose of tasting what was on offer. My own Kem Xoi (sticky rice with ice cream) was so delicious I managed to eat it all (so much for eating a light main course!). My companion had the curious, probably very authentic Che Ba Mau (Three-Colour Dessert). Comprising three types of mung beans and jelly covered with a layer of sweetened coconut milk and then topped up with crushed ice, I can imagine it being very refreshing in tropical climates. It’s probably a dish better eaten in warmer climates and on a chilly Autumn evening, it wasn’t quite what he was expecting.
He did, however, enjoy testing the two bottled beers on offer. The Saigon was lighter and easy to drink while the Hanoi was slightly darker and deeper in flavour and offered a more robust option that worked well with the rich beef dish he was eating.
For me, a glass of wine, followed by a special Vietnamese drip coffee served with sweet evaporated milk. I actually rather like this style of coffee, but in my head, I have to completely disassociate any thoughts of ‘coffee’ because this is a kind of rich, coffee flavoured creamy toffee like mixture. Nep Nep also have a curious sounding ‘Vietnamese Egg Coffee’ – but that really would have been a step too far for me.
What I liked best of all about Nep Nep was the passion and enthusiasm of the team working there. And, at a very close second, the food itself.
I’m sometimes asked how we can produce a balanced review when we dine as guests of a restaurant. It’s a curious question for me as there are many instances where your impression of a restaurant will be biased. If you go for a special occasion and the restaurant simply isn’t ‘special’ you will be more offended than if you pop into the same place for dinner on your way home. If you don’t pay the bill because you are there for work or on a date that may affect your perception of the restaurant too. I know when I’m in that situtation my perception of the food is definitely affected by the context of the meal (e.g. do I like my date or do I get the deal signed). That said, when I am dining as a guest of the restaurant I do make an effort to look around and see if I am being treated differently to other customers. It is seldom the case and in the case of Nep Nep it was resolutely something that didn’t happen.
Of course, that does give me a reason to go back anyway, just in case. But I suspect I would do so anyway!
Nep Nep Vietnamese Restaurant
20 Lisson Grove,
London NW1 6TT
Disclosure: We dined as guests of the restaurant – all content is editorially given.