About a decade ago, The Spouse and I discovered the delights of phở, a Vietnamese noodle soup that’s better described as manna from heaven. It would be an understatement to say that we both love phở. Up until last year, The Spouse kept trying to convince me that “we” should open a phở kitchen in Bangalore. Having been met with my polite and steadfast refusal for several years, he gave up. When I told him about Phobidden Fruit, a Vietnamese restaurant in Indiranagar, he was understandably ecstatic. Although the Taj West End‘s upscale restaurant Blue Ginger serves Vietnamese food, the ambience of an honest-to-goodness Vietnamese phở kitchen is hard to beat. Cramped quarters, intriguing aromas, the drone of ceiling fans, the incessant clatter of cutlery… all of these add to the pho experience. Phobidden Fruit, located on 12th Main in Indiranagar, offers pho-seekers all these elements, with the added advantage of being easier on the pocket than Blue Ginger.
Take your pick from two dining areas: a tiny ground-floor, and a long, narrow first floor space accessed by a hard-to-negotiate spiral staircase. Austere wooden benches and tables line one wall; a sunken area houses two slightly larger tables. Sunlight streaming through the translucent ceiling bathes the upper floor in light – and makes it somewhat hot. Although the fans add character, they are no match for a warm afternoon. Service at Phobidden Fruit is patchy. The usual language problem is compounded by what I’m guessing is inexperience, especially when the restaurant fills up. Wait staff is not particularly knowledgeable about the food; diners unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine cannot expect reliable guidance beyond being told what is spicy and what is not.
Vietnamese cuisine? Close, but no cigar
Although our main objective was to sample Phobidden Fruit’s phở, we decided to also sample several other offerings from the restaurant’s menu, spanning appetizers, entrées, and desserts.
The Spouse and I both cultivated a taste for bánh cuốn, steamed spring rolls, while living in the US of A. Literally translated, “bánh cuốn” means “rolled cakes”. These are thin, rice-flour crepes filled with a delectable stuffing of seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushrooms, and bean thread noodles. Because they are steamed, bánh cuốn are light and delicate, unlike their heavier deep-fried cousins. Phobidden Fruit’s version of bánh cuốn was adequate – they use minced chicken instead of pork, though, thereby sacrificing an important flavor component, and they use rice instead of bean thread noodles, thereby sacrificing texture. Also, the rice flour crepe wrapper wasn’t as thin and silken as it should have been. Not exactly bánh cuốn, but definitely reminiscent of The Real Thing.
The Can Thoi Clams, on the other hand, were delectable. Cần Thơ is a Vietnamese city located on the banks of the eponymous river in the heart of the Mekong Delta; nearby, mudflats yield a wealth of clams, cockles, and crabs. The clams at Phobidden Fruit arrived heaped on a plate, kissed with nước mắm and accompanied by a tangy dipping sauce. The little bivalves yielded their treasures to my willing palate, treating me to the briny taste of the sea. This one’s a thumbs up!
The Hanoi lamb was very blah, indistinguishable from a zillion other deep-fried, chilli-laden “bar snacks” meant to be washed down with beer. It was eminently forgettable, and I refuse to waste more than two sentences on it. Entrées As for the entrées, several items we wanted to sample were not available, specifically those featuring pork. Quite frankly, a Vietnamese restaurant that frequently says that “pork is not available today” does not get to my Shortlist of Fabulous Dining Options. In fact, it doesn’t even make it to my Long List of Fabulous Dining Options! Pork is a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, and is therefore the benchmark for evaluating a Vietnamese restaurant’s culinary capabilities. In the absence of that, you may as well just leave pork off the menu entirely, and call yourself another “Pan Asian” or “Oriental” restaurant. Or at least that’s my opinion.
The abundance of non-pork options aren’t half as interesting. Worse still, they are merely approximations of Vietnamese classics. For example, the Norwegian Salmon with Rice makes a weak attempt to present itself as cá kho tộ (cá= fish; kho = stew; tộ= bowl) – a claypot fish stew that features nước mắu – a thick, rich caramel sauce with a coffee-like bitter aftertaste and a generous sprinkling of fresh ginger. Phobidden Fruit’s rendition was overly sugary, with no bitter notes to counter the sweetness. Try as I might, I was unable to detect the fragrance of ginger – and by the way, a garnish of crushed peanuts doesn’t necessarily make a dish taste more “Vietnamese”.
In the same vein, even if there really is a regional Vietnamese dish that features noodles stir-fried with vegetables and served with batter-fried fish – and I am not saying it doesn’t exist, just that it certainly isn’t mainstream – I found Phobidden Fruit’s version bland and uninspiring. Almost like a mildly spiced desi-Chinese “hakka noodles” with batter-fried fish on the side. Granted, the fish was soft and flaky, but that’s the only good thing I can say about this dish. Oh, and while on the topic of authenticity (or at the very least accuracy) – momos can not in any way be viewed as “Vietnamese”. Also, the menu features a spicy noodle soup called “bun bao“. As far as I know, “bun bao ” is not a soup – it is stir-fried beef served over rice noodles, a dish most often found on the streets of Hanoi. So if Phobidden Fruit’s offering is not bun bao, what is it? Certainly not bánh bao – a steamed bun akin to the Chinese bao.
Methinks they mean bún bò Huế, the spicy noodle soup characteristic of Vietnam’s Thừa Thiên-Huế province. That’s probably what Phobidden Fruit was aiming for. If that assumption is correct, I believe they did a pretty good job. The soup is liquid fire, with a strong citric tang. Avoid ordering this if you don’t appreciate the endorphin rush that comes from consuming excessive capsaicin – it.is.really.spicy. As it should be.
Desserts To be honest, Southeast Asian desserts do not appeal to me at all. They’re either too sweet, too sticky, or too coconut-y for my taste. Despite that, we sampled chè, a layered, traditional “pudding” of mung beans, coconut milk, and candied fruit. Not my cup of tea – and definitely not my cup of dessert – but Mr. Small enjoyed it. We also tried the lemongrass “ice cream,” which isn’t really ice cream. It’s a gelatinous custard of sorts, and is quite tasty. If you’re looking to try something new, Phobidden Fruit’s dessert offerings will definitely soothe that itch.
Phinally, The Pho
Since phở was our main reason for visiting Phobidden Fruit, we gave it close scrutiny. First, the parameters against which we judged:
- It has to be phở bò (bo = beef). Any other kind of phở doesn’t count (phở gà – gà= chicken – is acceptable, but not preferred. Seafood or vegetable phở does not exist).
- It has to feature bánh phở – flat rice noodles. Not egg noodles, glass noodles, or rice vermicelli.
- The broth, as the most important element of phở, has several requisites:
- The presence of billowing, fragrant steam – it’s got to be served piping hot
- Clarity – it must be clear, not in the least bit cloudy
- Taste-wise, it has to have “body” – the rich depth of flavor imparted by bone gelatin. If it’s too watery, it’s an epic #fail.
- You have to be able to perceive the fragrance of star anise and cinnamon – but shouldn’t find bits of either floating in your bowl
- And finally – your phở has to be served with the right assortment of garnishes and condiments: lime slices, basil leaves, thinly sliced onion, bean sprouts, chopped coriander leaves, chopped chilli, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, and sriracha.
Let any one of these elements slip, and you go from phantastic to what-the-phuck (sorry, I guess that wasn’t very phunny…)
How did Phobidden Fruit’s phở fare? Let’s take it from the top:
One: They do offer phở bò, so score one for the kitchen. However, the menu also features vegetable, prawn, and chicken variants. Phở gà is something you would find on a Vietnamese table, but vegetable or prawn phở? No way. I am not implying that these versions aren’t tasty. They are simply not part of the Vietnamese culinary tradition. I’d give the restaurant full marks here – but I’m taking one away for serving non-existent phở variants, and .25 for neither mentioning the cut of beef used nor offering options of different cuts. That leaves them with 3.75/5.
Two: Waiter, there’s bánh phở in my bowl! Hurray! Not only that, but it has been cooked correctly – there are no sticky clumps lurking in the bottom of the bowl, they’re nice and smooth and silky, they’re neither chewy nor overcooked. An unqualified 5/5.
Three: The broth was steaming hot and clear, with an acceptable degree of body. However, “acceptable” is rarely good enough. I feel that the broth lacked a certain depth and richness of flavor. The fragrance of star anise and cinnamon was strong enough to notice, yet subtle enough that it didn’t overwhelm the palate. No nasty bits and pieces to bite into or pick out, either.I’m giving them 3.75/5.
Four: While the requisite bean sprouts, onion, lime slices,basil leaves, and chillies were served, the quantity was woefully inadequate (to be fair, I suppose I could have asked for more). The phở was served pre-garnished with cilantro (garnishing phở in the kitchen is a no-no). And there were (shudder) spring onions and cabbage floating around in it too. Tut tut. The hoisin sauce was okay, but the sriracha was more like chilli paste than sriracha. Oh well. A dismal 2.5/5, then.
All told, that nets Phobidden Fruit’s phở a score of 15 out of a possible 20. Good, but not terrific. If you’re a phở connoisseur, I think you are going to be disappointed. If you’ve never tried phở before though, you should definitely visit.
All in all, Phobidden Fruit is a “nice” dining option. Not thrilling, not exciting – nice. The food is very tasty, but doesn’t really qualify as authentic Vietnamese. Since “authentic” is not a flavor, though, I guess that’s okay. My advice to you would be: it’s affordable (though not cheap), so go by all means. If, however, you have sampled Vietnamese food in Vietnam, the United States, or even Blue Ginger – lower your expectations, forget the “Vietnamese” label, and just sit back and enjoy a tasty meal.
965, 12th Main,
HAL 2nd Stage,
Phone: 080 41255175 (phone reservations not accepted)