It's rare that I get the chance to visit a new restaurant in Amsterdam twice before reviewing it. It's even rarer that I like it better the second time round.
So it was with Saigon Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant that has opened on the first floor above a McDonald’s on Leidsestraat.
New restaurants are usually on their best behaviour, anticipating reviews like this. When I first visited at lunchtime, however, cleaning products were still on the tables and the manager was unloading the dishwasher behind the bar as if she was trying to break some kind of speed record.
Shouting above the clatter, I ordered gol cuon tom, essentially a salad of grated carrot and cucumber, lettuce, mint, rice noodles and shrimps, wrapped in rice paper for easy handling. Saigon Cafe's version was served with salty fish sauce for dipping. The two rolls were light and fresh, the vibrant colours of the vegetables and prawns visible through the translucent rice paper.
A second starter of chicken satay was redolent of lemongrass and the meat dark from long marinating, although the larger chunks weren't quite cooked through.
Lemongrass makes a frequent appearance in Saigon Cafe's main courses too, including the curries and sa huong vi meat dishes. I went in a different direction, opting for ga nuoc mau, chicken cooked on the skin and served with caramel sauce.
It looked as if the chicken skin had been deep fried because it was beautifully blistered, brittle and falling off the thin slices of meat. The sauce was a riff on the sweet and sour idea, but was actually too sweet for a savoury dish and ultimately became cloying.
On my second visit, the staff seemed to have found its stride - or the manager was off - and I ordered pho without having to yell. Based on a broth so deep it should come with lifeguards, the soup was largely a DIY affair. An enormous bowl of broth, already well filled with rice noodles and stewed beef, was accompanied by a plate of Thai basil, bean sprouts, chopped chilli and hoisin sauce.
The build-your-own-soup presentation is a great excuse to play with your food and means you can season the pho just the way you like it. Saigon Café proclaims pho is its signature dish and after two meals here I would have to agree.
Until about a year ago, one of the only Vietnamese restaurants in Amsterdam was Welcome on Zeedijk. With the opening of Saigon Cafe on Leidsestraat and Xinh in the Jordaan, Amsterdammers now even have a choice of where to go for pho.
daily lunch midday-15.30; dinner 17.00-23.00
Telephone: 020 737 0848
Web: go directly to homepage