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June 10, 2011 10:07 pm

A dose of pho for Soho

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David Archer (left) designer of Cây Tre Soho, with chef Hieu Trung Bui

David Archer (left) designer of Cây Tre Soho, with chef Hieu Trung Bui

Cây Tre

By the standard of organised chaos that inevitably overwhelms every new restaurant, Cây Tre, an extremely good-value Vietnamese café that has replaced a Korean karaoke bar on Dean Street, Soho, looked relatively calm. Waitresses in pink blouses with flowers in their hair were carrying plates of grilled aubergine with minced pork; crisp pork spring rolls; salt and pepper eel; an excellent soft-shell crab curry; and several plates of the fresh, tangy salads that are the hallmark of Vietnamese cooking. Here they are prepared with mackerel, herbs and watercress; beef and green papaya; green mango, dried squid and roasted peanuts; and asparagus and green mushrooms.

London has too few Vietnamese restaurants aside from those clustered in Shoreditch in the east of the city. And there is nothing yet to compare with The Slanted Door in San Francisco, a restaurant that provides a particular excuse for visiting one of my favourite cities. But I could tell from watching the French manager marshalling his team and the way Hieu Trung Bui, chef and partner, scrutinised each dish that Cây Tre, in spite of its modest prices, will not suffer from a lack of attention to detail.

Only one thing bothered me – who was the third man walking the floor? In this case it was not Orson Welles but someone much younger, much thinner, taller and with far less hair, who was busy rearranging chairs whenever he could, then sitting down and looking across the room. He never really seemed relaxed or happy with the way the restaurant was working.

As I paid our bill I asked the manager who this mysterious man was. “That’s David Archer,” he replied, “our designer.” I should have guessed his profession: Archer’s pen was positioned precisely in the centre of his yellow V-neck sweater. I had long heard good things about Archer and, like many others, I have enjoyed the Asian food cooked in the numerous restaurants for which he has acted as architect, designer or both. He has worked on high-end Chinese at the original Hakkasan; mid-price Thai at Busaba Eathai; and the six branches of Dim T café.

Archer may be an architect but he talks just like a restaurateur. Before I could ask him whether designing a Vietnamese café – as he and Hieu continually refer to Cây Tre – was the logical extension of all that he has worked on for Chinese and Thai food, Archer was busy scrolling through the paper menu on the table. “I’ll just order a few things, if you don’t mind. Mackerel summer rolls, vegetarian spring rolls, some rice and Hieu’s signature dish, Lang Son pork belly, please,” he said, smiling at the waitress.

And then he mused on what job satisfaction means for a restaurant designer. “When you work on a restaurant, you’re only happy with the space when it’s full. That, for me, is the ultimate satisfaction, coming back every night, sticking your head in the front door and watching the place take off.”

Archer had little idea that this would be his nightly preoccupation when in 1994, while working for the French designer Philippe Starck, he set off to work on the design of the Felix restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. This trip introduced him to British restaurateur Alan Yau, then researching Hong Kong for the ideas that would lead them both to work on Hakkasan in London. (Today, Yau is back in Hong Kong, having just opened Bettys, a French bistro.)

It was Archer’s Asian track record that induced Hieu, who had initially come to London from Vietnam to study finance but instead opened the first Cây Tre in Shoreditch, to ask him to design Kêu!, his Vietnamese deli on Old Street. From a chic black interior come banh mi sandwiches, baguettes stuffed with pork belly and chicken liver pâté; barbecued mackerel with lemongrass; and meatballs in a spicy gravy. Kêu! is very good fun.

At Soho’s Cây Tre, everything is white, modern and airy, Archer has striven to create a French-Vietnamese café that he hopes would not feel out of place in France or Vietnam. The key, he explained, was opening up the front window. “It was vital to create an entrance that could incorporate so many aspects of a Vietnamese café. There’s the space at the front where you can have a drink. There is an area by the bar where the chefs can work preparing the rolls and the bowls of pho, their national noodle soup. And one day, funds permitting, there will be a row of fans down the centre of the room.”

Vietnam will then finally have arrived in Soho.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

..................................................

Cây Tre Soho

42-43 Dean Street London W1

020 7317 9118

www.caytresoho.co.uk

Cây Tre

301 Old Street

London EC1

020 7729 8662

www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk

Kêu!

332 Old Street

London EC1

020 7739 6686

www.keudeli.co.uk

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