Restaurant Review: We try the contemporary Vietnamese food at Edinburgh's Sen
The grub is designed to be shared, with Street Food and Home Comfort menus
They said that lockdown would be a marathon, not a sprint.
However, it’s not usually until the 26-mile mark that you notice that your toenails have fallen off and your nipples are chafed.
At the sight of the finishing line, your legs turn to jelly and you have to be carried for the last 0.2 miles.
It’s been a very long time since I did a restaurant review that didn’t involve takeaway or delivery.
We booked this contemporary Vietnamese place, which is owned by first time restaurateur, Tam Thi Tran, for its first night of opening, weeks before our visit.
Time went in slo-mo. I would have scored the days off in my 2021 calendar, if I’d bothered to get one.
Eventually we made it to our window table (where we could rubberneck on the police van, pulling up to keep an eye on The Pear Tree’s newly opened beer garden). It’s a beautiful space, and we were seated underneath their yellow lanterns, inspired by the ones in the Vietnamese coastal city of Hoi An.
They make you feel as if you’re in a goldfish bowl, looking up at the shubunkins, or underneath a shoal of radioactive jellyfish.
The finishing line! Pour me an electrolyte drink (nothing from the still-contraband bar).
Among our fellow diners, there was a reverent but giddy feeling, as if someone had burped in church.
Each table was given a gratis tray of prawn crackers and we crunched loudly in unison. Happy bandicoots.
I’d love to say we were served quickly, but it was a long wait.
That’s totally okay, it’s night one. We were stoic.
However, when the first of our four shareable Street Food courses of grilled prawn mousse on sugarcane arrived (£13), our attention and blood sugar were dipping, as we watched the waitress do a Blue Peter-esque demonstration of how to make one.
It looked and smelled so great that we were at peak delayed gratification.
She dipped a rice paper wrap into water, then topped it with pale pads of vermicelli noodle, crispy shallot and peanuts, strips of mango, cucumber and carrot, salad leaves, mint, and some bits that were peeled off one of our three skewers of pink prawn mousse, each of which was hugging its sugarcane like a koala.
These came with a shimmeringly hot, sour and sweet nuoc cham dipping sauce.
When I tried to make another roll, it went horribly wrong and looked like someone’s lumpy paunch bulging out of a too tight shirt.
Oh well, it still tasted good.
They’d sold out of the papaya jerky beef salad (£8.50), thanks to the speedy table right next to us, so we’d ordered the tamarind tofu (£7) instead.
There were two thick squares of bean curd, each which were daubed with a tangy and sticky sauce, and these came with crispy shallots, for a bit of crunch.
Lovely, as was the “chick nest” (£7) - bouncy poultry pellets that were dusted with a hot roasted rice powder, and came with chillies, a lime wedge and peppers, all served in a cute little paper basket. When this fiery Phoenix returns, it’ll be annoyed about its vacant nest.
Our final Street Food option was the Hanoi crispy spring rolls (£7.50) - deep fried and cut in half, so you could see the super savoury centre of mashed pork and prawn. These came with more of the nuoc cham.
We sank deeper into the midnight blue banquette.
We’d only ordered one of their Home Comfort dishes, because I’m sick of home. I know I should have tried their signature pho (£15). I bet it’s magnificent, but I fancied the more zingy stuff. Still, our lantern duck curry (£16) was a soothing wonder.
There was a confit duck leg, with a well turned ankle, sticking out of a pool of terracotta-coloured and balmy tasting sauce. It also featured buoys of taro and sweet potato, all cut into shapes like nuts and bolts, as well as cross-sections of lotus root.
On the side, we had a bowl of fragrant jasmine boiled rice (£2) - fluffy like a blow-dried Pomeranian.
At this point, all other diners were gone, and the clock was about to strike 8pm. We thought we better get back to our car, before it turned back into a pumpkin and my other half transmogrified into a mouse (he can’t reach the steering wheel when that happens).
It was too late for pudding or their special Vietnamese drip coffee, but that’s something we can try next time.
(They also do a vegan and vegetarian menu, and will eventually serve cocktails).
I will definitely pay them another visit, and count down the days, now that I know their food is worth the wait.
41 West Nicolson Street
(0131 374 4120, www.senrestaurant.co.uk)
How much? Dinner for two, excluding drinks, £52.50
Places to try Nearby
Ransacked Loaded, 27-29 Marshall Street, Edinburgh (0131 667 7001, www.ransackedloaded.co.uk)
They describe the style of grub at this recently reopened place “slow fast food”. Expect dishes including Nutella loaded crepes or masala tofu loaded fries.
Saboteur, 19-20 Teviot Place, Edinburgh (0131 623 0384, www.saboteurrestaurant.com)
The sister restaurant to Ting Thai Caravan, also on Teviot Place, this restaurant serves Vietamese and East Asian food, including pho and cari rang red beef curry. It’s reopening on May 17.
Union Brew Lab, 6-8 South College Street, Edinburgh (www.brewlabcoffee.co.uk)
If you forgot to try a traditional Vietnamese drip coffee at Sen, drop by this place, which has reopened. They service some of the best Joe in the capital, as well as cakes and other goodies, like avocado toast.