Deborah Ross


The most exciting thing to happen in Crouch End since Clinton Cards replaced the record shop

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Alas, half-term is over, my son is back at school, and I have the house back to myself during the day. Oh, how I miss him, or would do if I wasn’t so thrilled to get rid of the pesky old so-and-so. Oh dear, school today, I said on the first morning while pushing him out of the door, double-locking it from the inside and drawing the bolt. I did think about quickly moving while somehow forgetting to leave a forwarding address but then realised it would mean packing and that would be too boring for words. Still, it’s not as if I can forget him entirely during the day, as there appears to be a deadly smell emanating from his room. How best to describe it? It’s sort of like cheese mixed with old socks and BO and Monster Munch (pickled onion) and Lynx, the last being the most singularly deadly of all. I think if you were to bottle it and sell it as Parfum de Teenage Boy you would almost certainly be guaranteed to make no money whatsoever. You may wish to also throw in mud and wet dog, as there is quite a lot of that about too.

Anyway, on the eve of his return, I offer to take him and his friend out to eat. This, I agree, is nice of me but, in their defence, just-teenage boys aren’t that bad so long as you breathe through your mouth and invest in one of those litter-grabbing implements so that you can pick up dirty clothes and shin-pads at arm’s length. Such devices are also useful for extracting half-eaten mouldy things from trouser pockets, and bits of furry sandwich from school bags. Whatever, we decide we will try the new Vietnamese in Crouch End, which has already generated a great deal of local excitement. Several people have mentioned it to me, plus it recently received an utterly rave review in Time Out. I think it may even be the most exciting thing to happen in Crouch End since Clinton Cards replaced the record shop, which meant, of course, that we could all rest easy about being within easy reach of Forever Friends greeting cards and ‘I Love Grandma’ novelty mugs and ‘Super Stud’ tankards. Phew! A weight off all our minds, that’s for sure.

We arrive at the restaurant, Khoai, quite early, at about 6.45 p.m., having stopped on our way back from seeing Bride and Prejudice. Honestly, what a load of rubbish. Darcy wasn’t even sexy, and I do like a sexy Darcy. I wish Darcy had been Jude Law. Now that is one sexy boy. My son and his friend like J-Lo and Beyoncé. I don’t know who the average male Spectator reader fancies but I imagine Sandra Howard in a thong pretty much does it for them. I once tried a thong, but it cost £5 and £4-worth went directly up my bottom. I am back to big pants now. My son wears boxers, which I pick up with the litter-grabber while wearing a snorkel and looking the other way.

The restaurant has quite a plain interior: simple tables, pine seating, not much in the way of decoration beyond a couple of Vietnamese conical hats hung on one wall. But it’s a good job we arrive early. It’s not a big space and it is staggeringly popular. By 7.15 p.m. all the tables are gone and people are being turned away. We have an adorable waiter, a Vietnamese boy with sweet cheeks and a Tintin quiff. ‘What’s your secret?’ I ask. ‘Goo foo, no spensive, me have big smile!’ And now I think about it, that probably is the secret of a popular local restaurant. As it is, one table is occupied by a solo gentleman reading a book while eating, and I like that. If a single diner feels comfy, then it usually means the place is neither pretentious nor up its own arse (unlike my thong, which was so far up my own arse I considered calling the fire brigade to help rescue it. No, I haven’t got a cat up a tree, but I do have a thong up my arse, and I’ll thank you to put the sirens on as I cannot tell you how uncomfortable it is...).

The food at Khoai all sounds lovely, making it very hard to choose. I go demented just trying to settle on a starter. I think I might want Bo La Lot (grilled beef seasoned with spices, cinnamon and lemongrass, wrapped in wild betel leaves, £5.25). But then I think I might want Cha Gio (spring rolls with grated carrot, onion, cellophane rice sticks and cloud ear mushroom wrapped in egg rice paper, £3.30). I do love a good cloud ear mushroom. In the end, though, after a great deal of pained dithering, I go for Canh Chua with prawns, a soup made from a tamarind broth containing pineapple, tomatoes, chilli, okra, beansprouts, fried garlic, spring onion, coriander and all manner of herbs. It’s terrific: fruity yet spicy, sweet yet sour, with prawns as plump as anything, all wonderfully fresh, and an astonishing £3.65. One smelly boy has Muc Lan Bot, squid sautéed with peppercorn salt, chilli and garlic (£4.95). I’m afraid I don’t get a taste because he wolfs it all so quickly. He says it was delicious, though, which strangely doesn’t make me feel any better about missing out, but does make me feel a lot better about pushing him out of the door and then double-locking it from the inside. The other smelly boy chooses a Chinese-style dish, the crispy duck with pancakes, which is also perfect, with duck that’s not just crispy but doubly crispy, and aromatic in a way the bedrooms of blokes this age never are.

Next, I have the fried tilapia in fish sauce with fresh green mango, which at £8.50 is the most expensive main course you can have. Tilapia is a fish not unlike the catfish, and it comes in all its glory, which includes an open mouth populated by sharp, spiny teeth. The fish has been marinated, I think, in fish sauce, and then cooked so that the skin is spicy and crisp, while the white flesh is pearly and juicy. I love every mouthful, and leave nothing bar the poor thing’s spine and scary teeth. One boy has stir-fried chicken in chilli and black bean sauce, while the other has prawns with pickled greens. We share a jasmine rice and some chicken egg noodles. We are happy beyond belief.

Khoai is a terrific little family-run restaurant. Do try it if you can. Apparently it is less busy on weekday nights and is good for lunch, when you can simply pop in for a bowl of Pho, Vietnam’s national dish, which is a wonderful meal-in-bowl rice noodle soup, and which comes in large or small (£3.40 or £4.75). As for my son, I should point out that I do love him really. Or at least would do, if only he didn’t stink quite so much.

Khoai Café, 6 Topsfield Parade, Middle Lane, London N8. Telephone 020 8341 2120