Close your eyes and Tran’s chintzy decor doesn’t matter a damn. French versions of 60s pop songs like Leader of the Pack (Le chef de la Bande) offer an aurally-friendly nod to Vietnam’s colonial past. Opened in 1995 by chef Lanna Tran and her chirpy husband Tri who works the floor, this place is as full as a goog by 7pm. Most of the well-dressed couples are hardcore regulars, judging by Tri’s exuberant greetings, although he’s at times so OTT with his welcomes, it’s hard to be certain.
Banh xeo, that super popular Vietno pancake is a bubbly omelette-yellow filled with prawns, barbecue pork, mushrooms and crisp, crunchy bean sprouts inside. Tri skips over and suggests eating this with the green leaves and nuoc cham (fish sauce, palm sugar and chilli) dipping sauce, which enlivens, sweetens and refreshes the dish.
Then there’s banh beo – a dish originating in Hué, Vietnam’s ancient capital. The city developed its own intricate cuisine specifically for royalty, which explains the soft, noble little rice cakes topped with a single prawn, mashed mung beans and dark shreds of perilla (Vietnamese herb, sharing the same family as mint) performing a balancing act on top seeing the delicate, creamy and slightly sweet little cakes relieved by the slightly sharp herb.
Lemongrass pork belly arrives thinly sliced and charred on fresh leaves and rice noodles, which are perhaps 60 seconds too soft. The herbs are crisp though, as well as fragrant and bright, picked from Lanna’s own garden. Crisp skinned duck is de-boned and served with gai choi (a type of mustard green) and a sweet, gingery dipping sauce. Both mains are too big – and rich – for the average person to eat single-handed, but are great to share.
Dessert-wise, black rice with bananas and coconut milk is a sweet’n’savoury take on rice pudding, with toasted sesame seeds and neat quarter moons of vanilla ice cream.
As we call it a night, the floor staff in their long traditional dresses show no sign of slowing down despite the capacity crowd. For a moment it looks as though we’ll get goodbye hugs from the unimaginably jolly Mr Tran, but he tones it down to a warm farewell. This time.