I know as much about Vietnamese food as you can write on a postage stamp, and still have room left for the names of all my sexual partners (but hey - both sides - thankfully, I have not yet reached A4 size envelope proportions). Nor have I done the trendy gap-year thing and gone travelling to Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea. Having four children tends to curtail both kinds of adventure and make you feel intrepid if you plan a trip to John Lewis on the No 7 bus, so I beg you not to turn to me for authenticity on the question of Vietnamese cuisine.
I'm not sure you should turn to Opium, either, but if all you want is a themed night out to jolt you out of the January blahs, you could do worse. But understand, you're getting what I call the Bunty tour. All women over the age of forty may now read Hugo Arnold, while I explain to the others. For those who never paddled the literary shallows of the Bunty comic, there was always a story about an impoverished/sick/unlucky girl who couldn't travel and therefore had to have 'abroad' recreated for her. In particular, sad Sally with the giant hands, being rowed past mini cardboard dioramas of random countries comes to mind. You know - in the Holland scene there was someone in clogs handing out Edam on a stick, in Italy a chap dressed as a gondolier offering cocktail pizzas, and in Switzerland a yodeller. It's a bit like a travel industry trade convention, but with canapˇs.
Anyway, Opium, is the Indochina experience for people like me, who haven't ventured further East than Liverpool Street without a package tour. You walk down, and down, from the junction of Dean Street and Oxford Street until you worry you might inadvertently throw yourself in front of a circle line train, past little altars assailed by the sounds of what I thought was banging. On leaving, I discovered it was muted rainforest sounds, complete with bird calls, and from the odd thumps, a visiting plumber.
Inside it's a Victorian oriental fantasy - lots of carved gilt wooden screens, regimental, cushion lined sofas, velvet chairs and twinkling lanterns. It is pleasantly decadent, dark and mysterious - and if opium smokers sat politely facing each other in rows at dining tables, passing the salt, I'd say it was pretty convincing.
The food is supposedly French-Vietnamese, the chef, on our visit, Jamaican and the staff all photoshoot pretty in a parfum pour hommes sort of way, though no less obliging and friendly for that. We started with Nam Xao - an enormous and delicious heap of cloud ear, shitake and enochi mushrooms fried with lashings of garlic and a touch of chilli, which would have been enough all by itself. But never one to do things by halves we also had Cha Gio crisp dumplings stuffed with scallops, lobster and more mushrooms - not bad, but nothing that you couldn't find in the freezer compartment of your local Asian supermarket. The portion size was also rather measly given the price. Yes, the menu maintains they contain lobster and scallops, but who knew? Minced up, then fried and served with a chili dip you're not exactly going to purse your lips and make kissy sounds about their distinctively, sweet tender flesh.
My friend Nel followed with Cari Do Bien - a seafood and coconut curry with cod, tiger prawns, rather chewy fringed strips of squid and scallops. This was another hefty serving, but the fish was nicely cooked, and earned her fulsome praise. I had Ca chien soy ca chua - or sea bass with oriental tomatoes, spinach and lots of dill. Again, masses of fish and some wonderful ginger and garlic rice that I've been making at home ever since and loving. This was accompanied by a side order of dua dua, long beans - so good they named them twice.
Frankly, it surpassed my expectations though I say this cautiously. I would want to try the restaurant again when it was full as there have been some concerns about patchy service. At night, it was impossible to get a table though lunch time is obviously when real opium eaters sleep it off. On our mid-day visit we basically had the whole kitchen and the entire waiting staff at our beck and call. There were only four diners in the entire restaurant and we were two of them. It felt rather like being the favoured concubine of a man with very bad taste in soft furnishings. Or somebody from Home Front.
On the pudding front there was ginger ice cream, and some super-sweet perfumed gloop that rather murdered the concept of brulee. It should not be just an excuse to caramelise the contents of your left over Body Shop pots whilst feeling all Rosie-the riveter macho just cause you're using the blow torch in the kitchen. Really, just throw the stuff out and recycle the plastic. It's much better for the environment and heaps better for your hips.
Though reader, I ate mine.