When one thinks of Vietnamese cuisine, in a split second, the word Pho would come to mind. After which, rice paper wraps would appear. Truth be told, there is much more to Vietnamese cuisine than noodles and banh mi. Cyclo is a cozy vietnamese restaurant in Jing’an that has been around for quite awhile and I finally had the chance to try.
Many thanks to Lee and his dad for hosting the private tasting. I had actually known the both of them for a long time, having worked together with both of them at my design firm. (I designed the CityMoments website and also his dad’s then corporate website). I digress. I didn’t know that they had opened a restaurant! Well, they didn’t know that I was a big foodie either.
The owners of Cyclo are actually French Vietnamese, but have still stuck closely to their cultural culinary roots. The food at Cyclo has been described to be very authentic tasting. I will take their word on that, because I myself have not been to Vietnam yet, although I have tasted many takes on Vietnamese cuisine all over the world.
The restaurant is discretely situated at the corner of a junction, and if you’re not looking for it, is easy to miss. Inside, the place is spacious with warm tones. A piano greets you at the entrance, and I was told if patrons played the piano well enough, they get a free round of drinks on the house. The restaurant sits about 50 and is both suitable for private dining and group gatherings.
Ambience-wise, I can’t really find anything to fault it for it’s category. It’s certainly cozy and welcoming, but don’t expect a fine dining nor a super chic modern experience. 8/10
As with invited tastings (which, apologetically seems to be what I’m only doing lately) an un-biased score of 7.5 is awarded. Food was served relatively quickly, but I suspect the kitchen might get overwhelmed if the place was full.
The head chef at Cyclo is a true-blue imported Vietnamese chef, handpicked from the culinary institute back home.
Fresh Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls 28rmb/2pc , 48rmb/4pc
We started with the iconic shrimp rice paper rolls. We got off to a good start with these rolls, not only because they were filled with fresh bouncy shrimp and vegetables, but also because they were very tightly packed. Biting into them didn’t cause the package to crumble and fall apart — the mark of good wrapping technique. Dipped into the sweet yet savoury peanut sauce, the spring rolls proved refreshing and opened the palate to more food to come. 9/10
Fried Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls 28rmb/2pc , 48rmb/4pc
Next up was the deep-fried version of the spring rolls. Crispy and crunchy on the outside while tender and juicy within. I especially enjoyed these dipped in the fish-sauce chilli dip. They’re a simple and traditional snack done well. 8.5/10
Mango Salad w. Pomelo Salad 55rmb / 48rmb
We had a special platter of both the mango and pomelo salads next. Bright and crunchy are the feelings and textures that came to mind. The fried shallots and basil leaves added a nice flavoursome accent between bites. Pomelo was sweet and bursting with juices when bitten into, while the mango was tart and crunchy. As with many dishes in vietnamese cuisine, you get a combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy in these salads. It’s almost like the vietnamese ancestors went “Ok, so there are sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavours available. What shall we use to represent our cuisine? Let’s use them all!!!” 8/10
Steamed Spring Roll 50rmb/4pcs
This next dish was a surprise to me. Steamed version of the rice rolls. Similar in both looks and taste to cantonese cheong fun. I was told this is, actually a thing in Vietnam. They tasted soft and silky with a savoury vegetarian filling. Quite good! 8/10
Pork Ribs with Lemon Grass 88rmb
Our first meat dish was the Pork ribs with lemon grass. Unfortunately, these were very tough and chewy throughout. Despite having a nice charred flavour on the surface, the marinade/seasoning did not penetrate into the meat very well. A pity. 4/10
Crab noodle soup
A interesting seafood noodle soup with chunks of real crab meat and shrimps. An udon-like noodle was used, which was certainly very seldom seen in Vietnamese noodles. The soup is also a little thick and viscous. All that said, it was immensely flavoursome and enjoyable. I had second and third helpings of this, and would easily enjoy an entire bowl on my own in this cold winter weather. 9/10
Stir-fried shrimps with lemon grass
This was a special not yet on the menu, a simple stir fry paired with rice. Good flavours and wok-fragrance. However, nothing very outstanding in terms of novelty and presentation. 7.5/10
Fried fish with Mango 118rmb
A large freshwater bass I believe, deep-fried and then covered with mango strips. A fish-sauce chilli dip is provided to dip the otherwise, lightly seasoned fish in.
This dish didn’t quite work with me. I felt it was simply a deep-fried fish with mango strips topped over it. Firstly I didn’t feel the mango strips paired particularly well with the fish, because the fish isn’t very rich nor salty — It didn’t require the tart element for balance. If one didn’t dip the fish in the sauce, it would be a very dry and one dimensional dish, which makes me wonder why wouldn’t the sauce be pre-drizzled all over the fish to complete it, with extra sauce for dipping on the side?
Saving points are that both the fish and mango were fresh. 7/10
Pho Bo (Beef) 55rmb/small 65rmb/large
How can I review a vietnamese restaurant without trying their Pho? Naturally I had to ask for a bowl. The soup based was clear but rich in flavours, natural flavours. My only complaint was the beef slices were quite overcooked. The flatter and wider noodles were used, as is the case in most Pho restaurants in town. I always thought that this was a sign of inauthenticity because the wider ‘he fen’ noodles are more widely available from Chinese suppliers. After doing some research, it seems that Northern Vietnamese actually do employ the usage of this type of noodles, as opposed to the thinner and thicker variety. All that said, one the more enjoyable Pho I’ve had in Shanghai. 8.5/10
Coconut Custard 40rmb
Dessert came in the form of coconut pudding wrapped in pandan leaves — A very common dessert across south-east asia. It wasn’t overly sweet and had a nice crunch from the tapioca (?) filling hidden within. 8/10
All in all, a very satisfying meal except for some of the misses. Vietnamese cuisine used to be a big thing many years ago but had since died down. I suspect the trend might come back in the coming year, when the ramen craze settles down.