Walking through Ancoats’ Cutting Room Square on a warm May Day to the sound of cutlery clinking, I’m here to visit Vietnamese restaurant, NAM, that sits proudly in the heart of the district.
Welcomed in by a grandiose glass door, you’re instantly immersed in the restaurant’s splendour – the fragrant smell of Vietnamese spices surrounds your senses, and, as you take a seat on the communal benches, you’ve already hopped on the 12-hour flight to the Southeast Asian paradise, instantly transported to the street food-lined avenues of its cities.
At the heart of the restaurant is family, from the collective in the kitchen to those on the floor. Restaurant founder, Nam Tran learnt all of his cheffing tips and tricks from his Mum, and, as the saying goes, Mum always knows best.
At the start of the year, plans were put in place to give the restaurant’s ageing menu a bit of a revamp, as it had reached a point where the dishes had served their time. NAM was ready to move on to bigger and better things, veering away from Mum’s recipes, but not far enough to warrant a slap around the ear.
“We’re essentially a family run business, I got all of my expertise from my mum and a lot of my family have worked in the kitchen over the years, too,” said Nam.
“But I wanted a fresh set of eyes on the new dishes, so when I was developing the menu, I decided to reach out to Gary Weir. We’ve been really good friends for years and I knew how great he was. His expertise absolutely had the potential to elevate our menu to new heights.”
Gary Weir is a well-known name in the North West’s world of food. Across the years, he’s worked for companies including Mission Mars and Escape to Freight Island, specialising in seasonal, unique flavour combinations, and now owns a hospitality consultancy business, where he offers restaurants help with the menus and developing dishes into worthy works of art.
“I was super excited to work on NAM’s new menu, I’ve been a huge fan of the restaurant for years, regularly coming to socialise, so I was familiar with the food and knew what I wanted to do with it,” furthered Gary.
In keeping with the family spirit of NAM, Gary was invited directly into the household to experience true Vietnamese tastes and cooking methods, which became imperative to his design of the new menu.
During his research, he tried traditional dishes and family recipes, including Balut, which is a fertilised developing egg embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. The dish is extremely common across Southeast Asia, and, even though it didn’t make the restaurant’s final menu, the experience gave Gary the opportunity to branch out his ideas, moving toward less conventional cooking styles and more creativity in NAM’s kitchen.
The new menu has a focus on small plates. It’s essentially food to share and socialise over, embodying the restaurant’s ethos.
Starting off, the Roasted Sea Bream was presented to me, fully formed with its head and tail intact, too. Some diners are bound to find this dish intimidating, but once you delve into it, the flavour is enough to make you forget.
It’s topped with a fermented tomato and anchovy dressing – a classic combination that Gary has recreated with a timely fermentation process. Just one of his many specialities.
Then there’s the Bo Luc Lac Shaking Beef, which comes with aged beef sirloin, a sesame and soy marinade and a pepper lime dressed watercress salad – the meat is tender and refreshing, something that’s usually difficult to achieve with a red-meat based dish, but this is also one of Nam and Gary’s favourites.
“The first time I made the Shaking Beef I was so nervous because it’s such a traditional Vietnamese dish,” explained Gary. “I thought I was definitely going to come under fire for messing with it, but it went down very well with Nam and his family, which was hugely rewarding.”
You’ll find a lot of fish-based dishes on the new menu, as well as accessible small and larger plates for vegetarians and vegans, too, including the Vietnamese Curry with King Oyster Mushroom. The spicy yellow curry is powered by lemongrass, garlic and onions, all stewed with root vegetables in a rich coconut milk broth served with rice. It’s a fragrant colour palate of flavour – a must-try for any plant-based diner – as too is the Pan Fried Pak Choi and Mushroom Bao Buns.
Aside from the selection of vegan-friendly choices, NAM’s new menu also boasts some brand-new Chicken Wings. This recipe sees the once fairly average plate warrant a dose of Gary’s genius, as they’ve been coated with a caramel and ginger glaze. Some people may say simple, and they might be right, but in this instance, less is more, especially if you’re looking for that truly authentic street food experience.
A dish that I was surprised to see on the menu is one that also manages to take centre stage. It’s the Steamed Clams Saigon Style that have been dressed with scallion oil, peanut, turmeric and lime. The turmeric leads the way, creating an almost smokiness alongside the rich depth of the seafood, an ode to authentic Vietnamese seafood cooking – echoed too with the resplendent King Prawn Lollipops.
The lollipops see minced king prawns mixed with Asian herbs and bonito flakes, served with a homemade sweet chilli sauce. They’re then fried to create a crispy coating that’s as delightful as that first bite of Italian Arancini – round balls packed full of flavour.
“The new menu is essentially modern Western cooking brought into a predominantly Southeast Asian environment. We’re family run, so I think in the past we’ve all been a bit nervous to mess around too much with traditional recipes,” concluded Nam.
“The ferments, pickling and even some of the cooking techniques Gary has brought in have been fantastic and such a great learning experience for me and the team.”
NAM’s new menu is available now. The restaurant is open Monday – Thursday 12pm – 11pm, Friday 12pm – 12am, Saturday 11am – 12am and Sunday 12pm – 11pm. Book a table via the link below!