In the current situation, the best chance of enjoying a memorable meal – short of making it yourself – is either the perennial takeaway or one of those ‘cook at home’ boxes. Over the past year, we’ve sampled quite a few of the latter, from different sources, with varying degrees of success. Something about the ‘Vietnam’ menu from Home by Nico hooks us, so we book it in for a suitable evening and, on the appointed day, within a designated one hour time slot (always useful), a box with the approximate dimensions of a small continent arrives at our door.
Once opened up, and unpacked, it’s apparent that the Nico team have put quite a bit of thought into this. We notice for instance, that the containers holding the various courses are composed of recyclable materials with a removable plastic veneer. This cuts down considerably on the inevitable landfill. We’ve often felt guilty about the wastage on some of the earlier meals we’ve sampled, so this feels like an important step in the right direction. The chefs have also tried hard to make us feel like we’re being suitably spoiled. They’ve provided enticing little boxes of garnish for each course and, though there is a certain amount of preparation required on our part, it’s no great hardship, with every step carefully explained. You’d be hard put to get it wrong.
For starters there are Duck Bao Buns – gloriously sticky steamed confections with a generous shredded duck filling and a selection of appetising garnishes including pickled vegetables, hoi sin roasted peanuts and crispy shallots. To say that the course is flavoursome would be something of an understatement: it is vibrant with flavour, as indeed is everything else about this meal. And the aromas are exquisite!
Next up there’s Hot and Sour Pho – a bowl of smoky broth, with earthy rice noodles, enoki mushrooms, lemongrass and chilli oil. This is perfectly spiced, just hot enough to set my taste buds alight but never overwhelming them. The pho is studded with red chillis and miniature sweetcorn and we polish it off very quickly indeed.
At this point, we take a short break and enjoy a couple of glasses of the accompanying wine, The Rambler, a fruity South African white that makes a perfect cooler after that fiery broth.
The main course is Caramel Belly of Pork Hot Pot – which is every bit as appetising as it sounds. There are four thick slabs of succulent meat, which need to be fried off, with a covering of aromatic sticky glaze. This is served with stir fried slaw, ginger and chilli. There are also two side dishes – some Sautéed Asian Greens with garlic and ginger; and a Clay Pot Aubergine, with green beans and chunks of potato. Individually, all the elements are good, but, when put together on a plate, they create a kind of magic.
Our past experience has been that the sweet is often a disappointment in these home boxes, but happily, this is not the case here. The Vietnamese Coffee turns out to be a thick, smooth pannacotta, with coffee sponge and a layer of crispy coffee crumb on top. It’s deliciously indulgent, almost velvety in its smoothness – and the fact that it comes in a re-useable glass jar is an added bonus. This pudding is irresistible right down to the last spoonful.
All-in-all, this might just be the most accomplished ‘meal at home’ we’ve tried and it serves to exemplify the Nico brand, offering sophisticated cooking at an affordable price. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for their next offering.