Katherine MacAlister tries Pho's new Christmas menu

AFTER last year’s pre-pantomime debacle, when our family lunch cost so much we had to send the kids’ Christmas presents back, the choice of where to go this year took on the kind of planning that Hercule Poirot himself would have been impressed by.

It had to be quick, it had to be fun and it had to be cheap, without being tacky, sticky or too commercial.

It also had to take into account a vegetarian who is vegan on Tuesdays, a gluten-free grandmother, a hungover husband and my in-laws.

And then I remembered the Pho Ho Ho Christmas party menu at Vietnamese joint Pho on the Westgate Roof terrace – two courses for £14.95, three for £18.95 – and booked it immediately.

Not only is Pho fun, exotic and novel, but it caters for everyone in a bustling, casual, friendly atmosphere.

We left two hours for lunch and arrived to find our table the only free space in the entire restaurant.

Staff raced around bearing exotic cocktails, smoothies and cordials. We tried the lemon and Thai basil spritzer (which was seriously refreshing), white wine, the pineapple, apple and mint spritzer and lots of water for the hungover husband, who drank it like a camel in the desert. The menu also included prawn crackers for all with dipping sauce.

For starters then, the seasoned crispy chicken wings (Canh ga) with a really spicy Sriracha sauce, some crispy spring rolls in shrimp and veggie (Cha gio) and the vermicelli and pickle summer rolls with peanut sauce (goi cuon). The latter were transparent, wonderfully chewy and accompanied by a perfect satay dip. The crispy, tight spring rolls disappeared in no time and the chicken wings were soon dispensed with.

Luckily, the Christmas menu also limits your options because the main menu is vast. There was still a good selection of phos on offer, with steak, beef brisket, chicken, tofu and mushroom and spicier versions all for the taking.

Phos are the classic Vietnamese noodle soup the restaurant is named after, served with a platter of fresh herbs on top to enliven it.

Those who didn’t opt for the pho, tried the Ca-ri – a Vietnamese curry served with broken rice, with chicken or tofu and mushroom options.

The only problem was that the mains took an age to arrive. Yes the restaurant was packed to the rafters, but we were in a hurry and a long leisurely lunch wasn’t an option.

Eventually the fragrant and steaming bowls began to edge their way out of the kitchen towards our table. Personally I think the Ca-ri won, more Malaysian than Indian, that silky, coconuty, fruity taste, prevalent the further east you go, was evident. Hot, filling and fragrant, it was delicious.

The rest toiled over their vast bowls of pho, coaxing the noodles out from the bottom with their huge wooden spoons. It was a bit like fishing with a tambourine, and hilarious to watch. The only criticism was that the phos could have been stronger, the broth diluting the strength of flavour.

But our time was up, the pantomime beckoned and we hadn’t had dessert. Should we risk it? I ordered the chuoi chien (banana fritters with ice cream) while everyone put their coats on. They were so full they couldn’t even think about pudding.

It arrived just in time, piping hot and crispy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside which made your tongue burn, as the ice cream hurt our teeth. Heaven.

So if you have a ‘difficult’ family/office/friendship festive gathering coming up, I’d just book a table at Pho.

Just make sure you leave enough time for a lie down afterwards.