02 July 2010
“Wicked Crispy Frog”, “Piggy Grill Aubergine” and other such exotica await you at ‘Viet Grill’ restaurant in the east end of London. Nestled amongst a dozen other Vietnamese restaurants, I would say that Viet Grill is most definitely a cut above the rest. The interior is covered in a modern and chic flocked wall paper and the room is simple in décor, but the unmistakable sizzling of the woks, smell of the grill and – somewhat annoying – clattering of china and cutlery remind me that “We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto”. I had worked myself into a proverbial lather at the thought of having some authentic Vietnamese food and if I can’t get to Hanoi, then what better place to eat it in then the London equivalent of ‘Little Vietnam’ on Kingsland Road, London E2.
Printed paper placemats proudly display the menu, a confusing plethora of dishes, each with the correct Vietnamese text above. Strange little smiley faces dotted all over the sheet and, unhelpfully, dishes aren’t numbered, which adds to the mayhem of trying to remember your place on the menu. Confusion confirmed when instead of ordering grilled sirloin steak served with pancakes, I had clearly lost my place and ended up with stir-fried Monkfish! Great. I did manage to correctly order some Vietnamese prawn rolls to accompany the Monkfish. I was pleasantly surprised that the Monkfish dish was actually a very lucky find for us, marinated with galangal, saffron and sautéed with fennel and dill it was fresh, light and delicious. The disappointing part being the bland, plain rice noodles it was served over. Nothing a dash of soya sauce and some chilli couldn’t fix.
More confusion with main courses, as all the dishes have Vietnamese names, which making absolutely no sense to me, made it all the more difficult to locate our agreed choices. A classic beef ‘Pho’, ‘Feudal’ sirloin beef steak and Sake lamb skewers with cumin and fennel all made the cut. The Pho arrived and straight off it looked unappealing. Thin quivvering slivers of meat, iridescent with oxidisation, yet grey and flabby with bits of unappetising, untrimmed fat and other unpleasant bits floating in a dull looking stock, covering some rice noodles and a few sliced spring onions. A side dish containing a few bean sprouts, some holy basil and a single small red chilli – that for me personally – couldn’t do any damage or impart any heat of flavour whatsoever. So I smash the chilli, bruise the holy basil and toss everything into the broth along with more of that soya sauce and chilli paste, but the result is still pretty inedible. My advice would be to steer clear of the ‘Classic Pho’ as it merely marrs what has the potential to be a perfectly good meal.
On the upside, the Sake lamb skewers were superb and had they brought the rice in time, perhaps I would have been able to enjoy them hot, but even cold, they were delicious and still very tender with a depth of spice infused by cumin. The ‘Feudal’ beef, whilst not strictly the Sirloin steak it has been advertised as, comes with a delicious sauce, which although flavoursome, was not as spicy as the waiter had promised. I'm beginning to think they are holding back on the spice factor to accommodate us Brits. Down with flexibility, i say! Up with tradition and authenticity!
At the end of the meal, I was definitely a little disappointed. The waiter was sweet enough to come over and ask what I thought about all the dishes and I told him quite honestly that I loved the meat dishes and was pleasantly surprised that the unplanned Monkfish dish was so good, but judging from my untouched ‘Pho’ he could see it definitely hadn't been the greatest of successes.
I guess I have always thought that Vietnamese food is a combination of fresh flavours, fresh ingredients and lots of heat from chillies and depth from spices. I don’t feel Viet Grill was a true reflection of the slice of Vietnam that I was after. However there is still hope, as their more authentic sister restaurant in Hoxton ‘Cay Tre’ is incredibly popular with queues outside the door! So why didn’t I go there? I was sucked in by the contemporary décor and slick menu…. Proof that you should never judge a book by its cover! How ‘Hanoi-ing’… Get it?