Vietnam has one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the world and is one of the few countries I keep returning to particularly for its food.
Closer to home, I have been heading to Kingsland Road for my fix of Vietnamese food and have become Song Que’s indisputably “Number 1 Fan” in the last few years. I had resigned myself to its scary plastic lobsters and unfriendly service. If only I could taste its magnificent pho soup - all would be forgiven.
It is all about the food, and although I do not believe Asian cooking should necessarily be “cheap”, I certainly do not want to pay a premium for the sake of trendier decor. I have thus viewed the recent smartening up of some of the restaurants on Kingsland Road with a little caution.
It was with these thoughts in mind that Dr G and I went to the newly re-opened Viet Grill on Kingsland Road. Despite getting a complimentary meal offered by its PR machine, I feared I might dislike this restaurant.
It was a Friday evening at 8pm when we arrived and the restaurant was buzzing. Despite the long queue of customers, we were soon shown to our table. First impressions were good – front-of-house staff were friendly and polite, the restaurant had been painted with a beautiful design of banana leaves and decorated with some nice touches like wooden bird cages, a beautiful aquarium and some modern but discreet lighting.
Tables were positioned very close together and we soon struck up a conversation with a delightful couple “Olivia and Moosa” who were sitting next to us. They were regulars at Viet Grill and were very positive about the food despite being a bit weary of the high density of diners the restaurant catered for at any one time.
Our starters did not take long to come; these included “Mango Salad” (sun-dried squid, Viet mint, peanuts, mango) @ £7. I was delighted by this, and loved the flavour and unusual consistency of the sun-dried squid. It was a deliciously refreshing salad with some interesting flavours and started the evening on a good note.
The “Piggy Grilled Aubergine” (spring onions, minced pork in tangy sweet and sour sauce) @ £5.50 was the next starter and, in my opinion, was one of the best dishes of the evening. I love aubergines, and the addition of spring onions and pork to a rather delicate and well-balanced sweet and sour sauce made for a very good dish.
This was followed by the “Feudal Roasted Beef” @ £9, a Saigon speciality, this tasted as good and fresh as the ones I remember having in Ho Chi Min City.
A “Mixed House Platter” @ £7 per person was served next containing Mango Salad, Imperial Spring Rolls, Fresh Soft Rolls or Goi Cuon, Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaves & Chilli Salt and Peppered Squid. I always order goi cuon and beef in betel leaves whenever eating at Vietnamese restaurants, and Viet Grill’s did not disappoint. The Fresh Rolls had just the right amount of vermicelli, herbs and prawns, and were fresh and delicious.
This is one of the simplest dishes on any decent Vietnamese menu, and can be prepared well in advance. If prepared too early and not stored, it can smell and taste of the refrigerator. This was not a problem at Viet Grill. Fresh Rolls are also great to be made at home and served as canapes if you can master the softening and wrapping of rice paper sheets. I would recommend practicing it thoroughly before your guests arrive!
The first main dish was “Viet Quail Curry” (with aubergine, crunchy okra, coconut and spicy curry sauce) @ £8. This was unusually spicy for a Vietnamese dish but had some interesting flavours and textures coming through from the crunchy okra and quail meat. It was not an easy dish to share as the quail was served whole and on the bone.
The other main dish was “Slow Cooked Mekong Catfish” (poached in caramelised fish sauce, simmered in a clay pot and finished with cracked pepper and fresh chilli) @ £7.50. Viet Grill’s description which I quote above in brackets was very apt but it does not do justice to this fantastic dish – the sauce was deliciously sweet and salty and gave the dish a richness I had not yet tasted, complementing the fish perfectly. By far the best main of the evening and one I will make sure to order again.
I love having my food prejudices challenged in this way, and this time, I am pleased to admit that Viet Grill came up trumps. Most dishes on the menu were more sophisticated and authentically Vietnamese than other restaurants in the area with very friendly and helpful service.