Monthly Archives: February 2010
When I was a child, we always had prints of famous paintings on various of the walls at home. It’s little wonder I grew up with a taste for things French (including a certain man), because most of these prints were of works by French painters – from Chardin to Lautrec.
One of my favourites was the depiction of a nineteenth century couple walking along a Paris street in the rain. The man holds up a large black umbrella to shield the pair against the downpour and the streets are cobbled in that tell-tale European way, evoking daydreams of times of yore. I always loved looking at a particular building in the background, which is shaped like a piece of pie, the point of which is aimed directly at the viewer. “Why would an architect make a building that shape?” I’d ask, “To fit the parcel of land, I suppose, but it’s not very practical. How on earth would you furnish the triangular rooms in the point?” No one ever had an answer for me, but it didn’t matter one jot. I loved that painting regardless of the fact that I didn’t understand the reasoning behind triangular buildings, or why the beautiful woman wears black. Had she and her husband been to a funeral? Or perhaps were they in mourning? Regardless, as an artistic device their sombre clothes match well the drizzle of the day. Yes, it was likely that they were sad about something and that gave me yet another mystery to ponder.
Gustave Caillebotte was the artist responsible for this work, named ‘Rue de Paris; temps de pluie’, or ‘Rainy Day in Paris’, the original of which now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Those In The Know refer to Caillebotte as an impressionist, yet there’s a realism in his work that the Seurats and Monets lack. Caillebotte’s paintings are like snapshots of the époque in which he lived. You could almost walk into them, they’re so lifelike.
Given my interest in Caillebotte you can imagine my excitement when Monsieur’s Maman suggested lunch at the Parc Caillebotte in Yerres. Caillebotte had been born into a well-to-do Parisian family that spent many of their summers at the family property in Yerres, a small town on the Yerres River, to the south of Paris. This property has been named Parc Caillebotte for its former owners and appears in various of Caillebotte’s paintings, such as Les Oragers (The Orange Trees).
Le Casin at Parc Caillebotte
The ‘Mairie’, or Mayor’s office, for Yerres has invested much time and effort in restoring the Parc to create a leisure destination which successfully blends culture, relaxation, and natural beauty, whilst celebrating the work of its famous son. Sadly, it was a grey February day when we made our visit to the Parc, but that didn’t detract from its interest. The large, white Caillebotte family house known as ‘le Casin’ stands proud at the entrance to the Parc. It is home to two permanent exhibitions, but was closed when we visited. Outside, there are various buildings of different styles and purposes dotted around the grounds, like the funny little pagoda atop a rockery with grotto beneath. This was also closed but in the summer months it serves as a refreshments kiosk. On a day like this, there was little need for a bottle of something refreshing. The weather was fresh enough.
Down by the river, there’s a long, white orangery with outdoor seats, where a couple of local dames sat and gossiped, quite oblivious to the chill in the air. Monsieur’s Maman told us that further afield lay a chapel and vegetable garden, but we all agreed that, on this occasion, it was too cold to hang about and explore. Warm interiors beckoned.
“It’s true, I swear. Marie-Claude buys the Chinese escargots. Quelle horreur!”
At the Parc I did, however, talk to the animals again. There are hens of all descriptions and a pair of flopsy white rabbits in a large chicken coop behind the Parc’s restaurant, Chalet du Parc, so I clucked at them and they clucked back and Monsieur’s Maman must then have realised that her son is marrying a madwoman. As for Monsieur, well, he’s just used to it. His ears are now deaf to my clucking sounds.
I loved these cotton wool hens with their little blue faces. And so did the four year-old next to me!
One day, when the sun shines and the arctic air has gone, I hope we will all return to the Parc Caillebotte. There are the exhibitions to see, naturally, but on the Halcyon day that I imagine, we won’t want to linger indoors. We’ll buy cold drinks at the Pagoda kiosk, picnic on the broad lawn and then perhaps rent a couple of canoes to paddle up and down the river, just like the man in Caillebotte’s painting, ‘Les Périssoires sur l’Yerres’ (‘Oarsmen on the Yerres). To that day I do look forward, very much indeed, but first I should really tell you all about LUNCH.
As the Vietnamese crow flies, Ha Long Bay looks like a short enough distance from Hanoi (170km), but when you take into account the intermittent traffic and terrible roads en route, it takes a good four hours to get there, one way. Monsieur and I weren’t to be dissuaded from visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site, however. We’d already marvelled at its natural beauty, both captured in photographs and as a location for films such as Indochine. With a name meaning ‘Descending Dragon’ and its maze of limestone karsts and islets spread across more than 1500 square kilometres, we were now determined to see it for ourselves.
Sure enough, the drive was long, but well worth the subsequent fatigue. Our guide had booked us our very own junk to take us around part of the Bay and we were fascinated to see one of the five floating fishing villages of the area.
In total, the population of Ha Long Bay clocks in at around 1600 people. They’re sustained by the Bay’s own micro-economy, which includes capture fishing, pearl cultivation and tourism. These people are water people. They live on water and make their living from it. Our guide told us that some of the fishing village inhabitants have never set foot on the mainland. My jaw dropped at that little nugget of information, because it was so unexpected. Yet, looking around us, we could see that these fisher folk were at complete ease here. Perhaps the thought of a mainland with cars and roads and traffic and land-lubbing ways was too much for them. Everything they needed was here: on, in or around the water. Why leave?
The scale of some of the islets dwarfed the little floating villages, making their inhabitants look like insects. As we passed this house, we watched this chap enjoying a quiet beer. Judging by the wealth of his catch, already organised in a grid of plastic containers, he deserved a break. The freshly-painted balustrade, doors and window surrounds showed that this fisherman wasn’t just industrious; he was house-proud, too.
It was only our second day in Vietnam, but we could already see that it was never too young to learn about commerce. Here, a mother and her tiny daughter row across the Bay together, going from boat to boat selling snacks and soft drinks. Their business was a mobile floating shop.
Here’s another floating shop, this time stocked with various fruit and vegetables – a floating green grocer’s.
This aspect of Ha Long Bay was an eye-opener. It made me consider all the things we take for granted in a regular life on land and wonder about how they translated into life on the water. Was there a water doctor to call when your child fell ill? Would you learn to swim in a bay where your childish feet could touch the bottom? Or would you be literally thrown in at the deep end, and learn with the fish? How could you hide a burgeoning romance from curious parents when everyone lives at such close quarters? What would you do if you were born allergic to Neptune’s spoils.
Fortunately, Monsieur and I don’t have fish allergies (apart from the memory of a Killer Oyster that once caused me intense discomfort), for the crew on board the junk had prepared us lunch and much of it had been fished by the dwellers of Descending Dragon Bay.
(Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City)
Monsieur and I had seen how dense Hanoi traffic was and we’d had a brief lesson on how to cross the road from the caring concierge at the Metropole Hotel. Now we just had to do it. Easier said than done.
You see, the traffic just keeps coming. It doesn’t stop or slow; it swerves to miss hitting you. As for pedestrian crossings, they exist but are mere suggestions. Sometimes the traffic will stop at a red light, but from what we could see there’s no guarantee. After a fortnight in Vietnam, we would be experts at street crossing, but for now we just had to do it once without becoming Vietnamese road kill.
In spite of the concierge’s encouraging words about using corners where possible to cross and following a local human shield, it’s not for the faint-hearted to take that first step into the road and trust that the last thing on any motorcyclist’s mind is wiping bits of dead tourist off his front wheel.
That first day in Hanoi, Monsieur and I waited at a corner near the hotel. We watched for the break in the traffic that never came. Finally, heart in mouth and with a quick prayer launched skyward, we left the kerb and kept going. “Don’t hesitate,” the concierge had told us, “it’s dangerous to hesitate. Once you start walking, don’t stop until you get to the other side.” We heeded his words and obviously lived to tell the tale, but upon my word, it was terrifying . Crossing the road Vietnam-style goes against everything you’re taught when small. Look left, look right, look around. Forget it all. Don’t look at anything, just walk and have faith in your fellow human beings not to squish you.
As we walked, the traffic swooped around us, not slowing, but buzzing as it passed on by. On the other side of the road, I realised I’d held my breath. Heart racing, I opened my mouth and swallowed lots of humid Hanoi air.
As with learning many new skills, the first time is often the hardest. This was the case with street crossing in Vietnam. We quickly learned to shadow the locals who were crossing the same roads and mimicked them, walking steadily without stopping, trusting everyone on wheels to miss us. Looking back, I’ve had more serious near-misses with mopeds in Naples, but Naples was not on my mind in Vietnam.
So if you ever find yourself in Vietnam, you will have to re-learn your road-crossing rules. Do as we did and you’ll be fine. Take a local human shield where possible, walk steadily and straight and do not stop. With a bit of luck you will reach the other side. Again and again and again.
(The Sofitel Legend Metropole exterior – colonial style at its best)
Driving into central Hanoi is like entering a battleground of traffic and people. The broad avenues invite seas of mopeds and cyclos and bicycles to fill them, with all the noise and hustle that goes with a dense population getting about on zippy two-wheeled vehicles. No matter how prepared you may be for your first visit to Hanoi, it will still come as a sensory overload. After such a long journey to reach Hanoi, our first Vietnamese destination, Monsieur and I decided to buffer ourselves against potential culture shock by making reservations at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, near the Hanoi Opera House and a short walk from picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake.
(The lobby in the Opera Wing)
This is a hotel with history. The Metropole was built in 1901 and for the past century has witnessed the comings and goings of presidents, politicians, actors and writers. For many of the past hundred years, it has been considered one of the best hotels in Hanoi. Monsieur and I were interested to note that both Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand were listed as former guests, Graham Greene penned part of ‘The Quiet American’ at the Metropole, and the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Robert de Niro and Cathérine Deneuve have graced its corridors. During the American War, correspondents and diplomats used the Metropole as their base, and in 1992 Sofitel reopened this Hanoi landmark following extensive restoration.
Our expectations were understandably high as our taxi pulled over in front of the hotel, standing like a large, white oasis of calm in the midst of hectic Hanoi. The building was trademark colonial in style, with evergreen shutters at each window and a pair of vintage cars parked by its entrance, one of which was a beautiful old Metropole Citroen Traction.
(Olde worlde telephones are found in both lobby areas)
In the lobby, we noted the wood panelling and old-fashioned ceiling fans as we were greeted by staff in suits or flowing white Ao Dai, the graceful tunic and trouser sets that form part of the traditional dress of Vietnam. “Bonjour Monsieur! Bonjour Madame!” they chirped eagerly. Quite naturally, or so we thought, Monsieur and I replied to such greetings in French, but we were rewarded with blank stares of miscomprehension. Certainly, French used to be widely spoken in Vietnam, but nowadays English has taken over. French is only really spoken amongst French visitors or by the older generation who learned the language under French rule. Still, we gave the staff ten out of ten for trying, and wondered if Sofitel might give them some in-house French-for-hospitality lessons. They’re part of a French hotel group, after all, so it couldn’t hurt.
(Night table in Opera Wing room)
I’d hoped we’d be staying in the colonial wing, but on arrival we were upgraded to a room in the modern Opera wing to the rear of the hotel. Apparently the rooms are larger there, but the Colonial Wing rooms have ceiling fans and antiques. Would we mind?
To reach the Opera Wing, one of the Ao Dai girls led us past moon cake displays and boutiques and restaurants and old fashioned telephones to a lift up to the executive floor. There we were greeted and seated in the club room and offered tropical juice welcome drinks as we were checked in and our passports taken for police registration. This was certainly civilised. There was an afternoon tea buffet in an adjacent room, where we were encouraged to refuel before tending to the serious business of unpacking. Monsieur and I were only too happy to oblige. There were mini croques monsieurs, tiny tuna rolls, little beef sandwiches, cakes and petits fours aplenty. Here we were in Hanoi Heaven. No traffic required.
(I wish we had a double vanity like this at home!)
Eventually we tore ourselves away from the delicious spread and headed along the corridor to our room. It was huge, decorated in an exotically modern-meets-traditional style, with swirly mosaics in the bathroom, black and white photos of the hotel in times of yore, and deep red accents. We’d be sleeping on one of those dreamy, marshmallowy Sofitel beds, all huge and white and soft and just calling out to us to jump on board. The complimentary bottled water was dressed in little black and red tuxedo bottle holders and the sleeping area was separated from the bathroom’s double vanity by sheer curtains swathed elegantly to the side. A touch of romance was a claw-footed bath with a bowl of rose petals located just next to the expansive vanity. Sadly, we wouldn’t have time to try it out, but it was a lovely surprise – both decorative and with purpose. For the time-poor visitor to Hanoi (that was us) there was a glass-walled shower. The loo was separate, as it should be, but elegant though it all was, as there were no solid doors either into or out of the bathroom area, it wouldn’t do for people who demand total privacy for their ablutions.
(Where bedroom meets bathroom)
Back in the bedroom there was a flat screen TV on the wall and two desks – one by the window overlooking the swimming pool and colonial building beyond, the other across a corner near the door. This room was ideal for the high-powered travelling businessperson. And us. In a luxurious hotel room such as this, I almost wished there were nothing of interest to entice me beyond the door.
Alas, this was Hanoi and there was an incredible amount to experience and explore beyond the sanctuary of this hotel, so we braced ourselves for the tidal waves of traffic and went out to see what Hanoi was all about. Before allowing us to leave the hotel, however, the concierge insisted on teaching us how to cross the road. Funny. I really thought I’d finished with those lessons at the age of five.
(The claw-footed bath with requisite rose petals. Rose petals? How very decadent! We’ll be bathing in milk next…)
(Hoan Kiem Lake in Central Hanoi. Don’t be fooled by how calm it looks; there are tens of thousands of mopeds buzzing around its perimeter!)
Flying into Hanoi saw my nose pressed firmly against the window, craning to view the Red River in all its glory. With such a bird’s eye view it was possible to see why it had been named ‘Red’, for the earth colours it a rich terracotta. It is a mighty beast, this river, and cannot be trusted. It certainly feeds the agriculture of the region but also floods regularly, causing havoc and destruction.
Back on the ground we were soon inside the airport, where we had our first proper taste of Vietnamese bureaucracy whilst waiting for our visas. They’d already been approved through an online visa agency but could only be issued in person, so here we were. A wordless attendant gestured at us to hand over our passports and complete another form, which only replicated information already given through the visa agency. Then he waved us around to the other end of a glass-walled office to pay the 50 USD processing fee and retrieve our passports. Flipping through the pages we checked that they contained our visas, which they did, but with our surnames first and middle names second. I guess they don’t understand how our names work, but in any other country, getting the names muddled could result in the document being rendered invalid. Curious.
(Moped rider near the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Many women wear bandannas to protect them against traffic fumes, but also to protect their skin from sun exposure. Light skin is beautiful skin in Vietnam.)
Next we presented our documents at queue-less immigration counters where surly men in uniforms scowled as they stamped our passports. There was a total lack of welcome. You might be forgiven for feeling like an intruder with first impressions like these, but we were so excited to be in Vietnam, at long last, that we dismissed the grumpiness and looked forward to better experiences elsewhere.
Thanks to the time-consuming bureaucracy of immigration, the baggage handlers looked super efficient with all bags waiting for us on the carrousel. Now we just needed cash, so we approached an ATM. There are a lot of zeros involved with the Vietnamese currency, called Vietnamese Dong, so it confused me as I extracted 1.5million Dong, hoping beyond hope that I’d done my calculations correctly and I now held the equivalent of £50.00 in my hand, not £5,000.00 or some other outrageous sum.
Then we negotiated a cool 270,000 Dong for a taxi to our hotel in central Hanoi. It sounds terrifying, to pay 270,000 in any currency for anything less than a super yacht or piece of property. It was, in fact, equivalent to $16.00 USD and the tariff was government-regulated so the haggling wasn’t really necessary; our driver just tried it on a bit. At the end of the fare he was to receive a nice tip, so bless his Vietnamese cotton socks, he shouldn’t have worried so much at the start.
(Traffic in central Hanoi.)
As we left the airport, the road was immediately bumpy with potholes, which are a common issue throughout Vietnam, but I wasn’t interested in how comfortable our ride was; the views around us were attracting my full attention. Not only did the mountains behind us resemble those monochromatic ink-wash paintings found in Chinese restaurants, all around us were women wearing conical hats as they rode their bikes past rice paddies of the sort of vibrant green that tells of fertile land and plenty of precipitation. It was like travelling through an oriental wonderland.
Our driver didn’t seem too confident on the road; his brow bore the concentration furrows of a relatively new driver. We soon stopped for petrol at a service station and I watched one of the female attendants who’d tied a bandanna around her face to protect her from the fumes. She watched me back with smiling eyes and when we left, I waved at her. Her eyes lit up and she returned the wave with vigour. This was more like it: some friendly, smiling faces instead of the surliness back at Hanoi Airport.
(More traffic in central Hanoi. Crossing the road takes some doing in this sort of traffic.)
There weren’t many cars on the road; but it was positively teeming with two-wheeled vehicles, and from time to time we spotted a cart being towed along in the traffic by skinny oxen with horns that could do a lot of damage to a car windscreen, should push come to shove. As we drank in our new surrounds, it amazed us how many people could squeeze onto a tiny moped. Whole families, babies included, seemed able to fit on the one seat. Mopeds and motorcycles were the main form of transport here, carrying everything from people to bamboo cages filled with chickens or other animals destined for market or even the odd oven. If that weren’t a balancing act in itself, then the manoeuvres of the moped riders as they weaved daringly through the heavy traffic or drove out of side streets at right angles into the traffic flow without looking made them the equivalent of two-wheeled contortion artists. For these riders, no gap in the traffic was too small, and the air was alive with the honking of horns. This was one busy city and it was easy to think that it might just never slow down.
(Mopeds really DO go everywhere in Hanoi.)
We were now approaching central Hanoi. The houses lining the main thoroughfare on which we were travelling were tall and skinny. Many of them operated businesses from their ground floor room. We saw Pho bars, coffin makers, grocery shops and florists. Hairdressers had the freedom of the footpaths. Intrigued, we noticed that they set up shop by hanging a mirror on a wall and placing a chair for their clients on the footpath. Mounds of shorn hair grew from the ground around the chairs populated by a clientele who seemed perfectly happy to be groomed in public. Vietnam was already full of surprises yet we’d only been here for a short while. In any case, Monsieur and I were happy about that, because different was exactly what we’d signed up for when we decided to visit this fascinating country and different it was certainly proving to be.
It doesn’t seem to matter that Viet Grill is located a good twenty minute trek from the nearest tube station; last Friday evening saw it bursting at the seams and I’m quite certain it wasn’t Rent-a-Crowd. Monsieur and I were there to review this well-reputed bastion of Vietnamese cuisine in London and, in spite of having a reservation, for a split second I wondered whether we might have to wait to be seated; that’s how busy it was.
We rapidly realised that such fears were ill-founded as a waiter hailed a manager called Nam to look after us. We were soon sitting at a table blessed with elbow room, which looked to be the exception to the rule in this hive of Friday night activity.
Monsieur had already experienced Viet Grill, having dined here with a group of friends last December. I was the Viet Grill virgin in our party but this did not hold me back. As I checked out the recently-refurbished interior with feature fish tank embedded in one wall and a neon-lit shrine above the bar, Nam reappeared to ask whether we would like to choose our own dishes or would we trust him to order on our behalf. Before Monsieur could blink I had committed us both to Selection by Nam. Yes, Viet Grill’s staff knew I was there and why, but I was curious to see which dishes they thought would please us the most, especially as I’d spent the past couple of days devouring the menu on their website and fantasising about dishes like Saigon Ceviche Lobster and Crab Salad and Wicked Crispy Frog. I wondered, would such things feature as the staff favourites?
The first dish to appear was the Lotus Stem Salad. Described as comprising ‘shredded pork, shrimps, Vietnamese basil, peanuts and lime zest served with a sweet chilli dressing,’ this was a happy confusion of textures – the lotus adding a cool crunch, the pork contrasting in its softness and the overall effect reminiscent of summer by the beach. The Vietnamese basil, lime and chilli added Far Eastern flavour, altogether tangy and tart and hot against the tongue. Every single ingredient was served so fresh that there could have been a seaside farm in the kitchen. Thus far, Monsieur and I were impressed, but would our satisfaction survive the evening? Let’s find out.
(Lotus Stem Salad)
In addition to selecting the plates now appearing before us, Nam had also chosen our wine. I already knew that Viet Grill had enlisted the services of wine guru, Malcolm Gluck, to match wines to their dishes, and various reviewers before me have found this to be one of the unexpected bonuses of an evening at this Kingsland Road restaurant. Therefore, I was quietly confident that Nam would choose the right bottle for us, but when a Gewurztraminer appeared, my heart sank. Monsieur and I usually steer clear of this grape variety, as it tends to be too sweet and fruity for our taste. Choosing to trust Nam’s judgement, however, paid dividends. The Hunawihr Gewurztraminer Reserve d’Alsace (2007) matched particularly well with everything we ate that evening, especially as Vietnamese food tends to include a sweet element somewhere within. To its credit, our Gewurztraminer sang along with the food without being a diva. That is, its zesty flavour was complementary to the food without being overpowering. Thus far, it was a perfect match.
A plate of Beef Vinh arrived next, followed by Chicken Royale. I’m not the world’s biggest carnivore, but when Monsieur tried the Beef Vinh he described it as “so soft, it’s like eating cotton.” I couldn’t resist, so tried a piece of the beef that had arrived in kebab-style sans-skewer, slivered and rolled before being charcoal grilled and served in bite-size chunks. A dipping sauce next to it was later identified as fermented soy and although adding a dash of something extra, it wasn’t really needed because the beef was so tender and flavoursome, thanks to the addition of five spice, that it was stand-alone melt-in-mouth joy to our taste buds.
As for the Chicken Royale, Monsieur gobbled up his share with relish. He’d ordered this dish on his previous visit and thoroughly enjoyed it on both occasions. Slightly sweet, the chicken is free range (thank the Lord, because happy hens are tasty hens) marinated in cinnamon and fresh herbs before being roasted and dressed in a soy broth, giving it an almost honeyed flavour. Apart from adding to the taste, the marinade also gives the chicken a deep golden shine, so not only does it taste good, this chicken looks as royal as its name on its simple bed of house salad.
A word about the salad garnishes at Viet Grill – there’s no floppy lettuce here. Everything tasted as if it was just plucked from a homestead’s vege patch, rinsed in spring water and shaken dry before landing on the plate. Surely to get such a simple thing as garnish so very right shows that the people in the kitchen care about their produce and attention to detail. Whoever supplies Viet Grill with its ingredients is someone I’d dearly like to supply my fridge at home.
The next surprise to arrive was a whole oven-baked mackerel, eyes and fins and all. It had been marinated in lemongrass and wrapped in banana leaves, according to the menu. A waitress boned it deftly at the table, leaving us to dig in, which we did repeatedly. Mackerel is quite an oily fish, so often seen in the form of smoked fillets on supermarket shelves. This was a whole new take on mackerel for me. Mouths full, Monsieur and I hummed our happiness back and forth at each other across the table as we demolished the entire fish, leaving only head, tail and a few random bones behind. The lemongrass had imbued the flesh with a delicate, sweet perfume and the skin was so perfectly cooked that it lacked the usual slippery sensation that the skin of an oily fish so often has, and, without being cremated beyond edibility, the skin instead had a fine crispness to it meaning that we ate most of that, too.
Nam interrupted us part-way through our mackerel munch-fest to ask how we liked our meal. “The mackerel is delicious!” we enthused. “I know.” he agreed, “I take it home twice a week for dinner for me and my girlfriend.” If I lived closer to Viet Grill, I’d do exactly the same as Nam and take this fish home often. Not only is it good for you (mackerel is rich in Omega 3s), Viet Grill has a take-away menu so if you don’t want to dine in, you can have this dish at home for an unbelievable £8.00 (it costs £9.00 if you eat in; a fact that Monsieur and I cannot quite fathom because it’s such unbelievable value for such a sizeable and delicious fish).
Which brings me onto pricing. Considering the quality of what Monsieur and I were trying at Viet Grill, none of it would break the bank. And if you are still hardened against spending your hard-earned beans in these tough economic times, there’s a two-course Recession Set Meal for £9.50 per person. For soups, pho and One Dish Meals, if you dine before 3.00pm you can do so for £5.00 a plate (or large bowl) in these categories. The wine may set you back a few quid, but if you check out the retail prices on the internet, you’d be surprised that the restaurant mark-ups are so modest here.
Monsieur and I took it in turns to visit the restaurant conveniences in the basement, amazed to find another dining room below with even larger feature aquarium and yet more pho-slurping patrons. The loos were Ally MacBeal-style, that is, unisex, but the layout meant that this was not a problem if you prefer a bit of space between you and the opposite sex when you tinkle. The cubicles are spacious, with ledges for handbags which are great for people with O.C.D. about loo floors, all the fittings are brand new, and the colour scheme is a crisp white and olive green with dark wood accents. The only thing I’d mention is that the floor is slippery when wet, so take care, especially if you’re onto your second bottle of Gewurztraminer, as we were.
Now we just had to do our best with a Vietnamese dessert. Nam recommended tapioca cake, and sensing that The Blogger and her companion were close to maximum stomach capacity, brought just the one with two spoons. That was very considerate of him. The last time Monsieur and I ate tapioca was at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. That day it was simply prepared, served with a peanut and sugar dip that became a magnet for all sorts of wasps and jungle insect life. The Viet Grill tapioca cake was bright green and gelatinous to the point of being a bit rubbery. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of nuts, it was perfectly pleasant, but lacked in the va-va-voom of the other dishes we’d tried. Having travelled through Vietnam, Monsieur and I know that Vietnamese sweets can often be a bit alien to Westerners, so we didn’t allow this minor blip to colour our views of the evening. For all we know, a Vietnamese connoisseur of tapioca pudding might deem this a fine example but for us it was akin to eating a sweetly perfumed eraser.
Unfortunately, the Vietnamese coffee was also a slight disappointment, tasting a little like a Westernised version of the usual coffee poured over ice with condensed milk. It was still sweet andchocolatey, which is what I so love about Vietnamese coffee, but for some reason the Viet Grill version made us think of Starbucks frappuccino, so next time we’ll probably end with the Iced Jasmine Tea, just for a change. Besides, I adore the subtlety of jasmine tea but have never tried it iced before. It sounds like a glassful of eastern exoticism. Alas, there’s only so much one stomach will take in a sitting.
On our way out we waited to thank Nam, who’d disappeared into his back-of-house domain. As a waiter helped me to track him down, he allowed me to poke my head into the kitchen. This was where our fine meal had been prepared and was a revelation. Brightly lit with work surfaces that could well be used to advertise kitchen cleaning products, the chef’s team was busy at work – chopping, steaming, plating, stirring and more. In spite of it being 10.30pm, they didn’t look anywhere close to slowing down. Back in the dining room, a few tables were now free but the space remained close to full.
Then, there was Nam, asking how we’d found our Viet Grill experience. We thanked him for a thoroughly enjoyable evening and asked him to pass on our thanks to the other staff who’d cared for us so efficiently throughout the evening. Then we sent our compliments to the chef/s, commending in particular the mackerel, which Monsieur and I then talked about all the way home.
Yes, Monsieur and I will gladly return to Viet Grill. We highly recommend the Lotus Salad, Chicken Royale, Vinh Beef and Oven-baked Mackerel. If you follow in our footsteps, just make sure you order those dishes and you’ll leave happy. As for me, next time I’d be tempted to try that Wicked Crispy Frog, mostly because the name alone makes me smile, but partly because I’ve never before eaten frog and would like to try it, just the once.
Even though I didn’t meet him, I must now extend my thanks to the owner of Viet Grill, Hieu Trung Bui, who offered me the chance to review his establishment. Thank you, Hieu. I have a feeling we’ll be back for more mackerel, soon, because just thinking about it makes me dribble onto my keyboard. With food of such quality, at such reasonable prices, you can Viet Grill me, any day.
Follow VietGrill on Twitter: @caytrevietgrill
Or visit their website for more information: http://www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk/