Category Archives: Frogs
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/
Monsieur and I left the bowling ball bullfrog behind on Clarke Quay as we jumped on a bumboat (a.k.a. junk) to take us up the Singapore River. It was late afternoon grey as our almost empty boat set off from the jetty. Up the green river we went, under the pedestrian Riverwalk bridge and adjacent North Bridge Road, heavy with traffic, then on past a bustling Boat Quay already busy with diners at its myriad eateries.
The stunning Fullerton Hotel, rival to Raffles, impressed in full Palladian splendour at its prime position on the river as we motored on by. We doubled back near Merlion Park where a 70 tonne mythical animal (head of lion, body of fish) stands guarding the river. (This beast is called a ‘merlion’, hence the park’s name.) Close by, the skyscrapers of the business district loomed large above us, the neon signs of the world’s biggest banks recognisable against the now darkening sky, but it was difficult to take photos as the boat churned and chugged on the busy river. Every image blurred.
En route back to our starting point, we passed the Raffles Landing Site, with an impressive statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (July 6 1781 – July 5 1826), himself, looking down on us, specks on the water. He was the acknowledged father of Singapore as we know it, but outside of this island nation is probably best known for the hotel of his name. A little further along we saw the colonial style of Old Parliament House next to the stark modern equivalent before returning to Clarke Quay and its Friday night revellers.
We alighted at the same platform where we’d left the bowling ball bullfrog and I was hoping to see him again, but I guess it was his Friday night, too, so he’d no doubt gone for a Bud – weis – errrrrrrrrrr.
As we walked along Clarke Quay, we noticed the many different styles of restaurant luring people out for a treat. There was the eponymous select-your-dinner-from-the-tank type of eatery, next to ethno-cool, with traditional Chinese dining rooms standing, lanterns waving, in between. Perched riverside were the off-shoot bars of some of the hipper restaurants, smart square umbrellas raised lest rain should threaten a steamy night of cocktails by the water. One such place heaved with be-suited boys from the C.B.D., attracted, no doubt, by the waitresses – slim Chinese beauties sporting bright orange hot pants. Monsieur’s jaw hit the floor but I refrained from hitting him. Just.
We wandered across the pedestrian Riverwalk Bridge before jumping around in the unpredictable traffic, of which there was much, as we crossed North Bridge Road to reach Boat Quay. This would be a great place for Jackie Chan (or similar) to practise his flying side kicks and avoidance leaps with the Singapore cabs. It’s crazy! Eventually we made it, breathless but alive (amazingly) with appetites. Following a trail of tantalising cooking aromas we found Boat Quay soon enough, a total change from Clarke Quay. The two are like chalk and cheese (or should I say ‘rice and noodles’?) The former is tourist trap central, replete with laminated point-and-order menu boards and eateries battling over patronage; the latter is confident cool with maitre d’s who’d never dream of hustling you in off the street. Reservations are the way forward on that side of the river.
On Boat Quay we had to fight our way along the path separating the restaurants from their outdoor seating areas. Had I had a sword, I would have swashbuckled. It was so crowded with touts and meandering tour groups that the grabbing hands and immovable clusters of people who thought nothing of stepping into your personal space deserved a clunk on the head with my mighty (imaginary) sword.
“Free bottle of wine! Free bottle of wine with dinner!” implored one tenacious tout, waving a menu at my nose. “You eat here, I give you free bottle!” We marched on but the tout remained unfazed. “TWO free bottles, I give you TWO free…” Pushing ourselves clear of the mania, Monsieur and I recovered by sitting awhile on a piece of clear embankment at the end of the food strip. We breathed deeply, watching the comings and goings on the Singapore River before retreating to Clarke Quay.
In the end we dined at a restaurant called Indochine, a stunning glass-fronted restaurant and bar which has been built into the sensitively restored Empress Place Building, now housing the Asian Civilisations Museum just by Raffles Landing. Had it not been so rainy, we might have sat on the waterfront terrace, but the outdoor tables were damp and deserted, so inside we went.
Our fellow patrons formed a microcosm of cosmopolitan Singapore: mixed couples enjoying quiet têtes à têtes, boozy bankers watching football on plasma screens above the bar, large groups of business associates from the four corners of the globe relaxing after a conference, and keen foodie tourists like ourselves. It was all so vibrant. The waitstaff were also noteworthy as they managed a perfect level of attentiveness without being intrusive. As we filled up on fresh spring rolls and (more) soft-shelled crab, I marvelled at the stunning Buddhist art hanging on a rear wall, and pondered how great the equilibrium was in this place. There was old and new, young and old, modern and traditional, all existing quite happily together.
As we finished eating, I felt one of those waves of uncontrollable emotion, that we females of the species are so prone to get. At least this time it was based in positivity; this trip was making me feel very, very lucky for all sorts of reasons. As my eyes filled involuntarily, Monsieur stared at me with furrowed brow. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied, “We’re just so lucky to be here,” I smiled at him as a tear plopped down my cheek. Monsieur looked back at me with that face that says ‘Women. How do you ever expect us to understand you when you do weird things like cry because you’re happy?’
Back at the hotel we were keen to celebrate our last night in Singapore with a drink at the Blu Bar on the 24th floor. The bar’s name comes from the bar itself, an island in the centre of the room, backlit with cool azure blue. As we teetered on stools at a window table, an energetic barman added percussion to the eighties music as he shook cocktails to the beat. Most of the patrons around us were businessmen, ties loosened or absent, easily beguiled into ‘just one more’ by the waitress, a stunning girl who’d been poured into her black cheongsam. A slit rose up one of her thighs, just short of being indecent, but you couldn’t question her work ethic. She flitted from table to bar and back to table, quietly reproaching anyone who pushed the boundaries of flirting as she repeatedly cleared and served whilst ensuring that no one was left unattended.
Monsieur and I sipped on Long Island Iced Teas as we chatted about adventures achieved and adventures yet to come, looking out at the vista of the dark Botanical Gardens and the lights of a distant port. The Power of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (cue brown paper bag) played, instantly transported me to 1985 – I’d stopped biting my nails and knew every song on The American Top Forty. Isn’t it strange how music can do that?
Back in our room, lights off, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I could hear Monsieur across the huge bed. “Darling, he said, perhaps everything’s good now because you deserve it.”
That night, I was Conway in Shangri La.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.
Today Monsieur and I swam before breakfast. Down at the pool it was raining hard and an attendant wearing bright orange gators stopped us before we could swim. “If there’s thunder or lightning, you must get out of the pool EE-ME-DEE-AT-LEE.” he stressed each syllable and looked us hard in the eyes to be sure we’d understood. We assured him we had, thankful in part for such horrible weather as it gave us the pool to ourselves. As we started to lap back and forth, I pondered the attendant’s warning and the penny finally dropped. Oh hell. We could apparently be electrocuted if a lightning strike hit the pool with us in it. Looking up at the Garden Wing where flowers spilled from each room’s individual balcony, I figured there were worse ways to go.
With a soggy behind creating an attractive wet patch in my shorts, we went for a buffet breakfast at The Line. In spite of our unkempt post-sporting look, a maitre d’ still took the time to show us the various options – similar to the Biba’s set-up in KL with the addition of a pancake station. Decision made – pancakes it was, with fresh strawberries and maple syrup. Yum, scrum. Meanwhile, I watched, fascinated, as Japanese tourists flocked around the Japanese food island, Brits went for their full English, size-zero American women nibbled on fruit and businessmen filled themselves up on porridge or pastries.
Later that morning we visited Chinatown. The grey sky and intermittent downpours only increased the dramatic impact of the zig-zags of red lanterns moving back and forth across the streets. Huge signs bearing Chinese characters were all around us. Souvenir shops spilled onto the street, their plasticky wares and pirate DVDs of martial arts greats sheltering beneath make-shift tarpaulins. Cheongsams of all sizes flapped with the wind and baskets of Durian fruit sat on grocery stalls, their smell diffused by the stormy air.
Escaping the rain, Monsieur and I decided to learn more about this area of Singapore by paying a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Our leaflet described it perfectly: “a…time capsule of the Chinatown of old.” Within the themed rooms, set up to show gambling dens, tailor shops and living quarters, monitors showed documentary footage of Chinatown’s former residents. Their stories told of the hardships in China, pushing them to leave and seek better opportunities in Singapore. Families separated in the hope that more income would help their loved ones in the villages at home. However, there was a dark side. Many men fell prey to vice as loneliness saw them seeking comfort with prostitutes who often infected them with STDs. Opium addiction was also rife as people battled homesickness with the numbing effect of this popular drug.
Back outside, we were surrounded by the signs of healthy commerce in the Singaporean Chinese community. From humble beginnings here, they certainly seem to be thriving at all levels now. The high rises of big business climbed into the sky next to older buildings where small merchants prospered in retail. The rain splashed down on us in bucketloads. My shoes leaked water in to squelch around my toes and took a couple of days to dry out. We sheltered next to the Sri Mariamman Temple until a break in the weather afforded us time to get back to the beautifully named Da Dong Restaurant, part of the Fatty Weng group. Don’t you love the names? So evocative. Anyway, lunch at Da Dong was simple Chinese fare – scallops or beef with rice and a Tiger beer each but, most importantly, we managed to dry out a bit while we were there.
After lunch but still squelching, Monsieur shopped for mementoes while I braved a Chinese fortune teller. This was a mixed experience. A lot of what Fortune Teller told me was so wrong she could have been reading Mickey Mouse. She seemed to be trying to fill me with fear that I’d gathered a lot of negative past-life karma, requiring impossible acts of atonement.
“You are not kind. You should use money to be kind.” she suggested,
(If I had any spare, I thought…Monsieur was paying for most of this trip, which I could never have afforded to do on my own, and I was doing my best not to go broke as I chipped in for daily expenses. Besides, what’s all this about not being kind?)
Fortune Teller wasn’t finished yet: “You should find 108 old people and buy them all a new set of clothes. Then cook all the meals for the old people for 49 consecutive days. That’s three meals a day and you must make everything yourself. Only that way will you neutralise your karma.”
I don’t know what she thought I did all day, but Boss certainly was not going to give me 49 days of leave to atone for the sins of my past lives, and even with the advent of Primark, it was going to cost plenty to clothe 108 people. If I completed Fortune Teller’s task, I’d be without money, without job and without marbles. Besides, my friends and family know I’m kind. I didn’t recognise the person she was describing, not one bit. My theory is that somewhere in the numerology she’d made a mistake and created a chart for the wrong person; Jack Nicholson perhaps. Just after happily stating that 2008 would be a bad year for me, bringing lots of tears with it, she suggested I spend SING$500+ on a Tibetan amulet to protect me from harm. Notice anything suspicious about that? Without the amulet and almost two years later, my life is better, not worse than when I met Fortune Teller in Singapore. I think she may have been a few tarot cards short of the full deck.
From ancient fortunes we moved back into 21st Century Singapore. Monsieur loves IT paraphernalia and had been recommended to visit a specialty shopping centre not far from Chinatown, so off we went, but far from being competitively priced, Monsieur felt he’d get a better deal back home. Apart from the basics, I don’t get all the bits and bytes and RAMs and LANs so we didn’t hang out there for long. But being typically Epic, I did find a really good bookshop in the Fu Lan IT Centre. There were various biographies for Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew on the shelves, next to the latest novels and Jules Oliver’s book Minus Nine to One. Those Olivers get everywhere! The bookshop was also a great source of travel magazines, but they would have been too heavy at this stage of the trip, so I tore myself away with a small paperback on Buddhism, instead. Was there anything in Fortune Teller’s recommended atonements? I was keen to find out.
Leaving the boys’ toys behind us, I dragged Monsieur off down the road to Raffles Hotel. It was not possible for us to leave Singapore without visiting Raffles. Besides, I’d visited with my parents as a teenager and wanted to share the family tradition of a gin sling at the Long Bar with my long-suffering Frenchman. Raffles is still a beautiful hotel, exuding colonial charm with its whitewashed verandahs and internal courtyards. The Long Bar, however, has changed a lot since my last visit. If it was called Hard Rock Cafe, Raffles, it would be more appropriate. Thankfully, some of the bar’s character remains unchanged. For instance, there are still peanut shells on the ground in this, the last place in Singapore to allow littering, and there are still slings on the cocktail menu. The waiters still wear long sarongs with high-necked chef shirts and the decor is still that of a Malayan plantation house, with rows of palm-shaped ceiling fans flapping back and forth above the cane furniture. However, the slings are pre-mixed from cocktail formula and taste about as alcoholic as straight orange juice. I was horrified to see that for an extra charge you could take home a souvenir Singapore sling glass and the drinks were expensive enough, thank you very much, considering that they contained about three per-cent alcohol. You’d get more action out of a 10ml shot of cough mixture.
It’s a very different memory I have of coming here in 1989. Our family of four were the only people in the bar that afternoon. We had a table by a window and the quiet to observe the venue so steeped in Singapore’s history. Now we were lucky to get a seat, alongside tables of Birkenstock-wearing tourists, with ripped Def Leppard tee shirts. Once upon a time, this bar had a dress code. I guess I’m getting old.
As we sat flicking our peanut shells, I picked up a Raffles Hotel leaflet. Inside, there were a couple of names that made me smile: The Tiffin Room, apparently the place to go for ‘an international high tea spread’, Ah Teng’s Bakery, another of those wonderful Chinese names, similar to Doc Cheng’s, the Raffles restaurant where the signature dish is ‘Jaggery Cured Ocean Trout’ and ‘Saffron Pineapple Marmalade’ might just tickle the sweet tooth’s tastebuds.
The English influence was also there in the naming of the Empire Café and Jubilee Hall, but as we explored the hotel, Asia was certainly present. We passed an open kitchen in the midst of a courtyard. There, two chefs shook their woks vigorously over dancing flames. Sweat dripped from their faces, but the fact that they could cook in plain view was great for passers-by, like us, and was no doubt preferable to being closeted away in an airless indoor kitchen. We stood and watched them flip and toss and chop and stir, mesmerised by the unexpected culinary display.
Next on the list was a bum boat ride from Clarke Quay. As we walked down the steps to the boat, there on the landing sat a massive bullfrog. He looked at me and I stared at him, but he wasn’t interested in moving. He sat firm, like a door stop. Apparently, in Chinese culture, frogs bring good luck – fertility and prosperity. What an excellent antidote to that horrible fortune earlier in the day! As I looked at the biggest, greenest frog I have ever seen (he was the size of half a bowling ball), I considered his mere presence a sign of great good luck. Fortune Teller could take her calculations and jump in the Singapore River. But then again, just thinking that way has probably brought me more bad karma… and 108 more old people to feed.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.