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/