Tuesday, 6 April 2010
Viet Grill, Kingsland Road
Mien Tay Battersea is a wonderful restaurant, serving spectacular food at miniscule prices, with staff so smiley and warm you want to take them home with you. It would be a wonderful restaurant anywhere in London, of course, but as I've mentioned before, its location on Lavender Hill is nothing short of a miracle, and has probably single-handedly raised the nearby house prices to a statistically significant degree. But it's too easy to forget that back where it all began for Vietnamese food in London, on the Kingsland Road in the East End, there are a selection of restaurants who regularly give Mien Tay a run for its money, and fuel the virtuous circle of competition and higher standards that we've come to expect from this most exciting and satisfying of cuisines. One of these restaurants is the Viet Grill.
Unusually for reviews on this blog, this isn't my first visit to the Viet Grill. I usually try and write up places after a first visit, which is perhaps not a completely fair method (to say the least) but is at least consistent, and I estimate I've eaten here well over twenty times since I discovered it a couple of years ago. Other than a lick of paint and the occasional change of staff, though, not a great deal has changed, so I hope this is as reliable a review as any other I've posted. Not very, in other words. But here we go anyway.
If there's one thing that the Vietnamese can do better than anyone else, it's a salad. It's mainly a texture thing - the combination a multitude of ingredients that go pop, crunch, squish and splosh, all on one plate, is addictive and unique, as far as I can tell, to these kinds of restaurants. This mango salad contained fragrant Thai basil, tasty shoots of (I think) lotus stem, a couple of hits of bright red chilli and - best of all - crunchy tubes of salty dried squid tentacles, and it all worked together perfectly. All the fresh, fragrant ingredients not only made an incredibly tasty dish but even made you feel like you were doing yourself good when eating it. And you can't often say that.
Crispy spring rolls were perhaps quite a tame choice (we had eaten the delicious summer rolls on many previous visits and fancied a change) but were deftly fried and had a greaseless crunch. They came with a thin, vinegary chilli dip which was a cut above your average gloopy sweet sauce, as you'd expect.
This beautiful, tender, charcoal-seared 'Feudal roasted beef' was at £9 one of the more expensive starters, but boy do you get your money's worth. First of all, the sheer quantity of it, which would by most restaurants standards be a good main course portion, and also, the beef itself was superb, powerfully marinated and served with an umami-rich soy dressing.
I didn't know what to make of the Saigon pork belly dish when it first arrived - it looked challenging to say the least, the huge cubes of fat wobbling provocatively in the caramelised coconut sauce. But on tasting, all was forgiven. I admit to separating the majority of the fat from the meat and leaving it uneaten - there was too much of it even for me - but the coconut sauce was rich and moreish and the stewed pork pieces had fantastic strong flavour.
Along with a couple of bowls of steamed rice (which I used to soak up the rest of the pork coconut sauce) and a couple of glasses of wine, the final bill came to £20 each, perhaps slightly more than the same meal might have been at Mien Tay but in nicer surroundings and with certainly a comparable level of cooking. Kingsland Road is a fine example of what can happen when restaurants all compete on the same style of cuisine, and instead of trying to survive by slashing ingredient costs and employing pushier fronts of house (a la Brick Lane) instead try to outdo each other by serving better food. It's the way it should work and yet so rarely does. And the results speak for themselves.