Hoxton is so painfully trendy it’s as if someone has detonated a bomb packed with art students, fashion graduates and music executives who now scar the peeling buildings and the crumbling facades with the shrapnel of postmodernist cool; old shoe shops incorporate beatnik bars, defunct arcade machines are used as table tops, and somewhat inexplicably, the type of cardigan that one’s grandmother might wear becomes an acceptable – and apparently stylish – garment for young men. But aside from being the most fashionable place in the known universe, Hoxton is also home to the largest Vietnamese community in London, whose quaint local restaurants are now slick interior-designed spaces catering for this modish demographic.
Viet Grill has been a stalwart of the area for many years and with a recent Hoxtonised makeover it’s now busier than ever; it was time to pay them a visit. Like a British colonial invader fruitlessly attempting to assimilate with a crowd in which he’s clearly an outsider, I rocked up to hip Hoxton in a snarling flash-git-yuppie sports car and parked with some difficulty in a gap between an overflowing dustbin and a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style vehicle that looked as if it had just been stretchered back from a theatre of war. I emerged from the shiny cockpit, peering dubiously through Ray-Bans at the surrounding ‘scenery’ and muttering, “Gosh, it’s all rather…urban.”
Passing fashionistas scowled at me, wondering what this Kensington intruder was doing on their turf, while the resident hoodies were planning how quickly they could have my car up on bricks. The only reason I wasn’t instantly set-upon is that a fashionable friend of mine was accompanying me as a diplomatic envoy into Hoxton to ensure my safe passage through these shabby-chic streets. She also happens to be Vietnamese, so I’d get the inside word on how good Viet Grill really is from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
At 7.30pm the dining room was already crammed and being worked adroitly by the sizeable team of waiting staff. To kick off, a salad of crunchy sundried squid, Vietnamese mint, a julienne of mango, chunks of red chilli and a healthy lacing of fish sauce and rice wine vinegar. Each mouthful was an uplifting burst of fresh and exotic flavours with a pleasing background heat, like gorging on handfuls of subtropical vegetation. The perfect dish for a hot summer’s evening. Is this authentic, I asked my friend? Yes, absolutely. Is it good, I asked my friend? Yes, definitely. Am I as trendy as the people sitting next to us? She quickly changed the subject.
Next up, beef vinh; rolled slices of beef fillet marinated in five-spice, charcoal grilled and served with fermented soy sauce. My word was this delicious! So simple yet smoked with the very essence of a fire-pit barbecue on the edge of the Mekong River and packed with more flavour than one would think possible from a humble slice of beef. Was this authentic? Was this good? Yes, she said, it’s very good, it’s very authentic. And no, you wouldn’t suit a vintage cardigan.
For mains we feasted on the ca nuc nuong la chuoi; a whole oven-baked mackerel marinated in lemongrass and wrapped in a banana leaf that fell apart with the prod of a fork, opening up like a flower to reveal the succulent flesh within. For a touch of spice, a chim ca ri quail curry with aubergine and okra. I’ve never had quail in a curry before but my fashionable friend assured me this is very traditional; they eat a lot of quail’s eggs in Vietnam, but don’t tell the Hoxton lot because quail’s eggs are a bit too ‘Holland Park’ for their liking. Both meat and fish were delicately cooked with many layers of flavour, complimented by the stir-fried bo xoi (Chinese broccoli), rice, noodles and the sweet Hunawihr Gewurztraminer Reserve d’Alsace 2008, from a well constructed wine list.
Portions are extremely generous; it’s easy to overeat here. We managed to share a durian fruit and tapioca cake for dessert and to wash this down I braved a Vietnamese coffee with lashings of condensed milk. It was the sweetest drink I have ever tasted and I must admit that I bailed out halfway through in a stupefied sugar rush which I had to douse with a non-alcoholic Saigon Sling, a very able cocktail from their amply stocked bar.
On our way back to the yuppie-mobile (assuming it was still there) we did a reconnaissance of the other Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road, none of which were as busy as Viet Grill. Customers were still arriving at 11pm to eat and I’m not surprised; the food is magnificent and if I were trendy enough to live in Hoxton, I’d be eating here all the time.
Rounding the corner onto Hackney Road I was surprised and relieved to find that my car hadn’t been jacked up onto bricks, no windows were smashed and not even a “Yuppie Scum!” had been scrawled across the windscreen with glittery pink lipstick. Perhaps the Hoxtonites are getting used to the influx of their West London neighbours. Whatever the case, they’ll have to share the wealth; Viet Grill is too good to keep a secret.
Summary: One of the best Vietnamese restaurants in London.
Viet Grill, 58 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP. Tel: 020 7739 6686. Website: www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk