Tag Archives: shoreditch

Review | Viet Grill, Shoreditch

photograph © Jason Lowe

Kingsland Road in Shoreditch has become something of a Mecca for Vietnamese food lovers. In fact there’s very little else to eat at that end of town, save for an excellent Spanish gaff on Columbia Road and a few just-about-passable burger-ish places in Hoxton Square. The Breakfast Club is worth a trip for the vibe, if not the food. Miso should be avoided at all costs. But really, if you’re planning on forking out some of your hard-earned shekels on food in that part of Shoreditch – and you want to avoid all manner of Nathan Barleys and P-Dos – Vietnamese is the way to go.

There are plenty of options, but somehow I’ve always ended up in the Viet Grill. I’d never been blown away, despite some glowing reviews, but they very sweetly asked me along last week and it would have been churlish to say no. So off I went on Friday night via a couple of looseners on the roof at Boundary (definitely a well-advised diversion) and had a truly stellar evening.

The room is at the swankier end of the Vietresto spectrum. Some of the cafes further up towards Dalston look more like school canteens and good for them, but this place is softly lit and intimate, with little fishies tumbling in tanks and walls like Mowgli’s bedroom. There’s a good buzz without it being deafening, and there’s a downstairs bit that I’d never known about.

We first ate an unordered but well-received plate of ‘Piggy Grilled Aubergine’, a nifty dish of soft aubergines with little flecks of minced pork. Oh but wait, I’ve forgotten to mention the great revelation of the evening. I flimsily suggested we order a bottle of wine, at which point my friend Nic looked at me like a pansy and insisted we order hot sake. I’d had sake once before in the blazing sun at a music festival, and did not like it at all. But this stuff was incredible. Sod pairing food and wine – when it comes to this sort of food, hot sake goes with everything. Everything.

I digress. To start we had summer rolls, a lobster and crab salad, and a mango salad. Summer rolls were like most summer rolls – a little rubbery, a little strong on mint, a little so-what otherwise. You either like them or you don’t. I don’t. But the salads. Ye. Gods. Mango all pepped up with smashed nuts, shards of crunchy salt squid, chilli and mint, and then a great stack of soft shellfish that was so light and fresh that you could have stuffed it into a pillowcase. What a start.

A main of wok fried fresh scallops, king prawns and calamari lacked the oomph that had made all the dishes so far (all but the summer rolls) spot-on. Some decently cooked pieces of fish didn’t quite get the support needed from the midfield that you look for in Southeast Asian food. The ‘Chicken Royale’ more than made up for it though – a spatchcocked poussin that had spent the past few hours sitting cosily amongst cinnamon and herbage before being slapped on a grill and served dressed in soy sauce. Proper hands-on eating.

We finished with a whopping plate of delicious coconut ice cream, one last snifter of sake (it even just about went with the ice cream – remarkable), said our goodbyes and tottered out of this diamond in the rough.

The meal was comped, but I reckon we’d have got out of there at about £25 a head. You can certainly eat for much less though. Many thanks to all at VG for being so kind.

Viet Grill
58 Kingsland Road
London E28DP
020 7739 6686

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Pizza East, Shoreditch High Street

9/10

Translation can be difficult. Different countries have different ways of expressing what is essentially the same thing, but is yet so nuanced, so finely tuned, that the merest mispronunciation can lead to extraordinary difficulties. A friend spent a year in South America, to hone what was, until then, fairly ropey Castilian Spanish. Having somehow landed a job at an international company, he was, on his very first day, ushered into the biggest board meeting of the year. All the heads of the South American arm of the company had gathered around a large table, with Jim, a six foot six, red-haired Englishman (sore thumb, anyone?) plonked at the end. And like in a bad dream he was asked to introduce himself.

“Hola, soy Jim…..”, God this is awkward, he thought – I should tell them. “Soy muy embarazado”. I’m very embarrassed.

Except that isn’t what he said. “Hello, I’m Jim”, he said, “I’m very pregnant”. The room exploded, Jim’s face fast turning scarlet.

With the first hurdle having been limped over, his boss tried to put him at ease with some gentle, GCSE oral exam-style questions.

“How did you get from the airport Jim?” he enquired.

“Ah, si. Err, yo cogi un autobus. Duro cinco horas”. I got a bus. It took five hours.

Except that isn’t what he said. He actually said this: “Ah, yes. Erm, I fucked a bus. It took five hours”.

Because in Castilian Spanish ‘coger’ means ‘to take’. In South American Spanish it does not.

And in Britain ‘pizza’ means ‘flat bread with tomato and cheese’. In Pizza East it does not. I have been 4 times in a week, and only once has my pizza had tomato on it.

I’ll start at the beginning. Last Friday I met a friend for lunch at aforementioned and much-lauded restaurant, and I fell in love with the place immediately. It’s in the Tea building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, and occupies the vast, expansive ground floor. And yet it manages to be utterly cosy, warm and welcoming. The decor is a delight – proper distressed wood (not the furniture equivalent of ‘faded’ jeans – why spend £20 extra on jeans that look just like the ones you’re replacing?), great long tables with swing-out seats, and comfy banquettes to sit back and wallow in. It’s immaculate yet unfussy, the service attentive but unintrusive.

The antipasti menu is as good a translation of Italian grub as I have seen – no half-arsed parma ham and melon here. Proper food, beautifully cooked. Over the course of those four visits I ate a pingingly fresh and elegantly presented mackerel escabeche with lentils, the criminally underrated fish soft and yielding and singing with lemon. Wood roasted bone marrow, all rich and wobbly and flecked with sea salt, was a joy, slathered on toast and crammed in with radish and parsley salad. Mussels were also wood roasted, and were just about the plumpest I have eaten.

But my highlight was the soft polenta with chicken livers. These are stupendous – crispy little nuggets of liver with the gentlest, warmest spicing, sitting atop a golden hillock of creamy polenta, and adorned with a piquant sauce. Potentially my favourite dish of 2009.

Onto the pizzas, and I hope I won’t risk being turned away on my next visit (which, let’s face it, will probably be this evening) for saying that they’re a mixed bag. A great deal of thought has gone into creating these – so much so that when I asked to substitute toppings (on my 3rd visit) I was told that I couldn’t. They have been meticulous in their design, yet rigour and street food don’t necessarily go together. Call me a philistine, but I simply don’t think pizza needs tinkering with. The bases of these pizzas are terrific, with that magical, much sought-after combination of crispness and chew. So why the need to try and make them extra-special with bizarre toppings – sprouting broccoli on a pizza? That’s a mistranslation if ever I saw one.

Some of the attempts at ringing the tomato-cheese-pig changes do work. The veal meatball pizza with prosciutto, sage, lemon, parsley and cream is an absolute triumph, the duck sausage a glorious, rich delight. But the best pizza, like the best Italian food, is the simplest. The salami, tomato and mozzarella pizza is, while perhaps narrow-minded, splendid in its simplicity, the Margherita even more so.

Pizza East – you had me by the jaffers as soon as I walked in. After the starters – handsome, original, stupidly scrumptious – I was thinking about leaving home and squatting on your doorstep with a sleeping bag and a fork. You don’t need to fart around with the pizzas. It’s like the most beautiful woman in the world wearing make-up – perhaps minutely enhancing, but completely unnecessary.

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