I first experienced Vietnamese food at the age of about 17. My cousin-by-marriage Paulette Do Van had recently published 'Vietnamese Cooking' and invited the family for a feast made up of some of the delicious dishes in her terrific book. At the time - the early 1990s, for anyone uncharitable enough to be wondering just when I would have been 17 - it all seemed ever so new and exciting; growing up in a little Dorset farming village, a Chinese takeaway passed for exotic (hell, Spag Bol had felt fairly epochal) so the fragrant, colourful cuisine of the Indochine was a true novelty. Paulette's stuffed chicken wings were amazing and remain to this day a favourite (if fiddly) thing to make at home.
Seventeen years on and Vietnamese food is understandably and deservedly much more widely available, nowhere more so than along Kingsland Road in the East End. Seemingly every business that isn't an über-trendy bar or edgy boutique is a Vietnamese restaurant, all confusingly similarly named; within doors of each other stand Song Que, Que Viet, Viet Hoa, Mien Tay and Tay Do. It's no wonder that, as a work colleague local told me, arranging to meet at one or other of them requires giving minutely specific details and directions. Locals also know that the many restaurants on the strip fall into one of two categories, summed up perfectly by my dinner date Matt Bramford who asked over drinks beforehand whether we were going to "one of the cheap ones or one of the posh ones".
Viet Grill is, it turns out, one of the 'posh ones', essentially meaning that some thought and money has gone into decor and staff training in contrast to the plastic seats, strip lighting and perfunctory service at some of the 'cheap ones'. The investment has paid off, because this is a lovely, lovely place. Entering under the bright yellow neon sign that makes Viet Grill stand out from its more conservatively façaded neighbours, we were greeted by the smell of incense, a lively buzz ("Hanoisy" one might say) and a very smiley greeter who showed us to our table without a murmur about our being fifteen minutes late. The room was a bit overwhelming at first; the walls are papered in a very bold leaf print which made the space feel as loud visually as aurally, but we quickly became used to both.
For the uninitiated, Vietnam's cuisine draws on the traditions of the many countries which either border, have colonized or have traded with it over the centuries. To quote Paulette Do Van, "From China the Vietnamese adopted their love of noodles, the way of cooking, the healthy stir-fry methods...Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have influenced the Vietnamese in their use of herbs...The Indians and Portuguese brought spices, [and] the French, who colonized Vietnam, forced the Vietnamese to be inventive." This is all in evidence on the extensive menu at Viet Grill, from which we struggled to choose just a few dishes; those we eventually did order were all, without exception, excellent.
First up were both spring and summer rolls (autumn and winter rolls it would seem do not exist, at least not here). The former were the familiar crisp-shelled offering, made exemplary by the filling of whole, fat king prawns; the latter, a pair of beautiful translucent parcels wrapped in sticky rice paper and bursting with fragrant mint, chopped vermicelli and more juicy prawns. Neither needed accompaniment, the flavours speaking for themselves, but the nuoc cham - Vietnam's pungent, fish-based riposte to China's soy - and chilli sauce provided made for great dipping.
Next came a lotus stem salad, a super-fresh, technicolour assembly which as well as the clean-tasting crunchy stems consisted of shredded pork, shrimps, Vietnamese basil, peanuts and lime zest. What the dressing was I'm not sure but it was incredible; slightly sharp, slightly sweet, I'd guess maybe a little galangal in the mix somewhere, its brightness made me gasp for joy with the first mouthful. Alongside it we scoffed a plate of 'piggy aubergine', grilled green Thai aubergine topped with minced 'pork sprinkle' and poached spring onions. All I can say of this delightfully slippy, oily, umami-rich dish is that it made me seriously reconsider my dislike of aubergine; if it's always this good then bring on the eggplant please.
Finally and fortuitously we chose what would appear to be something of a signature dish for Viet Grill. Described on the menu simply as 'Slices of monkfish', a gas burner was brought to the table and chunks of monkfish, marinated in saffron and galangal, were pan fried with great handfuls of dill before being served on top of cold rice noodles with fennel, peanuts, chillis and tangy shrimp sauce to taste. It was one of those brilliant dishes where every mouthful was as good as but subtly different from the last, and at just £13 for two it was extremely good value for money.
Wine lovers and oenophobes alike will delight in the interesting, France-heavy wine list with its brilliantly entertaining and informative descriptions; one wine is described as being "As stylish and distinctive as a Christian Louboutin stiletto", another as having "more fruit than convention demands". Wallet watchers might find the arrangement of the list broadly by grape type rather than price disorienting; look around though and there's plenty to be had for under and around £20 a bottle, including our rich, buttery Calbuco 2009 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at £21.50 which, as promised, was perfect with our monkfish and indeed pretty much everything.
From the greeter, to our (lovely, knowledgeable, patient) waiter and the manager who insisted on personally showing off his monkfish-frying prowess, service was impeccable and we never felt rushed, even though we took ages to decide what to order - too busy gossiping about mutual Twitter pals - and lingered over every delicious dish - too busy gossiping about the launch of the brilliant new book from Amelia's Magazine, of which Matt is fashion editor. The bill, for five dishes of superb food, our bottle of wine and 12.5% service came to £64 which felt entirely reasonable. At one of the 'cheap ones' we'd have no doubt paid only half as much, but had only half the fun. I know which I'd rather have.
As a civil rights activist and equality campaigner of many years' standing (under her married name of North) I'm not sure what Cousin Paulette would make of the apparent inequality at play on the Kingsland Road with the potential threat posed to the established, cheap 'n' cheerful joints by classier, chicer venues like Viet Grill. But one thing's for sure; I doubt she'd be able to find anything to fault with the food.
Viet Grill, 58 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP Tel: 020 7739 6686 http://www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk/vietgrill