One of the main reasons for starting this whole project was supposed to be so I was able to properly answer a question no-one has actually ever asked me; namely which of the 20-odd Vietnamese restaurants clustered around the bottom end of Kingsland Road is the best. It was the question behind the whole concept of the blog, which makes it somewhat ironic that it’s been a pair of those same Vietnamese places that nearly derailed the damn thing.
The problem was one of going too big too early. We went to what I was already pretty sure was definitively the best Vietnamese restaurant on the strip as our very first outing. Which meant that each one since has been something of a let down. In fact, Loong Kee was such an unpleasant experience that we hadn’t been back to another Vietnamese place for several months.
That changed when we ended up going to two – Viet Hoa and Anh Doa – in the space of a couple of weeks. One was OK, the other less so. Together they were so uninspiring that I lost the will to write anything for the blog at all. Reviews piled up but I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say. Those two indifferent Vietnamese meals just sat there, sucking my enthusiasm. It was they represented; the promise of dozens more average Vietnamese eating experiences before the project was over. What was the point? What was the point of doing any of it – the Internet was full of crappy restaurant reviews. Why should I add to the mountains of cat videos and arguments about how much the Brad Pitt film of World War Z differs from Max Brooks’s book that represent what our culture has basically become?
Then some people told me to stop being a pretentious dick who over thinks everything and just get on with it. So I did and started writing again. But those two Vietnamese places still loomed over me; unwritten. In a bid to finally put the Vietnamese demon to bed, I’m going to kill them both in one post and be done with it.
First the better of the two; Anh Doa. It’s decor was strangely appealing, and made me think of what I imagine it might have been like to have eaten in a restaurant in Hanoi 15 years ago, just before the masses of tourists descended on the Vietnamese capital; slightly seeded and dilapidated, with a hint of “I could well get my drink spiked and wake up in a bath full of ice with a kidney missing” in the air.
The food itself was initially OK as well. In fact, our Hoy Tay Pancake starter was rather lovely; crispy sweet potato and prawns fried together in that surprisingly light way that the best Vietnamese places manage (i.e. at Song Que). At this point, I genuinely thought we had a contender for the Vietnamese crown on our hands.
Next up was a bowl of pho, which put pay to any title thoughts almost immediately. It wasn’t that bad. Just not that good either. And with a Vietnamese restaurant, a pho fail is a major fail that they will always struggle to claw their way back from. It lacked almost completely the unctuous richness of the dish at its best and was similarly missing any of the fiery chilli heat needed to elevate it to something beautiful. Without those vital components, you’re left with a bowl that rather closely resembles washing up water with a few herbs and cheap cuts of beef chucked in.
Another Kingsland staple, crispy sea bream, also failed to excite. Again, there was nothing awful about it. But it wasn’t something that you’d really want to write about either. In fact, it’s bones proved to be the most entertaining thing about it, when Nat decided she’d use them to recreate some sort of strange 1980s cat food advert.
There was nothing really wrong with Anh Doa. If it was in your rural home town, you’d probably be pretty happy with it. The problem was that it’s nowhere as good as Song Que.
In contrast, Viet Hoa was actively bad, which was something of a surprise. It’s regularly trotted out as one of the best places on the Kingsland strip by the likes of the Guardian – mostly because it’s a bit less grimy and more decorated than all the other places. It’s all minimal wooden tables, grill dishes and trendy bubble teas. Before we ate any of the food, I had hopes that this might turn out to the exciting new generation of Vietnamese food; not necessarily better than Song Que, but a viable alternative none the less. One that had taken some of the surrounding area’s hipster vibe and applied to an amazing and vibrant cuisine.
Then the food started appearing and that dream was shattered. First up was a crispy softshell crab. Before I tucked in, I thought it was impossible to mess the dish up. Every time I’ve ever had it, it’s been delicious. But it turns out that it is possible to make it dry and gritty and strangely tasteless. It just takes a certain type of evil genius chef, like those employed at Viet Hoa.
A second starter of squid was absolute standard Chinese takeaway fare, right down to the oddly glistening and MSG-filled sauce that clung to the seafood. To be fair, the squid itself was well cooked if uninspiring. A side dish of morning glory with garlic sauce was similarly unmemorable without being actively bad.
Unmemorable wasn’t a word that could ever be applied to our main course – stewed pork & duck eggs served with pickled bean sprouts. It arrived at our bench looking impressive enough in a fancy unfired clay pot in keeping with the whole “hipster updated version of Vietnamese food” vibe. As soon as the lid was removed, the horror was revealed. Sheets of dry pork nestling in a greasy-looking broth with a disturbing ring of greying oil at its edges. The crowning moment of terror of the dish was the single duck egg sitting at the bowl’s centre. A beating heart of pure evil, it was so overcooked that its white had turned to grey rubber and its yolk was a dusty mess. On my plate, it refused to happily melt into the sauce, sitting there slimily.
It was a dish of such vileness that it alone was responsible for my three months of mild writer’s block. In fact I can feel that dark cloud descending again just looking at a photo of it. So I’d better stop now, lest I silence myself for another quarter year.