70-72 Kingsland Road, N1
Hungry and hung-over in Hoxton the boyfriend and I found ourselves craving Vietnamese. Having had not one but 2 bad experiences at local rivals Cay Tre, we decided to fall back on that old favourite The Viet Hoa. I hadn’t been here for what felt like 5 years and was intrigued to see if the standards were still as high as they had been back then. I had memories of benches heaving with fashion students and an old granny in the kitchen churning out wonderful authentic Vietnamese classics, each adorned with her signature twist. I’m ashamed to admit that I had eschewed her delights in favour of the convenience of Cay Tre, which has the double whammy of proximity to both my favourite pub and yoga class. However, popularity had made the service there dismal and the food average and bland with many of the mains barely better than a cheap Chinese takeaway.
Back in the day, Viet Hoa pioneered the utilitarian bench-style eating in oriental restaurants, a style which has been much emulated notably by Wagamamas and more recently Cha Cha Moon. The crowd are generally a convivial lot, this being East London people don’t mind looking at each other and the clientele are a mix of young parents, artists, students and the odd tourist. However on our visit the place was almost empty except for a few other diners. This was less of a reflection on the restaurant’s popularity than the fact that they had only just opened for service on a Saturday afternoon.
The granny had been replaced by a young chap with a baseball cap, our smiling waitress was winningly charming and the old man behind the till was definitely a member of that original family. He didn’t seem to do much other than count the money in the till and entertain us with classics like Bach’s into the moonlight while we ate. Somehow, this didn’t seem wrong.I was pleased to see paper—wrapped prawns were still on the menu and we ordered these to begin. I also would have liked a green papaya salad but this was sadly not available so I plumped for duck salad instead.
The prawns arrived crisp and greaseless from the fryer and we nibbled at the fluffy but bland rice paper tops, which were cool enough to eat, before trying the morsels of prawn and water-chestnut. They were exquisite, savoury, nutty and almost bacon-like. Our spring-rolls arrived with a perfectly balanced dipping sauce of pickled carrots floating in fish sauce, vinegar and garlic. I found the vegetable hot and sour soup just as gorgeous as the first time I had savoured it, a soothing light broth that was both tangy and salty, packed with nourishing exotic vegetables half of which I couldn’t name but one of which I could have sworn was loofah. I adored it and was reluctant to let the boyfriend taste it in case he loved it too, however luckily he hated it and compared it to salty dishwater.
I once read somewhere that men and women have fundamentally different palates and while women appreciate the subtleties of sour, perfectly balanced bitter or the tart kick of vinegar in the right place; men prefer more obvious flavours, like meaty or fatty or sweet. This is, of course utter generalised poppycock, but sometimes when having a sexist moment I privately like to mull it over and feel a little bit superior. We both agreed that the main of duck salad was disgusting. The meat was fatty and bland and the salad itself came drowning in way too heavy a citrus hand. Pomelo to be exact. His pork dish was ok, pretty average really. Between us both the bill came to £38, which considering the plethora of cheap Vietnamese restaurants in the area, was actually pretty expensive.
All in all it was very nice, and the soups and starters are still great attractions, but surely there’s too much competition out there nowadays for that to be enough. At the risk of sounding like an old git, there was less choice but much higher quality even just a few years ago. With new ones emerging all over the place,East London now seems to be teaming with generic Vietnamese restaurants, all of which need to up their proverbial game.