Huong Viet

12-14 Englefield Road, Hackney, London, England, N1 4LS , United Kingdom

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The building housing Huong Viet looks distinctly uninviting, but as you enter you see a real charcoal grill, with the coals red hot and meat being grilled, which improves your impression.  The dining room itself has a fairly low ceiling and is very cramped.  Tables are crammed in, and need to be moved around just to allow diners to sit down.  The floor is a grey-green lino, and tables have quite unpleasant plastic tablecloths, which are wiped now and then but none too successfully: ours was not the only one to be badly stained.  The walls are cream except for the far wall as you enter, which is red. The ceiling has white ceiling tiles, and there are overhead spots that giveoff quite a bright light. On the cream walls (with blue painted dado rail) are various black and white framed photos of Vietnamese scenes, and there are a couple of pleasant flower displays, one on the right as you come in and one on the bar area. The windows have bamboo blinds and each table had a little glass containing carnations and narcissi. The chairs were uncomfortable fold-up metal things, with red plastic upholstery. The crockery was cheap, with a blue pattern on white, whilst napkins were paper and tiny.

Service was friendly but inept. Admittedly this was a busy Saturday night, but the staff were clearly over-stretched, and long gaps occurred. Our fairly simple meal took over two and a half hours to produce.  Dishes appeared as they were ready rather than at at the same time, and there was some difficulty in getting any attention.  The Vietnamese staff were dressed casually, mostly in black trousers and white shirts. The restaurant has no alcohol licence, which would have been useful to know when I made the booking, but this went un-remarked when I made the reservation; there is an off-licence, but it is several minutes walk up the road.  As this is the sort of area where the Alsatians go around in pairs, it is best to bring something from home.

The Vietnamese spring rolls were served in fours, with a little lettuce and coriander leaf as salad garnish.  These had excellent flavour and texture, though they were not piping hot.  A sweet chilli sauce was a good compliment to the richness of the rolls (11/20).  A prawn pancake was a large crispy affair, stuffed with well-cooked prawns and bean sprouts. This dish worked fairly well, though it was a generous size for a starter (11/20).  

I tried the chicken with lemon-grass, which was cooked on the charcoal grill a little too long: not chewy but not optimal either. This was served with a small salad and some pickled vegetables, as well as a pile of none-too-hot but acceptably textured noodles (11/20). A “tamarind fillet of fish” was not a fillet at all, just a fried catfish with little flesh and plenty of bones, with what I can only describe as a brown gravy since it manifestly failed to taste of tamarind, or indeed anything else. This had some snow peas and red peppers for garnish, but they could not rescue the dish (10/20). Better were the vegetable dishes: The French beans with garlic were lightly cooked with a generous amount of garlic (12/20). Even better were some very lightly cooked snow peas, served with garlic and a well made black bean sauce (13/20). A dish of Singapore noodles was very bland, while some egg fried rice was acceptable. 

The pineapple leaf cake came as two slices of conventional cake, whose filling was green and managed to have no discernable taste whatever. I’m not sure what pineapple leaf tastes like, and after this I am none the wiser.  Still, the cake was moist and well enough made (round up). Creamy tofu in a sweet ginger sauce was served in a bowl and was essentially a sweet ginger soup with pieces of tofu and coconut floating on top. Coffee was served in a cup with a little filter draining into it. Unfortunately it was all too authentic Vietnamese coffee, which is made with chicory, and is frightful (10/20).  The jasmine tea, which was fine, is a better bet.

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