London isn’t short of teeny-tiny, hard-to-find bars, but we reckon that this Shoreditch newcomer might be the smallest of them all. In fact, it’s not really a bar at all, but a corner of the downstairs dining area at Viet Grill, which has always been our favourite of the Kingsland Road slew of Vietnamese restaurants.
Supposed to channel the vibe of downtown Saigon, it feels exotic at the very least. Large red lanterns bob above the bar, while candles provide just enough light to read the cocktail list. We sit surrounded by diners tucking into noodles and pho in the restaurant space, which proves surprisingly buzzy, though we’re glad there’s a bar snack menu to stave off food envy.
As we browse the menu of 13 weird, wacky and intricately put-together cocktails, we tuck into impressively crisp salt & chilli squid and a herb-filled mini pork kebab whose vibrant flavours belie a much less attractive description of “grilled pork butt”. It’s no bum note.
A Viet Royal is an elegant drink (for the ladies, we were told by our waiter) that blends plum wine, aloe vera, jasmine tea and prosecco in an Asian take on a classic Kir Royal. It’s perhaps overly floral and tastes almost medicinal, leaving us in no doubt of its oriental leanings, but the drinks that follow raise the bar.
A Cucu Martini blends gin, vodka and sake that’s been infused with popcorn tea (that’s nutty tasting genmaicha green tea) to create a strong-flavoured, slightly sweet martini-style drink with an addictively savoury flavour. If you think of a light, boozy soy sauce, you won’t be a million miles off.
A Vijito mixes dark rum, vodka, matcha green tea, passion fruit and a top-up of prosecco in a tall glass to create a rich but refreshing drink that — as the name suggests — isn’t too far removed from a mojito. The high-caffeine tea guarantees a pick-me-up, as well. A Love You Rhum Time mixes the headline spirit with chocolate bitters and is smoked with artichoke tea (yes, that exists and sounds, erm, lovely) to create something short, strong and rounded in the vein of an Old Fashioned.
The cocktails are too experimental and preoccupied with Vietnamese ingredients and flavours to be at the top of their game, but to say they’re far better than you’d expect from the basement of an Asian restaurant is an understatement. They range in price from £6.75 to£8.50, which is more reasonable than many a hipster hangout in the vicinity, too.
Along with Chinese cocktail emporium Opium in Chinatown and the new Korean Kimchee bar, it seems London’s cocktail scene is coming down with Asian fever of late. If that means we can drink crafty cocktails such as these with our dinner instead of a dubious bottle of plonk or a warm beer, then we’re pretty happy about that.
Little Red Staircase is beneath Viet Grill at 58 Kingsland Road, E2 8DP.
Disclaimer: We review anonymously and pay for all our meals/drinks.