Food blogger hungry for success with own KAfe
|Drawing a crowd: Both Vietnamese and foreign diners have been flocking to the KAfe to enjoy the delicious food and cool atmosphere.
Smooth ribbons of fettuccine, handmade and speckled with herbs, cushioned a hearty ragu. On the counter, dense chocolate cupcakes were placed strategically in glass jars, beneath a chalkboard advertising vegetarian paninis and masala chai tea. I wondered if I'd somehow fallen asleep and woken up in Brooklyn.
Just off the bustling thoroughfare that cuts from the Old Quarter to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the KAfe signals that modernity is finally intruding into the change-resistant capital. Instead of dark coffee tinged with condensed milk and cigarette smoke, this casual hangout serves rustic food in a convivial atmosphere. Elegantly dressed young Vietnamese and expats linger over Mason jars of freshly squeezed carrot juice and apple-infused mint tea, against a backdrop of muted pop music and whitewashed walls punctuated by Calder-esque wrought iron chandeliers.
The owner, Chi Anh, 29, spent her childhood moving from place to place: Russia, Germany, Taiwan, Viet Nam. That early globetrotting seems to have informed the aesthetic at this recently opened cafe, which blurs the boundaries between Europe and Asia, modern and traditional. Chef Joel Manton formerly worked at Pots 'n Pans, where he used Vietnamese herbs and fruit to punctuate sophisticated bistro fare. Here, he substitutes local ingredients for conventional components, crafting hummus from lotus seeds and deep-frying snippets of tofu into croutons to sprinkle over quail egg Caesar salad.
|Something missing: The Vietnamese meatballs are a little timid and lack bold seasoning. — Photos courtesy of the KAfe
Most of the dishes are Western in theory, but Manton has a way of making even fish'n'chips feel like a Vietnamese classic. Strips of white fish draped in golden batter are light and airy, accompanied by shiso and herbs; the beef ragu has an undertone of tangy sweetness that recalls the heady caramel of traditional claypot cooking. Sadly, as at Pots 'n Pans, Manton's cooking can occasionally be timid. In a restaurant this ambitious, one would expect meatballs to have a far bolder seasoning than spring onions and a dabble of melted cheddar. And a dish of stir-fried vegetables cries out for a handful of garlic or chili.
Anh started cooking as a hobby four years ago, blogging about her culinary adventures at Door to My Kitchen (door2mykitchen.com). But the hobby soon turned into a calling. In 2011 she opened Kitchen Art, a small kitchenware store that also offered cooking and baking classes. The goal of these lessons wasn't just to teach home cooks how to make cookies and cupcakes. It was also to introduce Vietnamese audiences familiar with cream soups and pizza to the modern, fresh side of Western cuisine - the same mission that informs the KAfe. (The eccentric spelling of "cafe" incorporates the logo of Kitchen Art.)
|East meets West: The KAfe succesfully combines Western culinary concepts with local ingredients. The chorizo in this tasty shrimp tapas is made in-house
When Anh found this colonial villa, it was being used as a Nokia service centre, the front covered with drab billboards. A three-month restoration recaptured much of its former glory, converting the roof to a second dining room and brightening up the long, slightly awkwardly shaped space. The unpretentious decor is a fitting showcase for the simple food: pasta made in-house, straightforward salads, freshly baked cupcakes.
Cocktails are coming soon, though most of the well-heeled customers who arrive in the evening seem content with the generously sweetened teas and smoothies. Something listed as a mojito contains no alcohol; instead, it's a sharp twist of lime and ice and what tastes like about fifty tablespoons of sugar. Like the KAfe itself, it's an experiment in what happens when dishes are freed from geographical constraints. — VNS
Add: 18 Dien Bien Phu Rd
Price Range: VND100,000-300,000
Dishes to Try: Herb fettuccine with beef ragu; vegetarian panini with lotus seed hummus; chocolate cupcake