It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m squeezing into a corner seat at the KAfe, marvelling at the number of people packed into the narrow industrial-style room. They all seem to be eating the same things: burgers stacked on wooden boards, fresh juices in Mason jars, pink macaroons. Hip hop is blaring over the speakers. “You see there’s leaders, and there’s followers,” Kanye tells us.

The KAfe definitively falls into the former category. The cuisine is headed up by chef Joel Manton, whose work you might recognise from Pots ‘n Pans, and the kitchen turns out an eclectic array of western dishes that appeal to Vietnamese consumers as much as to expats. The new winter menu offers hearty fare, like roast chicken with mashed potatoes and baked penne with cheddar and cauliflower, as well as a rotating selection of soups. But some of the best dishes are longstanding classics.


Melt in your Mouth


Some customers return time and again for the fettuccine with beef ragu (VND160,000), which gets its own page on the glossy menu. There’s a good reason: beef is cooked until it falls apart into tender strands, then spooned over homemade noodles that soak up the juices. Bathed in herb-infused butter, this ragu is the kind of dish that reduces even the most dignified diner to sheepish slurping.


Picking over the menu for a side of vegetables takes some work, but I take a leap of faith and go for the “sauteed seasonal greens” (VND30,000). In most restaurants, this turns out to be a losing proposition. But at the KAfe, it turns out, the dish is misadvertised: there’s far more than green to this vibrant bowl full of mushrooms, carrots, zucchini and other seasonal odds and ends, all flavoured with a generous handful of garlic.


For dessert, there are colorful macarons and cupcakes baked in-house. A lot of tables order spiced waffles, then pick at them, apparently confused as to what to do with the daunting squares. I order bittersweet chocolate pudding (VND50,000), a rich, dense cup of thick pudding infused with orange liqueur and flecks of peel. It’s a dessert you might find in a far more elegant restaurant -- except for the biscotti garnishing the presentation, which seems to have spent so much time in the oven it shrunk into barely more than a burnt crumb. It’s one of the few mistakes in a mostly seamless meal, which makes it stick out all the more.


Price, too, determines satisfaction. At the KAfe, most prices are surprisingly reasonable, even more so when you consider that many of the tapas-style dishes are meant to be shared. You’ll pay more than you will for street food, of course, but far less than at western restaurants half as good. That fettuccine could compete with the best pastas in town. By that standard, it’s a bargain.


If the KAfe’s inventive spelling doesn’t announce its modernist ambitions, those are made clear by the exposed brick walls and industrial cement floor, as well as the furniture carved from unpolished wood. It’s an aesthetic echoed by clothing boutique Antiq downstairs, and one that’s very much an anomaly on this section of bustling Dien Bien Phu, a neighbourhood with few artistic or humorous tendencies. But there are indications that this is changing. On the wall outside, in what might be Hanoi’s largest mural, a fluffy canine says, “I smell cupcakes, dawg!”


The KAfe is at 18 Dien Bien Phu, Ba Dinh, Tel: (04) 3747 6245


The Verdict


Food: 12

Service: 10

Décor: 10


Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.


13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection

10 — 12.5 very good to excellent

8 — 9.5 good to very good

5 — 7.5 fair to good

0 — 4.5 poor to fair


The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals

Mystery Diner

The Mystery Diner is a person hailing from a country that may or may not be Vietnam. S/he can be seen frequently in the restaurants and cafes of Hanoi and HCMC, searching for the most delicious meals each city has to offer. Look for the masked figure in a cape, lurking in the darkest corners of your neighbourhood com tam or pho joint.

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