When you first walk in to KOTO, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d suddenly been whisked away to the Western world. The whole restaurant is often packed to the brim with middle-aged foreigners, as it is popular with the tour groups that visit the Temple of Literature across the street.
This was the case on the particular weekday that I decided to go. At the door the welcoming but stressed-out host looked incredulous when I told him my friend and I did not have a reservation, the noise from the large dining room behind him serving to underscore my stupidity. He was only fazed for a minute, however, and pointed us up the stairs to try another room. The top-floor dining room also being full, we were taken to the Temple Bar, a much quieter space on the second level, where they somehow managed to seat us immediately.
The quality of service at KOTO quickly stood out for me. In spite of the lunchtime rush, there were plenty of waiting staff who were eager to help us find a spot, smiling as they did so. KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One and is a social enterprise dedicated to providing disadvantaged youth with education and training in hospitality. Most of the restaurant staff, from the front of house to the kitchen, are either on the programme or are graduates.
The Vietnamese Options
At the Temple Bar we sat on cushy red banquette seats, sipping juice and a blushing Santa, a fruity concoction made with watermelon and apple juice, and fresh mint (VND70,000). The other two rooms we’d seen were both big and bright and clean, but had a cafeteria-like feel, with large paper lanterns and information about KOTO lining the sparsely-decorated walls, which echoed with the clatter of 50 tourists cleaning their plates. Temple Bar, by contrast, was a quiet oasis, its red and dark wood tones complemented by traditional-style Vietnamese sculptures and art. Generic pan-Asian flute music helped complete the atmosphere of relaxation.
Although the large menu has many Western options, we chose Vietnamese fare. The KOTO combo platter (VND105,000), a selection of different rolls and two dipping sauces, arrived in excellent time and looked fantastic, garnished with brightly-coloured spirals of vegetables that looked like strings of confetti. The bo la lot and pho cuon were unremarkable, meaty but somewhat bland, and the spring rolls had a lot of rice noodles and not much else inside, perhaps in an attempt to make Vietnamese food more accessible for the less adventurous traveller’s palate. The triangle-shaped nem ran, on the other hand, were fantastic, warm and crunchy, and flavourful, and the delicious dipping sauces more than made up for the lack of flavour in the other rolls.
Our entrées were also quick to appear. The beef in bamboo (VND165,000) arrived piping hot and was topped with shaved coconut, although I found myself again wishing for a bit more spice in the dish. The salad that came on the side, however, was spicy with a nice tang of vinegar, and the bright vegetables added a much-needed splash of colour to the plate. My friend ordered the sea bass baked in banana leaf (VND155,000), which was tender and well-seasoned and came with a spectacular banana leaf garnish.
For dessert, my friend wanted apple pie, and I wanted chocolate, so of course we compromised and got the passion fruit mousse (VND60,000), which was everything we didn’t know we were missing; light and not too sweet, with a layer of tart passion fruit jelly on top and sponge at the bottom.
Throughout the meal I was continually impressed by the professionalism of the place, from the glossy menu to the friendly and helpful staff. For a fine meal at reasonable prices, you can’t do much better than KOTO, especially when you know the dong you spend is going to a good cause.
KOTO is located at 59 Van Mieu, Dong Da, Hanoi
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