In the course of this juvenation — there’s no ‘re’ in there, my bad habits extend to well before my metabolism slowed — I’ve started to go to Kim’s more often. Just down the block from my house, my roommates and I have always known Kay Vegan Bistro as ‘Kim’s’ because of co-owner and matriarch Nguyen Kim Chi’s pervasive presence. Judging from the “hellos” and “how are yous” Kim showers on her peak lunchtime diners, we can’t be the only ones with this strong association.
“It’s not the things you give,” Kim says. “You’re also giving the meaning of it. It’s not about a single dish, it’s about the result, and how much love I put in it.”
Not About a Single Dish...
On the day I go down in my official capacity, it’s definitely about the food, all 15 courses of it. I’d given Kim the heads up about this review, and asked if she could prepare a few dishes to be photographed. Perhaps I should have been more specific.
Before photographer Francis and I knew to pace ourselves, we’d already eaten a plate of lightly fried spring rolls, picked all the ricotta and olives from the Kay Caprese salad and devoured Kay’s self-styled tapas offerings — plates of jerky-like dehydrated mushrooms and seaweed. When the tangy som tam papaya salad and sweet, richly-flavoured pad Thai arrived — dishes I regularly eat at Kay à la carte — we knew we were wading into deep waters.
The tom yum soup acted as a sort of interlude between the first half of our meal and the next. Fresher and cleaner than Thai style tom yum, with less coconut as befits Vietnamese tastes, it acted as a semi-spicy palate cleanser. The green curry was awesome as always — it’s one of their specialities.
By the time we got to the minced soft tofu sauced holy basil — which the chef incorrectly remembered as my favourite; it comes a distant second to my everyday jam, the pomelo salad — we’d gathered enough steam to put an exclamation mark on our meal, in the form of an empty plate. Then came one dessert. Then came another.
If you’ve noticed a Thai emphasis in the dishes mentioned, it’s because Thai dishes are the most widely covered by their international vegetarian menu. Shipments of herbs and spices come in weekly from Thailand, and Kim’s Mercure Koh Chang-awarded Certificate of Culinary Achievement in Thai Cooking hangs in front.
Sticking it through, I finished a tremendously satisfying scoop of vanilla ice cream. Vegan? you might be thinking — Really? Kay is ‘vegan’ more in the Vietnamese sense of the word — a restaurant dedicated to an anti-cruelty, pro-health vegetarian ethos, with the occasional dairy product thrown in.
This is hardly an impartial review, but judge it on the basis of my long-standing patronage. Kay and nearby Lau Nam Chay An Nhien (94 Nguyen Van Thu, Q1) are my two favourite Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants — my favourite cuisine in Saigon (shout-outs also go to Japanese veggie oasis Ploughman’s Garden [58 So 1, Tran Nao, Q2] and the Cao Dai-administered Dinh Y [171B Cong Quynh, Q1]).
Kay will continue to receive my business and my affection, even after my health kick tapers off. With Kim’s, it’s never about a single dish. — Ed Weinberg
Kay Vegan Bistro is at 84A Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Q1, in the alley Hem Cay Diep