Located in what was a former furniture warehouse with a pho shop out front, Kokoïs is Thao Dien’s latest go-to restaurant — at least, judging by a Sunday afternoon visit. The place was packed. Mekong Merchant-style packed.
What sets this new-kid-on-the-block, European-styled eatery apart from its peers is the space. As spaces go, this has possibilities, and the French owners behind this latest venture have used it to good effect.
Branded as a “café, bistro and store”, the furniture store, warehouse-like look of yesteryear has been complemented rather than altered. With high ceilings — there’s a spacious, open mezzanine level here — the design makes for an industrial yet homey ambience in the fan-cooled indoor area and on the back terrace. Greys, purples, an uncovered concrete floor and metallic bar tops add to the look. Where the ceilings have been lowered to allow for the aircon factor, period-style floor tilings and wall-to-wall mirrors make what could potentially be a cramped, enclosed room feel spacious. It’s an old trick, but it’s effective.
But it’s not just ambience that draws in the customers — and here it’s fresh, light and airy — but also the service, and most importantly, the food.
Over the past few years, District 7 and District 2 have transformed themselves into destinations that can offer the same calibre of options as downtown. And the same variety of options.
Yet one style of restaurant that has never quite come to the suburbs are the sister eateries of Au Parc and Refinery. Famed for their Mediterranean-influenced salads, wraps and sandwiches, few have managed to bring a version of their offerings to the hinterlands.
This is where Kokoïs may be succeeding where others have failed. Although there are at present only six salads on the menu, all are as creative as the next. Take the Kokoïs Salad (VND170,000) with the colours of its beetroot and smoked magret duck replicating the purple-based tints of the venue. Served up with strawberries, arugula, cherry tomatoes, nuts and a balsamic vinegar-based dressing, this is every bit as good as the offerings in town. If I hadn’t had ordered a tartine to go with my salad, I would have downed the lot. It was moreish, particularly the odd combination of contrasting sweet and smoky flavours offered by the beetroot and the duck. My only comment — a touch too much balsamic vinegar.
On the sandwich front, the menu here boasts six types of tartine and three burgers, including a tuna burger (VND220,000 ) and chicken and avocado burger (VND195,000). There is also a ‘butcher’s corner’ focusing on meat dishes with a range of steaks and ribs served up with salad and fries. A small offering of Vietnamese dishes also makes the menu, as do share-worthy starter platters and desserts.
The Welsh Tartine (VND160,000), however, intrigued me most. The menu seemed to claim it as a French croque madame-style version of the Welsh rarebit (toast topped with a beer or ale-based bechamel cheddar cheese sauce). To me it suggested everything that I like about creative, contemporary cuisine — you take different concepts and dishes, and see how you can mix them together.
As I discovered, the key difference here between a croque madame and what I was offered was that everything was served on top of a doorstop-style slice of thick white bread. Don’t get me wrong. While the tartine was tasty — I went through every last bite — and filled those hidden stomach corners that only a starch-heavy dish can reach, its name and description on the menu didn’t match up with the offering. It just wasn’t Welsh. What served as bechamel sauce wasn’t strong enough (did they forget the mustard? I certainly couldn’t taste the beer) and, heavens above, the bread was sweet!
I’m picking up on the finest of details here, details that most diners would never notice. And these are the kind of details that two months-worth of operation cannot get under control. To make a restaurant work, you need six months to a year.
Yet I saw enough here to know that providing Kokoïs keeps on top of its game, then this place will establish itself as another go-to eatery in the Thao Dien area of Saigon. And with so many restaurants out there offering below-par service and food, this is something the area desperately needs. — Nick Ross
Photos by Francis Xavier
Kokoïs is at 24 Thao Dien, Q2, HCMC, or at kokois.com. The venue has a small shop out front selling anything from products by Kepi to Old Saigon Monopoly, soaps, candles and ethnic minority-made bags