Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hanoi: KOTO

Everyone loves a non-profit with a solid business model.  How about a non-profit with a tasty business model?  A Lonely Planet and blogosphere darling,  KOTO (Know One, Teach One) is a vocational school/life-changing organization that trains disadvantaged teens to work in the service industry.  The chosen youth are enrolled in a rigorous 24-month course and concurrently work at a restaurant. Normally, I am skeptical about such ventures and would selfishly choose good food over a good cause, but after reading several outstanding online reviews and checking our itinerary, we decided to go.
The space is bright and modern and strikingly polished: the chairs comfortable, the menu diverse, the bathrooms unearthly clean.  The cute young staff is beyond friendly and very accommodating.  Gavin and I chose to sit in the downstairs dining area, but took a look at the tidy, unassuming cafe upstairs as well.
Since we were unaccustomed to the climate in Hanoi and had shivered our way through a day at Uncle Ho's tomb, we were starting to feel a bit under the weather.  For our beverages, we appropriately went for the house specialty: spicy lemongrass ginger tea with honey.  Our tea arrived scalding hot, thawing our petrified hands and cores as we carefully sipped from the porcelain.  From the delightful teas' fragrance and complex flavor, we assumed we were in for a real treat when our meals arrived.  After studying a menu split between classic Vietnamese dishes and Western favorites, I went for a falafel wrap and Gavin sheepishly ordered the cheeseburger, plus a bowl of the soup du jour - an unfortunately insipid, modest, and lukewarm cream of potato.
He handed it off to me at the halfway point.  I finished it, blaming the lack of flavor on Gavin for forgetting to add salt or pepper and that lack of warmth on... well, I guess the kitchen has to bear that cross.
When our lunches arrived we were excited to dig in.  Cold and weary, our deliberate comfort choices felt a little strange; in hindsight, we should have stuck with Vietnamese.  As for my wrap, the menu promised hearty falafel balls smothered in creamy tsatsiki and crammed in with veggies.  While the falafel itself was warm, it was surrounded in a meager amount of lettuce and cucumber, was wrapped in cold flatbread, and left my palate parched.  The mythical tsatsiki sauce went untasted or seen for the majority of the meal and the sad side-salad was covered in a viscous opal paste which nearly made me gag.
Gavin's decidedly average patty sat on a granite-cold sesame bun and was accompanied by a few slices of tomato and cucumber, a single leaf of lettuce, and a small side of ketchup.  And... the indignity of all indignities -  his french fries were cold.  They tasted as though they had been partying for a week straight - pale, pock-marked, greasy, and lifeless. 

A wonderful cause, a perfect location, a solid menu, and great service, but the food (at least the Western fare) was not well-executed.  I think we need an autocrat in the kitchen whipping these kids into shape.


Carol said...

A cold bun and cold fries are unforgiveable! If you are going to offer a dish, you might as well do it right! You have seldom written a bad review.
Your Pops and I on the other hand had a wonderful meal at the Jade Garden yesterday with vegetarian fried rice, two hotpot dishes (one with eggplant in a sweet sauce, the other tufu with seafood) and yummy pot stickers. You keep us inspired to try new things!

Isis said...

Sorry your attempt at Turkish food failed ... Interesting the restaurant chose Middle Eastern and Western Food ... I'm sure you could whip up a nice burger to satisfy Gavin's voracious appetite.

I'd love to see a "Nellie Extravaganza" at your crib with some of your new peeps !!

Xox !!