The first floor is one part art gallery, one part café, and one part bar, decorated in tapestries, trinkets, posters, and luscious dark wooden tables, open to look out on the quaint pond hiding behind rows of buildings on Xuan Dieu. Downstairs, a small terrace is tucked among fruit trees, romantic and quiet (save for the chatter of a next door neighbour’s parrot). It’s cosy like the house of a friend with great taste.
“It was very difficult to find a place in Tay Ho like this,” says Te. She’s been at the helm of the ever-popular Ray Quan since 2013, but wanted to bring her medicinal rice wines and Vietnamese fare to West Lake. After remodelling the entire space, Te opened Ke Quan in June this year.
Te travels Vietnam in search of traditional cuisine, and nothing on her menu is an accident. “Everything has a meaning,” says Cesar. As we sit around the table family-style, Te explains her lunch set, which adheres to the Vietnamese principle of culinary balance; every meal must have an element of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood.
On to the Food
Today’s VND60,000 set lunch features beef cooked in ginger and pepper, a seasonal soup of mustard greens, steamed vegetables, and fried vegetarian spring rolls, all the elements arranged around a bowl of spicy, sweet dipping sauce in the centre.
I take an instant fancy to the fried tofu with black sesame (VND65,000), a perfect crispy shell wrapped around a soft, creamy interior. We try two kinds of spring rolls, classic Hanoi style (VND75,000) and a fish and dill variety (VND95,000), which caused a fight between my photographer and I for the last one.
The steamed vegetables (VND65,000) are a pleasant surprise — where most Vietnamese restaurants rarely branch out from morning glory, Ke Quan cooks up a colourful array of broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms and carrots, with a spicy shrimp and pork dip from the south of Vietnam called kho quet, and a “dry sauce” of crushed peanut and sesame (a food of monks, Te explains).
For the mains, we have cha ca (VND150,000), crispy grilled Lang fish from the Da river with turmeric and dill, and a deconstructed, health-conscious bun cha (VND50,000). Te explains that they remove the skin and fat from the pork to make the dish leaner. She often tweaks traditional dishes to please foreign palates, and health is an important factor in her menu.
Her favourite way to heal the body is through homemade ruou — she currently stocks 15 varieties, at VND180,000 per bottle. She pours a shot of apricot wine, which isn’t sickly sweet like I’m used to. There’s no added sugar, but Te stirs in a bit of honey upon request. We try another shot of mulberry wine, made from the fruit that feeds silkworms. “This is good for the liver, and for coughs,” Te explains. Then there’s trai nhau, an island fruit that tastes earthy, like a root vegetable, and a spicy green pepper wine with a bite.
Te’s unique creations even extend to her coffee. In Buon Ma Thuot, she came across a curious addition to the roast — fish sauce. “They add [it] to the beans and after, they fry them,” she says, bringing out a tea cup and prompting me to try her newest experiment. Savoury, salty, bitter, sweet and rich, it’s a great combination of all the essential elements, much like Ke Quan itself.
Ke Quan is at 81B Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Hanoi
Photos by Julie Vola