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Friday, April 17, 2009

TOKYO FOOD FILE

MOT goes Vietnamese


It's always a pleasure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT) out in Koto Ward. The surrounding park is calm, the architecture of the museum exemplary, and the exhibitions invariably well curated.

Cafe Hai
Food for art: Pho noodles at the Museum of Contemporary Art ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTO

Now there's another reward at the end of that hike from the subway station — a couple of new restaurants in which to relax and rest your legs. In the recent refurbishment, the MOT's second-floor refreshment space was given a total makeover. It has reopened under the name Cafe Hai, boasting a distinctive Vietnamese character but with a couple of other exotic accents.

This could easily have been done wrong, with just a few token Southeast Asian tidbits tacked onto a mainstream coffee-shop menu. Thankfully, that's not the case. Everything has been put together in a way that is both authentic and very tasty. It came as no surprise therefore to find out that Cafe Hai is operated by the excellent Vietnamese restaurant in Nishi-Azabu that is simply called Kitchen.

The short list of savory refreshments covers all the basics: com (rice) served with a sauce of ground pork; pho noodles with meat balls in a hot soup that's fragrant with nuoc mam fish sauce (but with the coriander leaf served separately, for those unaccustomed to its insistent taste); or that classic Vietnamese snack, banh mi thit, a length of baguette stuffed with aromatic pork pate.

Naturally, the coffee is Vietnamese, dripped through aluminum filters and served with sweet concentrated milk if so desired. Alternatively, you can also order mint tea in the Moroccan style. If you require stronger fortification, there are four types of Vietnamese lager, including bottles of La Rue from Danang, which is rarely spotted on these shores.

It was the dessert menu that really won us over, especially the prosaically named Vietnamese purin (Japanese for "custard pudding"), which is known in country as kem flan. It comes doused with plenty of rich caramel sauce and topped with ice shavings and a sprig of mint. We have never had such a good version of this old favorite.

Cafe Hai gets all the little details right too. The menus are tacked inside straw covers shaped like fans; the food is served on pleasant, bright enamel trays; the menu is even painted on the window with prices given in the Vietnamese currency (at a spurious exchange rate of 100 dong to the yen).

Better than this though, the cheerful demeanor of the staff brings the warmth and charm of Southeast Asia into this rather austere setting. After an hour or so exposed to Ryoji Ikeda's optic-nerve-boggling digital art (showing till June 21), we found this especially welcome.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku; nearest stations: Kiba (Tozai Line), Kikukawa (Shinjuku Line) or Kiyosumi-Shirokawa (Hanzomon Line); open 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; (03) 5620-5962; www.fc-arr.com/kitchen/


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