“There’s a lot to be said for experiencing crappy versions of food before you get to the good stuff. It makes the moment of realisation so very much better.”
So said Jay Rayner, perhaps one of the most outspoken and opinionated food writers around. I read his quote at a fortunate moment, shortly after having eaten at Tot and shortly before writing this review.
Point being, there have been enough new ‘bringing Vietnamese to the masses’ restaurant openings lately that it qualifies as a trend, and a trend that hasn’t produced much success. Having endured more than a few disappointing experiences in this vein, Tot surprised by how distinctly it delivered.
Generally speaking, we’ve found that there’s almost an inverse relationship between the amount of effort put into the image of restaurants serving immigrant cuisines and the quality of the food – basically, the better it looks, worse it tastes. Tot looks slick with professional logo and menu design, and an of-the-moment light & bright minimalist interior. Forgive us for thinking it felt like a familiar set up.
One that led to the need to quickly recalibrate: with the first taste, Tot’s banh mi easily became one of the top 3 in the city. The baguette was toasted, the fillings hit the sandwich’s signature ‘how does something so rich taste so fresh?’ notes, and as I was later told, the pate and the mayonnaise were both made in-house. They’re also getting a nice char on their grilled pork, and it pays off. Good start.
One that continues with the bun (cold rice noodle bowl). The first thing you’ll notice is how beautifully it’s presented. Traditionally the elements of the dish are layered – vegetables at the bottom, covered with rice noodles, then meat on top – but Tot composes them so all elements are visible. Since the general idea is to mix them up anyway, there’s no discernible compromise to this approach. Clever, and tasty. We went with grilled pork option again, and not only did it satisfy, it evoked fading memories of the brazier grilled street side versions of this dish when I tried it in Hanoi.
But what about the pho? Truthfully, we weren’t big fans. The broth was on the thin side, and the flavor seemed to lean a bit too heavily towards the star anise. Everything else seemed right, but the broth is why we get it. Bearing in mind that the restaurant has been open for all of a week, it’s entirely possible that they haven’t worked the kinks out yet.
A point worth re-emphasizing, especially in light of how much they’ve done well. Even at this early stage, Tot is the first of its kind I’d happily return to, and, have.