Foodies are always complaining about the lack of good Asian dining options in the Hamptons. But the V-Café—a little known 65-seat pop-up restaurant serving flavorful, authentic Vietnamese cuisine amidst the greenery, heaters and the thwack of tennis balls at the lovely Hampton Racquet Club—is changing all that.
It started with a mutual love of tennis. Lan Cao, who owns and has run the V-Café in Tribeca for 18 years, was playing tennis as she always does in the winter in Southampton, when she befriended Monica Graham and her brother John Graham. A friendly Thanksgiving invitation by the Grahams’ led to more conversation, and Cao discovering that Monica owned the Hampton Racquet Club and John was the director of the tennis program there. When Cao looked up the club and saw they had a kitchen, the three began to discuss the idea of bringing Cao’s Vietnamese food to the club—which had only utilized the kitchen as a snack bar for the kids camp.
“I said we can do snack food, Vietnamese snack street food,” says Cao, the V-Café’s executive chef. “And then COVID hit. There was no business in the city, and I wanted to keep my staff working. … We started takeout after the Fourth of July weekend last summer.”
A positive review in a local paper gave the V-Café a kickstart. And now, in their first full season, the partnership with Monica and Lan has resulted in an expansion of seating in the grassy umbrella area on the large deck. And the customers are coming and discovering her menu for both takeout and outside dining.
They are not disappointed. From satays to spring rolls, Vietnamese marinated flank steak to lemongrass chicken, sautéed jumbo shrimp to lacquered duck–the options are varied, fresh, flavorful and with just the right seasonings. There are several vegetarian choices and vegan options. (And the prices are a welcome reprieve in both taste and tabulations from the $50-plus lobster rolls this summer.)
Lan Cao, who was born in North Vietnam in Hanoi and grew up in Saigon, says that since the age of 8 she was always cooking and buying produce at the local market. After receiving a scholarship to Sydney University she lived in Australia, working for Citibank there, and then for the company in New York, where she stayed. She left finance after growing weary of “the glass ceiling and the bias” and the “toxic, unhealthy environment” on Wall Street. She opened an art gallery in Tribeca and after numerous enquiries about the food she made and served at her receptions, she eventually opened the V-Café in NYC.
What is special about Vietnamese cuisine?
We use five spices and soy sauce—the Western cuisine, they don’t marinate things. They just put a sauce on the steak, but the Vietnamese said, “Oh, now we are going to have to change that.”
We took some from the French, some from the Chinese, but we don’t cook the way the Chinese do. We eat all the fresh vegetables. … We are not as heavy and spicy as Thai food—it’s a very balanced cuisine to me, and we really focus on the medicinal aspect of it
What kinds of spices do you use?
We use all the spices and the turmeric in a lot of food. Ginger, we eat ginger in everything. In soup and broth we use a lot of turmeric, garlic, those are very good medicinal benefits to your immune systems to help with inflammations.
We use all kinds of vegetables—we use bean sprouts, fresh cucumber, pickles …
In Vietnam, at the table, every lunch and dinner there is always some kind of fermented pickle—pickled cabbage, pickled this or pickled that, pickled eggplant—because fermented food is good for your gut.
What are the some of the most popular items on your menu?
The pad Thai, the Jicama rolls, they are very light. The curry, people love curry.
What’s the best part about being in the restaurant business?
Meeting people. Restaurants is a tough business, it’s not easy to make money–I was lucky in the city for a number of years so I made it. … Out here is very challenging, we don’t have staff … and costs high.
I think I’m happy the most when people really enjoy the food—it’s like it validates something in me, for that part, it keeps me going.
V-Café at the Hampton Racquet Club is located at 172 Buckskill Road, East Hampton. Open to the public for lunch and dinner and takeout, Wednesdays noon–9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.–3 p.m. For reservations and pickup orders, call 631-604-6455. For more information, visit hamptonracquet.com/v-cafe.