264 Canley Vale Road Canley Heights, NSW 2166
Bit of a hot spot, Canley Vale Road. If you haven't been here for a while, you might not recognise it. You've got your bling-bling, chandelier-laden tapas bar (Caravelle); your designer Korean (La Grilla) complete with Mexi-Kor tacos; and your chocolate-coated dessert bar and cafe (WTF?!, as in What the Fudge?!). Then there's your sleek, cool, frozenyoghurt bar (Noggi) decked out with more neon than a nightclub.
The pho palaces and Asian food shops are still here, but the generational shift is clearly towards cocktails, coffee, dude food and desserts; and the youthful energy and focus on design and architecture on ''the strip'', as the locals call it, is infectious. That I've come to check out a restaurant I first spotted in a design magazine (Artichoke) seems apt.
Just a step or two off the strip, Chi and Co has opened (after a short incarnation as Chi Chi) with a razzle-dazzle interior by Matt Woods, interior designer du jour for the inner west. In a light-industrial space as big as a basketball court, Woods has worked a number of hip mnemonics and memes into a lively fusion of pandas, neon, iron mesh, exposed brick and recycled timber. It's dining for those with attention-deficit disorder. A long, pristine white bar divides a large dining space from a well-organised, bedded-in kitchen. Edison globes hang over blond-wood tables set with contemporary white share plates and wine glasses, and a giant manga-graphic wall of pandas stretches into the distance.
Co-owner Les Huynh and head chef Hung Quoc Ngo hail from Balmain's pan-Asian Blue Ginger restaurant, and the ''awesome fried stuffed eggplant'' and ''beef-me-up ribs with chilli and tamarind sauce'' here read like Blue Ginger's hottest dishes re-captioned for a younger crowd. Thai betel leaves make a terrific start, topped with a bright, light mix of spanner crab, fresh coconut, pomelo and peanuts ($4.80 each). Another smart Thai dish of son-in-law eggs ($5.90) sees lightly boiled eggs deep-fried until crisp, while still soft-yolked within. A dollop of sweet, sticky, spicy XO sauce makes them devilishly moreish.
Steamed pork dumplings with shiitake mushrooms ($9.80) felt a bit heavy, but that old kid-filler, Vietnamese deep-fried chicken wings ($8.20), is nicely done, filled with a mince of chicken, cloud ear fungus, water chestnuts and glass noodles.
The bar is a serious set-up, and they're obviously proud of their cocktails, from the Ping Pong to the Lycheetini. There's a top range of Asian beers and a serviceable wine list, which, while conservative, carries real bargains. A spice-friendly, perfectly decent Totara sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, for instance, is $29 a bottle and $7.50 a glass. I can't remember when I last paid less than $30 for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.
''Les' Claypot Rice'' ($19.90) is a comforting, staff-meal sort of dish that began as Huynh's preferred post-service supper of rice studded with whatever was around, and topped with a fried egg. It's an almost saucy dish laced with lup cheong sausage, prawns, chicken, mushrooms and lily buds, getting even saucier when the egg yolk runs back into the rice. Vietnamese slow-braised beef ($17.80), or bo kho, is deep, dark and velvety; an intriguing mix of chilli, star anise, lemongrass, tomato and slow chunks of beef as tender as cushions, given an aniseed lift by a thatch of chiffonaded sawtooth coriander.
Right on trend, a cute little tapioca shot ($3.90) fills the gap before mainstream desserts such as creme caramel and kaffir lime brulee with coconut sorbet. A layered shot glass of tapioca, coconut custard, palm sugar and pomegranate, it's Malaysian gula melaka for a new generation.
So, is it fun? Hell yeah, it's fun. Floor staff are swift, knowing and attentive, and behind the playful designer facade, the kitchen takes care to get things right.
Chi and Co is like one of those celebratory lion dances in which the lion puts on a loud, brave front that gets all the attention - yet peep behind the mask and it's being manipulated by a team of smart, hard-working people who keep everything moving. It's big and bold, and seems determined to shake up our ideas of dining out, Asian-style.
Best bit Old-world flavours meets new-world buzz.
Worst bit Seemingly random pricing ($8.90, $16.80, $23.60).
Go-to dish Son-in-law eggs with house XO sauce, $5.90.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.