The cooking of Asia permeated the Australian diet long ago. First came Chinese in its various Westernised guises, then Thai, with its fragrant curries. Now, Vietnamese eateries deliver delicate flavours, healthy ingredients and an abundance of herbs.
Bay Tinh, a Marrickville institution, may have had something to do with this ascension. For two decades Tinh Tran, a refugee, ran the restaurant, serving dishes he once prepared as the personal chef to a former prime minister of South Vietnam. A fellow refugee, Harry Hoang, left the corporate IT world to take over the business five years ago, expanding to Crows Nest in November.
On a busy Sunday night, we join bustling tables filled with couples, families of all ages and groups of middle-aged friends. Our surroundings - red lanterns, crimson walls and dark, wooden furniture - suggest, rather than scream, a Vietnamese influence. Stairs to one side lead to an upstairs function room. A broody room out the back has day beds and ottomans.
Our waiter, a gracious young man, offers the menu, a long, dizzying list of soups, salads, hotpots, meat dishes and noodles. Pho is conspicuously absent from the dinner options but Hoang will make it on request. There is also a range of banquet options or a Vietnamese tapas selection.
The signature dishes are highlighted, which makes our decisions easier. First to arrive is the duck salad - little bundles of pickled vegetable shreds dotted with small chunks of duck and wrapped in lettuce in the style of san choy bow. They're mouth-puckeringly refreshing and rev up our appetites.
We are astonished by the little rice cakes. This southern dish is so silky and golden, it could easily be mistaken for quiche or custard tart.
More prosaic, but still tasty, are the tender beef cubes, which are transformed into tangy moreish morsels by daubs of dressing made from lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Things heat up with the bonfire chicken and prawns, which are served in a pot licking with flames. Once the fire dies down, our waiter does a DIY demo: on a round of rice paper, he places the meat with lettuce, herbs and sprouts, then wraps the lot into a transparent bundle with a dash of anchovy sauce. Our attempts don't look nearly as handsome but offer clean, fresh flavours.
Hoang's inventive streak is obvious in the spatchcock, an Asian nod to roast chicken, complete with ''chips'' on the side. Cooked sous vide - slow-cooked in a sealed bag - with coconut juice and Chinese five spice, the meat is tender and sweet, but the chips are more surprising. Instead of potato, we crunch into sticky rice sticks. They taste sweet, with a hint of coconut, and we can only manage two or three.
The caramelised salmon is silky and tender but the potent fishy smell proves too rich for our table, while the ballotine of chicken - deboned meat stuffed with minced pork and spices then slow cooked and served with plum sauce - is technically impressive but lacks oomph.
Finally, we share a rich, syrupy caramel flan, and a rum espresso parfait, which is icier than expected but delivers a strong coffee hit.
Hoang's repertoire could probably take a trim or two but there are enough hits to ensure the rise of Vietnamese continues.
Menu Southern Vietnamese with inventive flair.
Value Good. Entrees, $7.50-$14.50; mains, $17.90-$35; desserts, $8-$12.
Recommended dishes Little rice cakes; tender beef cubes; bonfire chicken and prawns.
16 Falcon Street, Crows Nest, 9438 5118
Fri, lunch, 12-3pm; Tues-Sun, dinner, 5.30pm-late
BYO wine only
- Cuisine - Vietnamese
- Prices - Entrees $7.50-$14.50, Mains $17.90-$35, Desserts $8-$12
- Features - BYO
- Opening Hours - Friday, lunch, 12-3pm, Tuedsay-Sunday, dinner, 5.30pm-late
- Author - Megan Johnston