Photo: Eddie Jim
WE AREN'T on Victoria Street any more, Toto. Dandelion, the new modern Vietnamese restaurant from erstwhile Pearl guiding light Geoff Lindsay, is half a city and a world away from Melbourne's Little Saigon. The food, the decor, the location - Elwood, of all places - and the prices have no truck with cheap-and-cheerful venues, their Laminex tabletops and paper napkins.
But at the risk of heresy, Dandelion is an instance of getting what you pay for. Eating at this smoking-hot restaurant will cost you but the lasting memory ought to be of a keenly enjoyed meal rather than being fleeced by a clued-in chef cooking Asian food for a clueless white audience.
His tilts at Asia provided some of the best moments at contemporary Richmond fine-diner Pearl. During those 10 years, Lindsay spied a gap in the market (yes, they still exist). Dandelion is all about Vietnam, which for some inexplicable reason has defied the waves of emigres to Australia to fly under the serious dining radar.
Lindsay approaches one of the world's greatest peasant cuisines like a high-end iconoclast, wooing it with top-rate ingredients (wagyu, mud crab, sashimi-grade tuna, organic chicken) and cheffy technique. He doesn't forget to inject a sense of irreverence along the way. A four-seater wrap and roll bar is his Vietnamese take on the sushi bar, in which fillings such as fried soft-shell crab and avocado ($18) are wrapped tightly in translucent rice paper for dipping in a chilli and crushed pineapple sauce that goes from a pleasant tingle to the full burn in two mouthfuls.
If there were any Asian faces in this sea of white, they probably wouldn't be reaching for the fish sauce and chilli sauce sitting in their branded bottles on each table. Dandelion is Vietnamese food done by a Western chef but it isn't a place for beige facsimiles. Without messing too much with the template, the pho, the fresh and zingy salads and the aromatic curries are upgraded by virtue of superb ingredients. Other dishes get a spin from the chef. I doubt you would find soft pork belly ($26), aggressively peppered and braised in a clay pot with springy cloud ear fungus, in a Saigon shopfront. It's in another league.
Each diner is given cutlery and chopsticks, a linen napkin, good stemware - all the better for drinking from the small but interesting, aromatically skewed wine list - and a white rectangular plate that is cleared at the end of each course.
The fitout is the grown-up version of the cafeteria. The room fits plenty of action within its narrow walls: bar at the front, interior courtyard with retracting walls housing a vertical garden, small open kitchen at the back with Lindsay's crew of trucker-capped, mostly Asian chefs. The floors are concrete, the walls are whitewashed or distressed red brick and the noise reaches levels you would expect thanks to all those bare, hard surfaces.
Service is fast, low-fuss and misses a few cues but the frenetic atmosphere is infectious, making the care factor low.
Lindsay must be a bit giddy after leaving fine dining for lower ground. The menu is big, grouped from salads to the coconut grill.
The best starters include the chicken wings ($16). Steamed then fried, coated in a crunchy sesame seed carapace with a ginger and mushroom paste, they're an eminently worthy Indochinese contribution to the fried-chicken fad. Lemongrass-scented minced wagyu ($18) wrapped in betel leaf and charcoal-grilled picks up a beguiling smokiness, while a crab salad ($25) with avocado, spearmint, chilli and a fair whack of lime is as clean-flavoured as food has a right to be.
I wouldn't stop the presses for another starter. Billed as a sizzling coconut pancake ($24), it neither sizzles nor has any discernible coconut milk to its egginess, and its barbecue pork and crab filling is merely OK. Or the fluffy hubcap-sized fried sesame and coconut rice papers ($6). They look great, which doubles the pity that eating one is like chewing cardboard.
But, oh, the pho. With its deep, rich, complex broth, it's the Rolls-Royce of pho, the wagyu version arriving with strips of raw sirloin that ''cook'' at the table but not enough to melt away the marbled fat. The connective tissue remains soft and pliant, and braised brisket adds a luscious richness. Simply incredible and, for $20, a meal unto itself.
But onwards we go, to the heading marked ''curries and wet dishes'', where snapper ($32) with elephant ear stem (think of a spongy celery) bases its bright-flavoured appeal in another elegant show-stopper of a broth, this one scented with tamarind and pineapple and bobbing with okra and baby corn. Or to the finger-lickin' action of the barbecue pork spare ribs ($32) off the coconut charcoal grill. The caramelised meat is fall-off-the-bone tender after being marinated in coconut water and papaya seeds before cooking, and arrives with another host of add-ons: iceberg lettuce and herbs for wrapping, a palm sugar and fish sauce, and the floral flavours of a lychee, mint and bean shoot salad.
Desserts will separate the true believers from the tourists. The bo bo cha cha ($16) features hard, savoury textures - including sweet potato and lotus seeds - in a warm coconut soup. I prefer the mass appeal of a heavy cake of caramelised banana ($15) with two ice-creams, coconut and tamarind. The latter is a beautiful balance of tart and sour and sweet.
In flavour and form a neighbourhood restaurant, Dandelion has pan-Melbourne appeal thanks to its unique place in the market. You could consider it Vietnamese food's great leap forward. Or simply a long-overdue addition to the city's restaurant scene.
Where 133 Ormond Road, Elwood
Phone 9531 4900
Cost Typical entree, $16; main, $32; dessert, $14
Wine list Short and tailored to the food
We drank Kilikanoon ''Morts Block'' Riesling (Watervale, SA), $8.50/$45
Owners Geoff and Jane Lindsay
Chef Geoff Lindsay
Service A little overwhelmed at peak times
Vegetarian Three dishes
Cards AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Tues-Sun, 5.30pm-late; Sat-Sun, noon-3pm
- 9531 4900
- Cuisine - Vietnamese
- Prices - Typical entree, $16; main, $32; dessert, $14
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Geoff Lindsay
- Owners - Geoff and Jane Lindsay
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Sun, 5.30pm-late; Sat-Sun, noon-3pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki