RESTAURANT partnerships are like marriages: some last the distance but plenty end up in the divorce courts and a small proportion are so fleeting, they have a good case for annulment. Such was the case with Brown and Do, which offered bucketloads of promise but quickly went under in a storm of recriminations and legal writs.
That was almost a year ago but there are plenty of reasons to return to 166 Bridport Street in Albert Park. Greg Brown has left the building but the remaining two-thirds of the original triumvirate, Theo Do and An Nguyen, have turned the focus from Brown’s French classicism to an all-Vietnamese menu.
It was the obvious move — and a good one. Despite the fact that Melbourne’s Vietnamese population is significant, it’s a continuing source of surprise and disappointment that we have no great tradition of Vietnamese restaurants moving beyond the cheap’n’cheerful hegemony.
Don’t misunderstand me, those places form part of the bedrock of the local dining scene. Nor am I getting all bourgeois by hankering for the standard repertoire in an environment that includes table linen and proper service (for the record, iDo’s service starts diligently but winds up a little distracted by evening’s end). Nor, for that matter, is it an aversion to menus comprising multiple pages of sauce-stained laminate — although the iDo menu fits neatly on to a single page (A4, just to drive its mini-proportions home), separated under a few simple headings. There are 10 appetisers, half a dozen each of meat and vegetable dishes and a couple of fish.
Unfamiliar to no one will be the variations on spring rolls — the basic fried variety with fresh lettuce and different types of mint ($9) are OK but I hear the soft rice paper rolls with prawn and pork ($12.50) are in a different league entirely. There are fish cakes and green papaya salad, too: so far, so predictable. But beyond those scene-setters is a lively selection of dishes rarely seen on Vietnamese-Australian menus and altogether a conceptual leap from the southern-style hawker fare we know generically as Vietnamese.
Exhibit A: glossy slices of raw fish subtly cured with clove, cinnamon and five-spice and finished with a glossy soy-citrusy sheen ($14). Magical — and if you’re wondering about the apparent Japanese fusion, don’t: apparently it’s how the Mekong fishermen do it.
Exhibit B: strips of beef shin — the tough cut braised tender — thrown through a creamy peanut sauce, made with the not-so-traditional Vietnamese kitchen tool known as the Pacojet, and added to a salad of soft lettuce and tomato with a hit of garlic ($16). Apart from the shortcomings of out-of-season tomatoes, it’s a win for the gorgeous soft textures dominating this northern dish that owes an obvious debt of gratitude to the French.
This organic kind of east-west marriage took place long before fusion became a dirty word and has continuing relevance to Vietnam’s haute-bourgeois cuisine. Head chef Theo Do’s mains mostly see proteins slow-cooked rather than hitting the wok; they’re laboriously prepared and beautifully presented, with the focus unwaveringly on the main ingredient.
Like the rabbit ($30) — a favourite of the Mekong Delta — with its obvious colonial antecedents and perhaps some Brown-esque cheffy technique going on: the bunny, marinated with galangal, ginger and garlic, is boned and rolled then roasted quickly to retain its moisture. It comes with a wonderfully complex, but not overpowering, terracotta-coloured sauce and a jumble of salad greens on top.
Chinese technique comes into play with the roast chicken ($28), which is so golden crunchy, you would swear it had met with some boiling hot oil, a-la the Colonel’s finest. It’s actually been marinated in stock for two days, hung for a day to dry out the skin, then marinated in lemongrass and basil oil before hitting the oven. The result, with a punchy pineapple chutney, is sublime.
Desserts in Asian restaurants so often seem like a non sequitur but these are worth a look. The creme caramel — the unofficial Vietnamese national dessert, $8 — is given a slight accent with coconut cream and a hit of Malibu. It’s fine. But I’ve rarely felt so fond of black sticky rice, this version arriving in a terracotta bowl topped with sweetcorn custard, its sugary smoothness playing off the glutinous chewiness of the rice ($12). Like the rest of the meal, it’s a less-familiar face of Vietnam and I’m all for it.
As for the rest of the package, well, it’s comfortable but nothing to get really worked up about. There’s a small but smart wine list that works hard within some closely defined parameters and a room, now slightly shabby around the edges, fitted out in classic French-bistro style, with banquettes and mirrors.
Apart from a bit of ethnic decoration with artworks and vases, it probably hasn’t changed too much since the days it was French bistro L’Oustal. That’s the thing about restaurants: some last the distance, others don’t. Fingers crossed for iDo Kitchen.
Where 166 Bridport Street, Albert Park
Phone 9699 8969
Cost Typical prices: E $13; M$29; D $12
Corkage $10 a bottle (BYO lunch only)
Wine list Well-priced, short but considered New World list. We drank Allinda Alba Toro Savagnin (Yarra Valley) $8/$39
Owners Theo Do and An Nguyen
Chef Theo Do
Vegetarian Five dishes
Cards V, AMEX, MC, Eftpos
Hours Wed-Sat, 11.30am-2.30pm; Tue-Sat, 6.30pm-10pm
- 03 9699 8969
- Cuisine - Vietnamese
- Prices - E $13; M$29; D $12
- Chef(s) - Theo Do
- Owners - Theo Do and An Nguyen
- Cards accepted - AMEX, EFTPOS, Visa, Mastercard
- Opening Hours - Wed-Sat, 11.30am-2.30pm; Tue-Sat, 6.30pm-10pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki