Recipe for success: Owners Dai Duong and Rene Spence at Uncle. Photo: Joe Armao
Uncle is a new, hyped, packed Vietnamese joint in St Kilda that could have been put together by an 18-to-25 focus group. It's stylish and casual, loud and alcohol-centred, no bookings and full of the youngsters who measure out their lives in downloads.
It's the template honoured by all restaurateurs vying for so-hot-right-now status. Slap on your ethnicity of choice, and off you go. I reckon the domino theory was discredited way too soon.
So Uncle is the Vietnamese Mamasita, and it's just as fun, frivolous and freaking annoying to get into. Arrive much later than 6pm and you can expect to make the acquaintance of the guy taking names on his clipboard. Just as well there's a bar area downstairs where you can drown your impatience with a Vietnamese-themed cocktail, a can of Bia Ha Noi, or something from a wine list that packs a fair bit of interest into its brief dimensions while also catering for the budget-conscious with its $22-a-bottle keg wines from the King Valley's D.O.C.
Porterhouse steak with coconut butter and lotus root. Photo: Joe Armao
The dining area is upstairs, built around a long bar and mirrored on the other side with a lovely open courtyard planted with bamboo. I'm presuming the name references Uncle Ho - there's the odd blow-up scene of Vietnamese peasantry, anyway - but it keeps things light and bright with acres of pale plywood and crafty lights and a breezy vibe, although the record ought to note that the stools are too high. Or I'm too short.
The chef, who co-owns the joint with front-of-house guy Rene Spence, is Dai Duong, who worked at Geoff Lindsay's Dandelion. He knows how to tweak the food of his homeland into a broad-format menu with a slant towards the French influence. There's chicken liver pâté topped with a layer of yellow fat, although once you've cracked through, the paste underneath isn't shy on livery oomph, and it comes with puffs of sesame and rice crackers.
They've Huxtaburgered the banh mi, subbing the crusty baguette with a soft glazed brioche. The fillings are inspired by another insidious form of colonialism - dude food's long march across the menus of the nation - and while the salty-crackly strips of fried pig's ear aren't authentic, they get along happily with the pickled vegetables and peanuts.
There's a chicken salad with fragrant herbs and nuoc cham, but overall you'd say the menu isn't too concerned with the fresh, lively, zing-driven food of modern Vietnam. There's plenty of frying. Every second table seems to be ordering sweet potato chips. Chicken wings are performed as generic drinking food gussied up with the Asian window dressing of red chilli and spring onion and a cheeky bottle of Maggi Seasoning. Vegetarian spring rolls filled with carrot and shiitake make more of a statement, with iceberg lettuce cups for rolling with boiled egg, shiso leaves and mint, and a sweet-sour peanut nuoc cham.
There's pho. It comes in two sizes. The small, a $6 bowl with a decent star anise-driven beef broth and big slices of brisket lurking in the slippery rice noodles, with all of the requisite add-ons (bean shoots, herbs, chilli paste and a squeeze of lime). It's not the posh pho of Dandelion. It speaks more of the laminate of Victoria Street. I'm happy.
Under ''larger guys'', a Vietnamese spin on steak frites - a grunty bit of porterhouse on the bone with coconut butter and fried lotus root - reminds me that one of the best French meals I ever had was in Hanoi. The mussels cooked in Bia Ha Noi aren't so cracking. The broth is thin, the excitement low, and I could also skip desserts that seem to be aiming for stoner excess, such as mango sorbet topped in piped meringue drowning in a tapioca coconut milk sea.
It's easy to see where Uncle is planting its flag. It's sometimes serious, mostly unchallenging, but wholly in step with the spirit of the dining times. On that note, I think it's time everyone over the age of 40 paused to acknowledge restaurants have become a young person's game. It's Gen-Y's world. The rest of us just live in it.
The best bit Super-fun atmosphere
The worst bit No bookings policy - boo!
Go-to dish Porterhouse with coconut butter and lotus root chips
- 02 9041 2668
- Cuisine - Vietnamese
- Prices - Typical small dish $10, large dish $28, dessert $11
- Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options, Outdoor seating, Bar
- Chef(s) - Dai Duong
- Owners - Rene Spence & Dai Duong
- Cards accepted - Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues 5pm-late; Wed-Sun noon-late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki