188 Carlisle Street St Kilda, Victoria 318203 9041 2668
|Opening hours||Tues 5-10pm,Wed-Sun noon-10pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Mastercard, Visa|
Uncle is a new-school Vietnamese restaurant that opened with a queue at the door a month ago and hasn't drawn breath since. It's a cool, fun place with tasty eats and great drinks, and it's easy to see why there's an hour's wait for dinner (reservations are available for groups), especially when you consider Carlisle Street is amazing for bagels and sorted for coffee but wouldn't know pho if it fell into a large lake of it.
Speaking of pho, the cleverest twist on Uncle's snappy menu of ''little guys'' and ''big guys'' is the fact that pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) is available in mini versions so it's not the filling commitment that it usually is. Sparkling clean broth is jazzed up with chicken, beef or mushroom plus DIY herbs, shoots and condiments and, like everything here, it's served in gorgeous ceramics.
The obvious comparison for Uncle is Elwood's smart Dandelion and it's no massive surprise to learn that co-owner Dai Duong was head chef there. But where Dandelion is smooth (think Cafe del Mar, manicures, concrete), Uncle is indie (Pixies, moustaches, plywood). Uncle is bigger and cheaper, too, with downstairs bar/holding pen and upstairs terrace and dining room. A stylised rickshaw-cum-waiters' station is a winning feature in the attractive wipe-clean interior.
In a big, brash setting the food needs to be loud, too. That's why I didn't fall for the pork belly and quail egg braise: the ginger and star anise broth would be delicious in a cone of silence but it's too subtle to make waves in this room. Flavour bombs fly better, which is why I'll always order the happily inauthentic betel leaves topped with lime-marinated fish, coconut and pomegranate seeds. Chicken liver pate is so Frenchy but so chic when served with voluminous fried crackers flavoured with prawn and sesame. The play of soft and crunchy is indicative of Duong's thoughtful way with textures. Wraps and rolls round out the snacks: crisp strips of pig ear are stuffed in a roll, fried soft-shelled crab is served with lettuce leaves. Wine on tap, themed cocktails (love the Mekong Splice with rum, mango and coconut) and unflappable service headed by co-owner Rene Spence boost the experience at a restaurant that's sure to be a favourite Uncle this summer.
Rating: 3 and a half stars (out of 5).