56 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Daily 5pm-11pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings, Private dining, Groups, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 6627|
To look at Annam from the street – Little Bourke Street to be exact, where it glows out of a warehouse-like space behind the Comedy Theatre – you might shrug and think you've had enough of culture-jamming Asian food set against a backdrop of pink neon lights and beats. And that would be understandable. Restaurateurs and enthusiastic backpacking chefs certainly have taken words like "hawker stall" and bashed us to within an inch of our fusion-appreciating capabilities in the past five years.
But Annam isn't rolling in late-to-the-party with a wok-and-roll mural in tow. Annam is the work of chef Jerry Mai, the mighty force behind fast and fresh Vietnamese pho and banh mi stalls, Pho Nom. But where a lot chefs have been opening burger joints and Pezzo bars to subsidise their fine dining habit, this is Mai flipping and reversing it, throwing back to her restaurant roots under chefs like David Thompson, her time at Longrain, Gingerboy and Zuma in London, and pulling on her personal history as a Vietnamese-born refugee raised in Australia.
So it is that some food is formed from first-hand memories: a Cambodian-style pork hock curry that Mai's father can nail; whole kingfish cooked over the charcoal grill harking back to family barbecues. But also pieces of pure cheffy invention like an essential beer snack of cuttlefish fried in its own ink-stained batter, rising from research trips around south-east Asia with hat tips to Vietnam's culinary influencers like Cambodia and Thailand.
It's a broad menu of no-fixed-abode that threads together as a cohesive menu nonetheless.
But first you might start at the long granite bar running the length of the high-ceilinged room with a tinnie of Hanoi Beer or Young Henry's lager, a crisp riesling No. 5 from the Rieslingfreak crowd, or a tropical, plantation rum and charred pineapple cocktail from co-owner Rani Doyle's playful, spice-friendly drinking agenda that could stand alone if you find yourself thirsty and up for a single snack in the 'hood.
Those snacks are kingly: house-made, snappy-skinned fermented pork sausage runs crimson with spicy oil, tempered by a wrapping of fresh cabbage leaf, sweet pineapple and pickled green chilli.
See also a truly original steak tartare. Wagyu mince is electrified by a spice mix, all cumin and hits of fennel, mixed through with roasted bone marrow instead of egg yolk. Vietnamese mint, shallots and Chinese doughnuts, the superior carb of Asia, make it the best of the 36,000 versions you've eaten this year.
There are rice paper rolls, pleasant as always and filled maybe with fresh raw tuna, but they pale next to a salad of char-grilled octopus, the small tentacles caramelised in garlic, lemongrass and chilli, curling around an incredibly fragrant thatch of Vietnamese mint and the buggish bite of shiso leaf, with cooling cucumber, sour chips of green mango and earthy roasted chillies bringing the slow subtle heat.
As with all original menus, dishes get divisive. Sarsparilla-braised oxtail dumplings have formed their own cult following, the filling having been braised in the herbal soda and fish sauce until it melts, and served with a syrupy reduction of the sauce. It's a potently sweet wallop of flavour that has me done for after one while a table nearby doubles down on their order.
Maybe instead you can't get enough of the subtler northern Vietnamese specialty of crab banh cuon. Here, rice batter is formed into skins to order, filled with loose-textured crab meat and steamed again like an unstructured dumpling, getting its lift from fresh chilli, bean sprouts and golden-fried shallots.
On the flip side, the collagen-rich, fermented rice-thickened pork hock curry brightened with pickled fennel and daikon is dense-going to those unaccustomed to mellow, meat-driven curry styles.
They should opt for the somm la curry that eats a little like a Thai jungle curry, all galangal and turmeric neatly holding the gaminess of tender goat in check, with popping pea eggplants giving accents.
More refreshing than anything, there's personality here you can taste, and see. On the wall, Mai's favourite terrible-excellent kung fu movies are being projected.
The floor staff are long-time pros, extremely friendly, well-tooled to advise, though sometimes embattled if shorthanded.
But small amounts of chaos also feel right. The beat of a mortar and pestle keeps time with house music. You'll watch several people fail to push the front door that actually slides. The heavily mirrored bathroom entrance combines with a Vietnamese coffee cocktail to create a confusing trap. Submit to an untold story.
Get a coconut sorbet and jelly in a cracked young 'nut while you're at it. You'll find both a breath of fresh air.
Pro Tip: Vegetarians, sing out, there's a separate menu.
Go-to Dish: Chiang Mai pork sausage with cabbage and fresh pineapple ($14).