268 Little Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Sat noon-11pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9939 8113|
Melbourne is never shy of a restaurant opening, but there's a certain buzz when you realise you're at the start of a relationship that's going somewhere. I strongly suspect Aru is the new squeeze you'll rush to tell your friends about and want more of as soon as possible.
Maybe it's the drama of half a crisp-skinned suckling pig's head, fringed by leaves and condiments for wrapping and rolling. Or seeing a breakout star of last year's lockdown, chef Khanh Nguyen's banh mi-flavoured pâté en croute, here at Aru full-time.
Perhaps it's the sensory thrill of a space where all the elemental tones of rock and timber are a pitch-perfect match for the heady smell of sweet smoke, and where a whip crack service team guides and lifts the experience in a way you'd have killed for while locked at home. What is certain is that the good times come fast and furious at the long-awaited sibling to Sunda, and it may be the shot in the arm that our people-starved CBD needs.
You might remember Nguyen's explosion onto the dining consciousness when Sunda opened in 2018. Bringing Vietnamese heritage and credentials from Sydney ventures Mr Wong, Bentley and Noma Australia, he instantly delivered more signature dishes than some chefs have in a lifetime.
There was his outrageously OTT noodles with chicken skin scattered through its sticky web; rendang buns; truffle roti with Vegemite curry; and the reimagining of Indonesia's steamed fish paste dish, otak otak, as a luxurious parfait. The creativity was one thing, but Nguyen's precision made the risks pay off. Sunda became one of Melbourne's Big Deal restaurants. Four years on, Aru stands to do the same.
Nguyen's take on French pâté en croute, with all of the flavours of a pork banh mi, captivated a captive city last year. Now a fixture at Aru, the pork terrine, flecked with chilli, spring onion and coriander with a heart of pâté and a layer of soy-flavoured jelly, all set within a perfect golden frame, is less a riff on the Vietnamese street food dish than an Olympic-level twist.
There's the already Instagram-trending hat tip to a Bunnings sausage sandwich, featuring a duck snag licked with leatherwood honey, bao dough (spongy and slightly sticky, thanks to rice flour) baked into a sliced loaf, and the ultimate diplomatic touch of onions placed alongside the meat, neither above nor below.
Nguyen touts this dish as a representation of the story he tells about his food – Asian flavours that were formative in his upbringing, playful formats he learned from the likes of Rene Redzepi, and a personal love of Australiana and Australia's own palette of ingredients.
But I'm here to tell you that the wagyu tongue in betel leaves is The One. The sheer legwork required to create it is worthy of respect. Tongue is brined for three days, poached and stripped of its outer layer to reveal the tender meat within, then painstakingly threaded into ruffles on skewers for a smoky kiss over coals.
Sweet melting fat meets a dressing of fragrant herbs, spring onions and crushed peanuts, an extrapolation of Vietnamese-style satay. Folded in glossy, bitey betel leaves, it is a standing-ovation snack.
Fair warning, almost every dish on the menu is decadent and detailed in the extreme. Individually, each is a well-balanced act: turmeric-stained, lightly smoked chicken pings with lime and lemon verbena; a crunchy Hasselback potato is addictive with its Laughing Cow cheese and coriander-forward green sauce. But strap too many dishes together in your eagerness and it will be a wipeout. My advice? Go easy, and go often.
It's all but inevitable when there's still that dry-aged duck to consider, all glassy skin with an audible crack and rose quartz blush. Or the sticky, smoky rice noodles peppered with whole school prawns and fine glistening strips of mellow pork fat. And the zing and crunch of crisp witlof leaves and sweet-bitter citrus pomelo, slashed with prawn oil and cured egg yolk – a salad in very loose terms.
Even leaning towards the (fairly concise) list of vegetarian options proves no less of a cardiac thrill. And no less of a joy. A quartered sugarloaf cabbage has the rich, almost cheesy flavour of nutritional yeast and enoki mushrooms slipped between its smoky-sweet leaves, bringing a meaty body.
Hot, crunchy Chinese-style doughnuts are the counterpoint for a chilled melange of shiitake mushrooms and ethereal silken tofu, lifted with soy, porcini powder and house-made mushroom vinegar fermented from the trimmings.
Strong backing helps. The Windsor Hotel's Adipoetra Halim has furnished the chef with a room that is a symphony of sandstone, cool rock and timber. Plates are tactile, knives are by Opinel.
An 18-page leather-bound drinks list by Michael Kovatseff-Burton (ex-Luca in London, Coda, Neighbourhood Wine) is laid out by palate weight, from cocktails of distinction (of note, the umami martini featuring bush tomato) and beers to wines that champion locals such as Jamsheed and obscure drops from the Italy-Slovenian border, like the delicious skin-contact Zidarich Vitovska.
Thousands of tiny, sometimes invisible choices conspire to make great restaurants. Aru is filled with New Restaurant Energy, but it has the foundation of talent, passion and vision that lets you know the hum will endure.
Tell your friends. Finish dinner with a last brilliant swipe in the form of a zippy pavlova or pandan-infused kaya waffles. Feel Melbourne pride burn in your chest again.
Drinks: A 400-strong international list of repute, plus sharp cocktails integrating native ingredients.
Pro tip: Vegan? Call ahead for more options.