The Concourse, Shop 5, 409 Victoria Avenue Chatswood, New South Wales 2067
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri, 11am-2.30pm, 5-10pm; Sat-Sun, 11am-late|
|Features||Cheap Eats, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating, Family friendly, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||02 9410 1415|
Virginie Maikim's family has been running bistros and brasseries for as long as she can remember. In southern Paris, where the 27-year-old grew up, her Saigon-born parents had amassed a loyal following for their hearty, traditional French fare. Then 10 years ago, the Maikims decided to shift to Sydney – a move that led to the opening of Chao Ba, the family's first Vietnamese restaurant, in November last year.
"It was my mum's idea," Maikim says. "Because of our French background, the way we cook Vietnamese food is very different. At home my mum uses a lot of French techniques, lots of butter, plenty of bread to dip into stews and stocks infused with red wine. Coming here, it's been hard to find that kind of food."
Chao Ba is one of the newest additions to Chatswood's Concourse. Surrounded by a piazza of buzzing Asian eateries including Taste of Shanghai and Bassim Korean Barbecue, the Vietnamese restaurant is already attracting a steady stream of diners.
On a balmy Saturday night, the indoor-outdoor space is filled with young families hunched over steamy bowls of noodles. Groups of friends sip wine and swap office stories under a canopy of fairy lights. Maikim, who has a background in fashion design, took charge of the modern, timber-filled fit-out. She is also behind the menu design and marketing, while her mother Carol heads the kitchen and her father Martin runs the front of house.
Chao Ba's dishes all come from family recipes. There is an emphasis on street food-style small plates incorporating French ingredients and techniques. "Growing up in France, we didn't necessarily have the variety of Asian herbs that Australians have access to. So mum would very often substitute those with French herbs. That's why a lot of our food tastes a little bit different."
Deciding what to order is a challenge. A full page of starters is followed by different permutations of noodles (egg or rice, stir-fried or in broth), banh mi, salads and more substantial stews and grilled meats.
We settle on three entrees (steamed rice raviolis, crispy prawn pikelets and pan-fried quails) and cross our fingers we can fit in mains. Our gamble pays off when the silky rolls of banh cuon Ha Noi arrive. Sheets of handmade rice noodle wrapping are a lovely textural contrast with the crunchy wood ear mushroom and pork mince filling. A side of fresh herbs, beans sprouts and fried shallots give the dish a refreshing lift.
Next up are the banh khot or crispy coconut and turmeric mini pancakes. Topped with prawns and lashing of coconut cream, the tiny golden hemispheres are crunchy outside and moist in the centre. When wrapped in the accompanying lettuce leaves and dunked in a tangy homemade nuoc mam (fish sauce dip), they take on an almost virtuous salad-y quality.
The quail in a lemon pepper sauce is so delicate and succulent that the butter fried treatment is immediately forgiven. We breeze through the starters and think nothing of tackling our mains. Vietnamese cooking has a signature sense of balance, evident in Cha Bao's dishes. The fragrant cigars of char-grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves are complemented perfectly by plain thin vermicelli discs. A humble bowl of bun (rice noodles) is lively with a medley of flaky spring rolls, grilled pork and a swig of nuoc mam.
Dessert is a dish too far for us, but a shot of Vietnamese drip coffee, with a side of condensed milk and its own miniature percolator, turns out to be a fine panacea for our indulgences.
Chao Ba is set to open a second venue in Enmore in the coming month, with a stronger focus on its addictive share plates. BYO lots of friends if you want to get through the menu without compromising precious stomach space.
The Concourse Shop 5, 409 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood
Steamed rice rolls (banh cuon Ha Noi); crispy coconut and turmeric pikelets with prawns (banh khot); char-grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves (bo nuong la lop)
A modern indoor-outdoor space with warm, bespoke timber furnishing
Friendly and fuss-free