Forty Licks review

Small banh xeo pancakes with bean sprouts, galangal, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), pork floss and king prawn.
Small banh xeo pancakes with bean sprouts, galangal, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), pork floss and king prawn. Photo: Edwina Pickles

24 York St Sydney, NSW 2000

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 11am-late
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 02 8591 1620

There's a glossary on the menu at Forty Licks that helps you navigate the pitfalls of a menu full of ga, nuong and du du, so that you can fluently order chicken (gah), barbecue (noong) and papaya (doo doo).

It shows respect not only for Vietnamese cuisine but for its culture. If it sits slightly at odds with a subterranean cocktail bar named for a Rolling Stones compilation album, never mind. Who's to say you can't cook Vietnam's least-travelled dishes in a darkly lit, clubby room buried beneath the Bavarian Beerhaus?

Not owner Tony Mowad and Australian-born chef Joel Manton, who worked with consultant chef Justin North to create this contemporary Vietnamese menu. Manton ran a fusion restaurant called Kafe in Hanoi for six years, and his take is less traditional and more personal, without the popular pho soups and summer rolls.

The subterranean city digs.
The subterranean city digs. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Exposed sandstone walls add a calming charm to a somewhat hectic interior by GSBN Studio that showcases a large central bar glowing with backlit bottles. Wire cages envelop supporting columns, over which rattan swirls and twirls as if growing in some long-forgotten jungle.

The menu leads with Vietnamese titles before English subtitles, a protocol it would be good to see in more modern Asian restaurants. So banh da cua (forgive the absence of accents) is a hearty crunch of tapioca crackers bearing fresh-tasting blue swimmer crab, young coconut, crunchy jicama and betel leaf (two for $14).

Manton's updated banh bot loc dumplings ($22) have that translucent, slightly glutinous skin you get with tapioca flour; bouncy with king prawn and wild scallop meat from WA's Abrolhos Islands. It's a well-judged upgrade that plays off the tangy nuoc cham sauce, crisp fried shallots and chives.

Nom ga xe phay - shredded chicken salad.
Nom ga xe phay - shredded chicken salad. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Don't order banh xeo and expect the large Saigon pancakes more commonly seen in Sydney. In central Vietnam, they're cooked in small pans over an open brazier, usually on the street, then filled and folded like a small taco (big hellos to Quan Ba Ngoc Hue in Da Nang, I miss you like crazy).

Here, they're sent out flat, topped with bean sprouts, galangal, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), pork floss and king prawn ($16), and crisp enough to break into sharp shards.

Flavours overall are gentle as opposed to the punch and zing of, say, Thai cuisine. If you're just racing in for a quick bite, then go for the nom ga xe phay ($15), a pyramid of shredded chicken, red onion, green papaya and a s---load of mint and herbs in a tangy dressing of orange, honey, vinegar and ginger dressing.

Cha ca la vong, turmeric-marinated kingfish with herbs and bun noodles.
Cha ca la vong, turmeric-marinated kingfish with herbs and bun noodles. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Noodles lurk in just one dish, a modern take on Hanoi's cha ca la vong ($34), in which turmeric-marinated Hiramasa kingfish is baked in bamboo leaf and sent out on bun (fresh white, round rice noodles) messy with dill, spring onions, bok choi and choi sum.

Even Vietnam's sweet soups get a look-in, with cha chuoi ngu nong ($12), a hip-bath of tapioca pearls, coconut milk, coconut sorbet and little king (ladyfinger) bananas which come together in one refreshing whole.

It's a big call to push Vietnamese cooking into the reach of the after-work city crowd and the late-night cocktail set, when, in truth, this food would be sweeter taken at a sunny little streetside cafe with legions of bicycles whizzing past. But given the name, I guess it needs a bit of rock'n'roll.

Che chuoi ngu nuong - banana, coconut milk tapioca, coconut sorbet.
Che chuoi ngu nuong - banana, coconut milk tapioca, coconut sorbet. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The low-down

Vegetarian: Thin pickings – two appetisers, and a handful of rice, beancurd and vegetable dishes.

Drinks: Serious Asian-influenced cocktails include a Hanoi sour of bourbon, ginger liqueur, chicha morada, lemon and peach bitters, plus a brief, neat wine list with a focus on biodynamic.

Go-to-dish: Nom ga xe phay (shredded chicken salad) $15.

Pro tip: Forty Licks also opens for late night drinks, with cocktails designed by Kurtis Bosley.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.

https://fortylicks.com.au/