278 Illawarra Road Marrickville, New South Wales 2204
|Opening hours||Tues-Sun Lunch from 11 am; Dinner from 6pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Events, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Lunch specials, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 8068 8200|
Oh, the power of aunties; the keepers of secrets and of family recipes. To walk into the new Hello Auntie in Marrickville, and see up to five "aunties" (honorifically so) cooking in the kitchen wearing traditional head scarves, you just know you're going to eat well.
Chef and restaurateur Cuong Nguyen turned his back on years of working with Italian, French and Japanese food, to team with his mum, Thi Da (Lynda) Tran, on a concept closer to his own Vietnamese heritage. It slots happily into the current new-school Vietnamese movement, from Mama's Buoi and Madame Nhu to So 9 and others that have popped up of late.
It's a hard call taking Vietnamese back to Marrickville, however, especially when you're asking people to pay a little more for better produce and a more contemporary fit-out. This probably isn't how the locals think a Vietnamese restaurant should look. The long narrow space starts with a cafe-style share table, stretches down past the auntie's open kitchen and ends in a large dining room encased in open brick and poured concrete.
The squash-court minimalism is softened with shelves of family memorabilia, not to mention by tables covered with gigantic do-it-yourself rice paper roll "starter kit" platters ($32), overloaded with lettuce and herbs and great for three or four to share.
The menu may read Vietnamese – banh xeo, pho dac biet, cha gio, bo la lot – but you can't tell if what you order will come straight-up, or twisted. Banh xeo ($17) is utterly, brilliantly, traditional; the turmeric and coconut batter crisped against the sides of the wok into what looks like a giant skate wing, lightly filled with sweet school prawns, clumps of pork, onion, beansprouts and mung beans; with plenty of red butter lettuce, Thai basil and mint for wrapping.
Add Hello Auntie to your "must-have pho" list, too. The special beef noodle soup ($15) is ridgy-didge, based on a deeply serene 16-hour broth made to Lynda Tran's family recipe, loaded with plenty of silky, slippery fresh rice noodles, just-torched pasture-fed beef rib, raw sliced angus beef, some lovely braised brisket, and a couple of house-made wagyu beef balls. There's no tripe or tendon, but the sheer quality of both broth and beef shines through.
Then things get modern, as 'ca kho' ($19.50) arrives not as caramelised fish in a claypot, but as a meltingly soft brick of confit salmon ($19.50) in a lightly fermented cuttlefish sauce with lightly pickled onions, topped with bright orange fish roe; all warm, soft and giving. Twice-cooked pork belly with a six-minute cooked then marinated egg (trung) is Nguyen's take on thit heo kho ($21.50) the pork slow-braised then crisped, and the egg spilling its yolk into the rich, porky emulsion.
At the moment, it's BYO ($3pp corkage) with slushies on tap, but the any-minute-now wine list will have five whites and five reds at modest prices.
Desserts are high-impact, sweetshop extravaganzas, such as fried Jaffa ice cream ($13.50); a big glass jar dipped into chocolate and crushed nuts, and filled with ice-cream wrapped in cake and crumbed, chocolate ganache, whipped cream, freeze-dried mandarin and maltesers. You had to be there.
Good sauces, generous herbs and lovely crockery add to the charm, and staff are caring, if not yet adept. Top marks for using great produce, for producing food that straddles old and new, and modern and trad – and for doing it with aunties. Long may they thrive, in kitchens everywhere.
Best bit: Quality produce
Worst bit: No sauces on the table
Go to dish: Banh Xeo – crisp coconut and turmeric crepe, bean shoots, pork and prawn, $17
Licence pending (Check when booking)
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.