Sky's the limit in St Cloud

The chicken wings at St. Cloud Vietnamese eating house.
The chicken wings at St. Cloud Vietnamese eating house. Photo: Wayne Taylor

THEME: MODERN VIETNAMESE
THREE AND A HALF STARS

ST CLOUD EATING HOUSE
644 BURWOOD ROAD, HAWTHORN EAST, 9882 0146
LICENSED AE MC V EFTPOS
MONDAY 5.30PM-LATE, TUESDAY-SUNDAY NOON-LATE
LUNCH: $8-$17; DINNER: $8-$44 (BANQUET $55)

Well, what a surprise. An unpromising stretch of Burwood Road, populated by prestige car shoppers, goggle-eyed Pokemon hunters and sleepy students, who missed the Swinburne Uni tram stop, is also home to a throbbing two-level modern Vietnamese restaurant with a cracking cocktail list and a heated upstairs deck that is just begging to host your next party.

The interior of  St Cloud Vietnamese eating house in Hawthorn East in Melbourne.
The interior of St Cloud Vietnamese eating house in Hawthorn East in Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor

St Cloud Eating House has been open nine months, and its easygoing mix of fresh flavours, upbeat hospitality and broad approach to Vietnamese street food has made it a local favourite. There's a fashionable factory feel to this former bed shop; hard surfaces have been slightly softened by greenery and splashy knick-knacks but it's still a noisy space. There's a please-all-comers approach: come for a quick lunch at a window bench, be wowed (and later floored) by cocktails with Asian ingredients (star anise, perilla, sake), or plan a boisterous banquet for the gang. The open kitchen sizzles and woks all day and night.

Lunch is fuss-free and cheap with rice paper rolls, frisky noodle salads that can be bulked up with meat or fish, and pho (noodle soup) ramped up with sriracha (Thai chilli sauce). Dinner runs along similar lines with extra braised dishes, curries and sharing claypots. There's plenty for vegans and, in a neat flip, the few dishes that aren't gluten-free are noted on the menu.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 02:  The chicken wings served at St. Cloud Vietnamese eating house in Hawthorn East on August 2, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Wayne Taylor/Fairfax Media)

Chicken wings. Photo: Wayne Taylor

There's some conversation-stopping food on offer. Golden-skinned chicken wings loll in sticky fish sauce caramel alongside crisp-edged chunks of sticky rice and pickled ginger. Humans have fingers precisely so we can pick up food like this and shove it mouthwards in silent, messy, happy contemplation. Banh khot are savoury coconut mini-pancakes made in special scalloped moulds. They're a classic street dish, tinged with turmeric, served with lettuce leaves for wrapping and fish sauce for dipping.

My favourite plate is the beef short rib, falling from the bone in dark, melting lemongrass-scented strands. Shaved carrot, zingy herbs and fresh red chilli slices add punch and lift. Along similar sustaining and meaty lines is the slow-cooked pork belly, bobbing in a claypot in a dark, sweet, mysterious braising broth. In this case pepper and spring onion are on hand to slash through the succulence.

It's rollicking food, with more focus on kapow-bam flavours than finesse, which gels with the street-food outlook and youthful crew. Chef Franky Pham (ex-Feast of Merit) grew up in Australia but has recently lived in Vietnam, digging into the food culture and helping setting up KOTO, a restaurant and social enterprise in Saigon linked to Box Hill Institute. Back home, Pham's food is filtered through a Melbourne lens but the cultural underpinnings are evident, enriching and dished up with lively, friendly spirit.

Lemongrass panna cotta.

Lemongrass panna cotta. Photo: Wayne Taylor