79 Swan St Richmond, VIC 3121
|Opening hours||Tue-Wed 5-9.30pm; Thu noon-4pm, 5-10.30pm; Fri-Sat noon-10.30pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8391 1388|
Like Hanoi Hannah, this newbie is inspired by the fresh and fragrant dishes of Vietnam, an interpretation and bending of some favourite hits delivered by chef Scott Lord.
The space is elegantly designed, with beautiful wicker light features casting dappled light over carefully curated plates.
There is a surfeit of snacks familiar to most wine bars with a veil of Vietnamese flavours over the top. Two crackled fingers of bread filled with pâté (chicken liver, not pork) and pickled cukes is a distant hat tip to banh mi. Raw kingfish is washed in tamarind-tart and pineapple sweet liquor with spring onion oil.
There's a smash hit riff on beef tartare, with cubes of jelly made from pho soup broth, sprouts and galangal oil giving it a fragrant kick to load onto tapioca crackers that have been wok-tossed with anchovies for crunch.
The cocktails are on theme and well shook. The pina colada is light and spicy, made with dark rum and coconut water so it's essentially a health drink. Which will traffic well in this part of town.
As will, and does, a Thai-inspired curry that Lord has recently added especially for pre-gaming footy fans. It's a rich, silky and sweet party of pineapple and twice-cooked pork belly that flies out the door as crowds head into the cold.
Many of the Commune Group's businesses operate like this: shrewd venues that read what diners might want and deliver it. Such is the case here. It is a la carte, but there are also three well-priced chefs menus ($62 for vegan all-in, $65 for standard and $80 for a premium package).
Beyond those opening snacks, comes a lewdly rich dish of egg noodles tangling with duck that has been slow cooked, stripped and fried to a floss, while the bones become a rich sauce to give the egg noodles some slip. Green garlic shoots are charred until smoky and tossed in pork fat.
Barramundi, also with a blackened skin, is charged with a thatch of fresh dill, green onions, and an unusual two-part sauce of fishy, sweet and fragrant nuoc mam cooked with clarified butter. Unexpected, but it works.
The restaurant self-describes as neo-Vietnamese. For Lord, it's a reflection of his own story – he is trained in European techniques with inspiration built over a career at Cumulus, Sunda and Tokyo Tina, all restaurants which celebrate a playfulness with form, over which is laid flavour influences from multiple cuisines.
You could sum all this up with his chicken croquette: Laughing Cow cheese (the longlife cheese is prevalent in post-war Vietnam), which becomes a whipped dip topped with spicy sauce nuoc mam that has been turned into caviar pearls, through which you dunk a crumbed lemongrass chicken croquette. It is flavours bent to form. It's all Lord's and it's fun.
Lord's story is good and relevant to know in the context of this restaurant. This is a heartland for footy, but also for Melbourne's Vietnamese migrant population. Two months ago, a nearby venue opened with decor all focused on blunt and painful references to the Vietnam war (bullets and dog tags and red lights a la Saigon that called to mind the terrible sex trade of the city).
The two restaurants are certainly not in the same boat. But the resulting outcry was the catalyst for complex conversations – not about who does and does not have the right to cook or be inspired by certain cuisines – but how chefs and restaurateurs can do more to honour cultures from which they draw their inspiration if they choose it as their subject matter. There are hard conversations being had out there, but I don't think this is an idea too challenging for any of us to swallow.
Is there anything that is truly lost by acknowledging that cuisine exists in a far bigger universe than we've previously acknowledged in Australia? Or is there something to be gained. Lord deserves credit for his imaginative culinary inventions.
What you will get at New Quarter, you will not get anywhere else. And the Vietnamese-Australian chefs who have been trying to tell a story of themselves through their dishes deserve a chance to tell them. We lose nothing by embracing both. We gain so much by accepting that there is a difference.
New Quarter has entered a new world where these distinctions finally matter, and, it results in desserts like bruleed bananas on a rummy cake with a schmear of white chocolate cream that's like a boozy banoffee pie and caps off everything that came before.
Nothing lost. So much gained.
Drinks: Fruity cocktails with spice and herb garnishes, local Australian wines and craft brews.
Pro Tip: There are vegan, standard and premium chef's menu, for two and up.