Transforming grape juice into wine and selling it to the masses is hungry work. That’s why Koerner Wines’ Jono Koerner was thrilled when he stumbled upon Saigon Café en-route to his Lenswood winery. It was the pork bún (vermicelli) bowl that won him over.
While he was there he ran into BK Wines winemaker Brendon Keys. “He was also getting his lunch on the way up to his winery in Basket Range,” Koerner tells Broadsheet. “I’d drive past here every day so it wasn’t long before I was hooked.” The only thing missing was decent booze.
A few visits and many pork bún bowls later, Koerner offered to compile a wine list to complement the Saigon-style street food. Owners Kim Nguyen, Neil Gutte, and chef Hieu Chau didn’t warm to the idea immediately. “I don’t drink,” says Chau. “So I had no idea which wines to choose. I also wasn’t sure that people would actually buy wine by the bottle.” Koerner persisted and, now, in addition to the traditional Vietnamese coffee, beer, and avocado and custard apple smoothies on the menu, Saigon Cafe offers six wines by the bottle.
“Vietnamese food and spices are just so well suited to lighter, natural acid-driven wines,” says Koerner. The fiery heat in the spicy beef soup and crispy tamarind wings (a family recipe from Kim’s Vietnamese homeland). The charred grilled quail. And the fatty pork, chili and coriander-packed bahn mi. They all lend themselves to light reds and funky, aromatic whites.
The initial line-up kicked off last week and features Brash Higgins’s 2017 CHN chenin blanc and 2018 CINS cinsault, BK Wines’ 2016 Ovum pinot gris and 2018 Skin n Bones savagnin, and Koerner Wines’ 2018 Watervale riesling and 2018 La Corse red blend – the kinds of wines that hold their own when the heat is on.
“All of these wines are suited to pretty much everything on the menu,” says Koerner. “They’re low alcohol, have lots of acid and are refreshing. The acid really works with the herbs and spices. The two red wines are kept in the fridge as well. Drink them cold or bring them out and let them warm up a bit.”
The wines will evolve but will always be priced at $45 a bottle. “Which adds up to be about retail price plus $15 for corkage – very good value for a restaurant,” says Koerner. The suburban joint also allows BYO at $15 a bottle.
Don’t expect bells and whistles. The décor is humble but the welcome warm. Bags of prawn crackers, a dim sim steamer, photographs of menu items, and handwritten prices adorn the counter; spring rolls and chicken sticks cram a bain-marie; and plastic plants are scattered throughout the space. Tissue boxes, plastic spoons and condiments crowd the small wooden tabletops and split bills are not permitted.
The food, though, is comforting, especially the coconut sago pudding with banana, and Chau’s pho – perfected over decades. “It’s my mum’s recipe,” she says. “We cook it from the marrow bones, let it simmer overnight and strain it in the morning so the soup is a lot darker than you’ll find at other places. It’s a very comforting dish. In Vietnam people eat it during summer and the hotter the days get, the more popular it is.”
At $12.90 a bowl it’s a steal. “The price point is bang on,” says Koerner. “You come in here and with two or three people and have a massive feed and some nice wine for under $100.”
399 Magill Road, Saint Morris
(08) 8333 2409
Mon to Sat 11am–8.30pm