“Like with most of Southeast Asia, [almost] everywhere in Vietnam smells like sweet smoke,” says Simon Blacher, director of the Commune Group. “The use of barbeque over there is very social; you can smell it walking down the street and it’s very much embedded in the culture.”
Along with business partners Paul Nguyen and Nick Coulter, Blacher opened playful Vietnamese eatery Hanoi Hannah in Windsor in 2012. Two more Hanoi Hannahs followed (in Elsternwick and Richmond), as did Japanese-inspired Tokyo Tina and Neptune Food & Wine, which serves Mediterranean fare. The latest restaurant under the trio’s belt is Firebird, which opens on Thursday March 5.
Like the Hannahs that preceded it, Firebird takes inspiration from Vietnamese flavours and culture, but this time it’s focused on Viet-style barbeque and dishes cooked over sweet-scented charcoal to impart deep, smoky flavours.
“Charcoal, smoke and fire enhance the flavour of any food; [they] add another element to the dish and really bring another layer of texture and flavour to the table,” Blacher says.
The menu is by Vietnamese-born head chef Steven Ngo, who trained under David Thompson at his now-closed Thai restaurant Long Chim.
Almost every dish touches the charcoal grill or woodfired oven at some point. Canh chua, a sour soup made with tamarind and burnt tomatoes, draws on Blacher’s favourite food memory from a recent visit to Vietnam.
“We had some barbequed – I think it was either pipis or snails – just simply cooked over fire, and the smoke grabbed those pipis, and we dipped them in some sweet, salty, peppery chilli.”
At Firebird, the broth is cooked down until it’s more of a sauce, with wok-tossed pipis and a long Chinese doughnut for dipping. The natural sweetness of the seafood plays off against the smoke, offering a delicate balance.
The retro French dish duck à l’orange has been spruced up with Vietnamese aromatics such as cardamom and cinnamon. A whole duck is hung for eight hours over the grill, basted with five-spice powder and burnt orange.
Vegetables are a big feature of Ngo’s menu. Whole eggplant is roasted, then smashed and served with a red curry sauce and some Thai-basil oil. Order it with a side of crisp flatbread.
There’s also a half-head of roasted cabbage “that’s basically burnt to shit in the oven until it falls apart”, served with vegan nuoc mam (fish sauce). Banh trang nuong – rice paper that’s grilled, topped with mushroom pate and pickled sweet chili – is a bit like a Vietnamese pizza. Tear it apart with your hands or with the accompanying scissors.
You’ll also find chargrilled ox-tongue skewers with hot-and-sour sauce; a hefty T-bone steak with a bun bo hue (beef and lemongrass soup) reduction; and barbequed octopus with a tamarind and prawn oil dressing.
Dessert has also been given the fiery treatment. Each day there’ll be citrus tart (served by the slice) that’s baked in the woodfired oven, where it’ll caramelise. There’s also a crème brûlée flavoured with Thai tea (black with strong spices such as star anise), and slices of caramelised pineapple topped with kaffir-lime sorbet.
Grilled banh mi – brown butter pate, dried prawn kho quet
Bang trang nuong – mushroom pate, sweet chilli, hot mint
Caramelised tofu, peanuts, toasted coconut, sour pineapple
Hiramasa kingfish, pickled plum, blood-orange dressing, pork scratching
Scotch quail egg, crispy green rice flakes, salted duck-egg relish
Coconut and lemongrass chicken, skewered
Hanoi pork spring rolls, dipping sauce, lettuce
Grilled hot-and-sour braised ox-tongue skewer
Black pepper crab tostada on crispy rice
Rice and noodle options
Broken rice claypots – chicken and vegetable options
Tossed eggplant with tofu
Cha ca – grilled market fish, turmeric, dill, vermicelli net
Aromatic duck fried rice, mixed herbs, spices, baby cucumber
Vegetable fried rice
Meat and seafood
Fire-tossed pipis in burnt tomato and tamarind canh chua, sawtooth coriander, grilled Chinese doughnut
Grilled flounder; garlic and citrus nuoc mam butter; fries
T-bone steak, bun bo hue reduction, morning glory
Coconut barbeque baby chicken, burnt chilli nuoc cham
Gaeng hang lay – extra-rich smoked-pork-rib curry
Woodroasted dry curry, Wagyu chin, pea eggplant, coconut, kaffir lime
Duck à l’orange – slow roasted duck, grilled citrus, Firebird excellent sauce, pickled ginger
Vegetables and salads
Woodroasted smashed eggplant, curry, fresh coconut cream
Shredded barbeque corn, spring-onion oil, sesame salt
Charred cabbage tossed with pork fat and garlic
Whole roasted leek, chive oil
Pomelo, green tomato, Thai basil
Green papaya salad, tomato, snake bean, peanuts
Morning glory, lemongrass
Pandan steamed rice
Thai tea crème brûlée
Lemongrass citrus tart, ginger crème fraîche
Caramel woodroasted pineapple, kaffir-lime sorbet
Firebird opens on Thursday March 5 at 223 High Street, Windsor.