Even before 27-year-old Khanh Nguyen started cooking professionally, he had a specific goal.
“I wanted to change the way people thought about Vietnamese food; change their perception of it,” he says. “I wanted people to think that it’s not just a cheap cuisine.”
Thi Le beat him to it when she opened Anchovy in 2015 and introduced diners to blood-pudding lettuce cups and pate chaud (effectively a French-Vietnamese party pie). And yet, Melbourne remains noticeably short on South East Asian restaurants cooking and plating in the minimalist style of Embla and Marion et al.
At Sunda, a sexy, two-week-old restaurant in Punch Lane, Nguyen smokes cigar-sized baby corn in its husk and lays it on a dark plate, creating a tiger-stripe effect. Briny oysters get topped with curry oil and mounted on a little pillar of whipped eggwhite, salt and seaweed powder. And “Vietnamese coffee” is a textural dessert of wattle seeds, cacao nibs, chocolate-and-coffee ganache, coconut granita and condensed-milk ice-cream.
This sort of thing can be expected from the Vietnamese-Australian, who moved to Melbourne five months ago after nearly a decade working with Sydney’s top chefs and restaurants: Luke Nguyen at Red Lantern, Justin North at Bécasse, Dan Hong at Mr Wong, René Redzepi at Noma Sydney, and Brent Savage at Cirrus and Bentley.
“A lot of the plating [at Sunda] is influenced by the Bentley Group. A lot of the techniques are influenced by them as well,” Nguyen says. “He does things that are distinctly Brent – no one else does it like that.”
Noma introduced Nguyen to native ingredients. He uses them sparingly, to add sharp, citrus-y accents that readily complement South East Asian food’s balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours. Noma also honed Nguyen’s understanding of fermentation, a process he carefully deploys in a quenelle of blitzed, butter-smooth corn served with the aforementioned baby cobs, and a funky sambal that accompanies pillowy beef-rendang buns not unlike the pork variety found at yum cha.
Rendang isn’t a Vietnamese dish, of course. Two years back the chef visited eight cities in Vietnam on a research trip and realised that, creatively, he felt limited within the confines of Vietnamese food. He decided to loosen his original goal and look at cuisine from all of South East Asia – hence the name Sunda, which refers to a prehistoric landmass that united modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
On a follow-up research trip to those countries he discovered pie tee – a thin-shelled, bite-sized Malaysian tart filled with shredded slow-cooked vegetables. At $5, Sunda’s thimble-sized version isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it. The labour-intensive, mapo-tofu-inspired filling is another gaggle of interesting textures, including smoked egg custard, preserved veggies, cooked veggies, raw veggies, fried tofu and chilli bean sauce. Likewise, each bite of Nguyen’s XO egg noodle dish mixes squelch and crunch thanks to a showering of chicken-skin crackling and native pepperberries.
The site at 18 Punch Lane was originally slated to become Honcho, a Japanese-Chinese-Korean grill. When chef Adam Liston backed out, operator Adipoetra Halim (of Hotel Windsor) decided on this concept instead.
The fit-out, a collaboration between Kerstin Thompson Architects and Figureground is a not-so-sly nod to this period of uncertainty. Rough brickwork, internal aluminium scaffolding and plywood accents clearly reference a construction site. Which, by the way, part of the site still is. The mezzanine will open next month. For now, Sunda is just the ground level; there are two 16-seat communal tables and five coveted spots at the bar.
Kosta Kalogiannis (ex-Longrain, and MoVida) and Brad Hammond (ex-Mister Jennings and The Press Club) run the floor together with the kind of humour and confidence you’d expect after decades in the business.
Hammond assembled the French-Italo-Australian wine list, which looks beyond rieslings and other crisp whites usually paired with Asian food. Local highlights include Commune of Buttons’ pinot noir, Cullen’s cabernet merlot and Jamsheed’s Illaj syrah.
18 Punch Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9654 8190
Tue to Thu 6pm–10pm
This article was updated at 9.25am on April 19, 2018 to include Figureground, a second architecture firm involved with the fit-out at Sunda.