A new set of neon letters started glowing in the CBD this month – they signalled the opening of an ambitious new restaurant from Pho Nom’s Jerry Mai. Annam – once the name of Vietnam – serves South East Asian hawker-style food in a space that fits somewhere between casual and fine diner.
Mai says she has gone for an “outdoor eating in Asia” sort of vibe, with a fit-out by Melbourne’s Olaver Architecture. There are various nooks (including a private dining area with a mirrored disco ball) surrounding a large main dining space, with party lights strung overhead and vintage kung-fu movies projected onto the wall. The restaurant seats 100. Window-facing benches are only “slightly higher” than what you’d find at a Vietnamese hawkers market, Mai says.
“In Vietnam you sit down and your knees come up to your ears,” she says. She developed her concept for Annam during an “eating and buying” trip in South East Asia.
You might catch a glimpse of the mohawked Mai in the large open kitchen near the Japanese-inspired rice-paper station, inspecting plates of soft, fragrant crab banh cuon, which come with fried shallots and a salty-sweet nuoc mam salad. Or maybe she’ll be flipping a whole hiramasa kingfish at the charcoal-grill station, where you can also see her meaty Chiang Mai pork sausages hanging before they’re dished up with slices of raw cabbage, pineapple and tiny-but-intense pickled green chillies.
Co-owner and drinks specialist Rani Doyle is behind the offering at the almost restaurant-length bar. The line-up includes two types of Asahi and Young Henrys beer on tap and a long list of special cocktails, such as the vodka and chocolate bitters Annam Iced Coffee, made with house-made condensed coconut milk.
Mai migrated from Vietnam to Australia by way of a Thai refugee camp, and mains include dishes she grew up with, such as her mum’s braised pork hock, served with fermented rice and fennel salad. Or her childhood favourite: Cambodian-style braised goat somm la curry, with lightly cooked pea eggplants, pumpkin and green papaya.
“She’s probably the best cook I know,” Mai says of her mum.
The restaurant is home to what might just become an instant Melbourne dessert classic: waffle-coated fried ice-cream. This is on the fancier side of deep-fried ice-cream – with shredded coconut in the batter and warm salted caramel sauce drizzled all over – but the taste is unmistakably the same as the faux-Chinese delicacy that inspired it.