Virginie Maikim is part of the Vietnamese new wave, the daughter of a migrant family opening a modern restaurant serving the food of her parents. When they fled Vietnam, the Maikims didn’t come straight to Australia – they first went to France. “At home there's always been a bit of a mix,” Maikim says. "French cuisine is so different to Vietnamese cuisine, but it just got mixed up together.”
On a usual day the tables at Chao Ba are filled with brasserie bread rolls, but not stuffed with pickled carrot, pate and pork as you’d expect. “We use a lot of bread with our dishes for dipping into our curries and stews,” Maikim says. Many of those stews, stir-fries and sauces are cooked or mixed not with peanut, sesame or palm oil, but butter. “Instead of using Vietnamese herbs we sometimes use Italian and European herbs. I think it gives it a different flavour. In France we didn't have access to the Vietnamese flavours,” says Maikim.
Although French-influenced and modernised, the menu is mostly loyal to the traditional Vietnamese repertoire. There’s an enormous bánh xèo and a sweet, herbal, southern-style beef pho topped with all the trimmings. Like most of the menu, the pho is made by Maikim’s mum from family recipes. The Maikim family’s pho is strictly old school, made from a stock of mixed beef bones, flame-charred onions and garlic, 14 different herbs and spices and no MSG.
The first page of the menu can be treated like tapas. Maikim says she’s had a lot of perplexed reactions to the textural bánh bèo huế, steamed rice flour cakes sprinkled with dehydrated shrimp, pork crackling, mung bean and chives. Chả giò, Hanoi-style crunchy spring rolls, is another tactile sensation. Unlike the ubiquitous round-edged golden-brown variety, these spring rolls have snappy tendrils, crunchy flakes and a soft centre filled with either wood-ear mushrooms and pork, prawn and crab or mixed vegetables.
“Before us kids grew up our parents would have a go and open really traditional [restaurants]. We've grown up in a Western country – we see things a bit differently,” says Maikim. This comes through in the decor, ambiance and the food. Maikim, coming from the fashion industry, designed the open space herself. With an overhanging awning, street-side benches, a central wine bar and a staggered fence of planter boxes, it looks and feels like the cafes on the streets of Paris.
The Concourse Shop 5, 409 Victoria Ave, Chatswood
(02) 9410 1415
Mon to Thu 10am–10pm
Fri to Sun 10am–10.30pm