A tal­ented chef makes a con­vinc­ing case that na­tive Aus­tralian in­gre­di­ents have a place within South­east Asian tra­di­tion, writes MICHAEL HARDEN.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct -

Sunda’s chef makes a con­vinc­ing case for na­tive Aus­tralian in­gre­di­ents in South­east Asian dishes.

Fin­ger lime is a lit­mus-test in­gre­di­ent. It’s pow­er­ful, and re­quires a re­strained hand lest it oblit­er­ate ev­ery other flavour on the plate, so the way it’s de­ployed re­veals ex­actly how much at­ten­tion is be­ing paid by the chef. At Sunda, chef Khanh Nguyen is clearly pay­ing at­ten­tion.

It’s fin­ger lime that seals the deal in his clever take on otak-otak. You see ver­sions of this In­done­sian fish­cake, tra­di­tion­ally cooked in a ba­nana leaf, all across South­east Asia. At Sunda, though, it be­comes a crab par­fait flavoured with curry paste, co­conut milk and fin­ger lime, set with seaweed ex­tract in an ob­long mould. Pre­sented on a rec­tan­gle of ba­nana leaf, the par­fait is topped with crab­meat mixed with lime zest and chives, chilli threads, co­rian­der – and an ex­act­ing mea­sure of fin­ger lime. There’s just enough of the stuff to make its pop­ping, tex­tu­ral and sharp cit­ric pres­ence felt with­out it ever get­ting in the way. Spread­ing the par­fait on the ac­com­pa­ny­ing rice crisps, which are pleas­ingly sturdy with­out be­ing tricky to eat, is one of the high­lights here.

The beau­ti­ful bal­ance of the otak-otak is in­dica­tive of Nguyen’s ap­proach at Sunda. His CV in­cludes time at Bé­casse, Red Lantern, Mr Wong, Cir­rus and Noma’s Syd­ney pop-up, and in this, his first head-chef gig, he shows a gift for find­ing har­monies in in­gre­di­ents that may at first seem dis­parate.

Bush tomato, wat­tle­seed, pep­per leaf and aniseed myr­tle min­gle with galan­gal, co­rian­der, fish sauce and sam­bal. They’re joined by other ring-ins such as Vegemite, black­ber­ries, Jerusalem ar­ti­chokes and wagyu. There’s a lot go­ing on but the dishes sel­dom feel over­loaded. You’d think even the best rock oys­ters might buckle un­der the load of a co­conut curry vi­nai­grette, dabbed with drops of orange curry oil and fin­ished with diced shal­lots and flecks of Tas­ma­nian pep­per leaf.

But the oys­ter’s brini­ness is pre­sented clean and clear against an ad­mirably light back­drop of creami­ness and heat.

It’s the same story with a sweet Chi­nese-style bun stuffed with an in­tense wagyu ren­dang and served with a thrillingly good fer­mented sam­bal and quick-pick­led slices of radish.

The flavours are vi­brant and rich. Con­sider shar­ing one be­tween two.

Else­where a veg­etable curry is lit up with notes of galan­gal and turmeric, ac­com­pa­nied by but­ter­milk roti served with Vegemite. And if you think the Vegemite seems outré (even with its prece­dent in the use of Mar­mite in Malaysian cook­ing), just wait till they of­fer to shave truf­fles over the top. Again, against the odds, the earth­i­ness of the truf­fle adds an­other suc­cess­ful layer, though, like a side dish of egg

noo­dles with chicken skin and XO, it may not be for the faint of palate.

Nguyen sea­sons a larb-in­spired dish of kan­ga­roo cured with lime juice and nahm jim with toasted rice. He crowns Fre­man­tle oc­to­pus fin­ished on the grill with tiny onion rings pick­led in fish sauce and dusted with bush tomato. A su­perbly tex­tured bika am­bon comes with ba­nana custard, pan­dan ice-cream made with seaweed ex­tract, and roasted macadamia nuts.

There’s bold­ness here, some­thing that’s echoed in the ar­chi­tec­ture. The tiny site, a for­mer carpark, was trans­formed by Ker­stin Thomp­son Ar­chi­tects, and com­bines ex­posed brick and scaf­fold­ing with sweeps of ply­wood (be sure to check out the stair­case lead­ing to the up­stairs din­ing room) and metal-mesh screens. Down­stairs with the bar, kitchen and com­mu­nal ta­bles, Sunda has the bustling swag­ger of a pop-up, like it could all be bumped out at a mo­ment’s no­tice. Up­stairs it’s serene with an am­bi­ence that makes you hope it’ll stick around for a while.

The ser­vice team, led by for­mer Lon­grain stal­wart Kosta Kalo­gian­nis, is smooth and in­for­mal, while the wine list doesn’t break stride, keep­ing pace with the eclec­tic mob of in­gre­di­ents. As­sem­bled by Brad Ham­mond of The Ho­tel Wind­sor (owned by the same group as Sunda), the list leans to the bio­dy­namic, min­i­mal end of the spec­trum. The col­lec­tion, more food-friendly than flam­boy­antly funky, has the likes of Jamsheed rous­sanne, skinsy Am­rit pinot gris and Cullen caber­net mer­lot keep­ing it both real and in­clu­sive.

Sunda could be loosely grouped with the likes of An­chovy, Ides, Restau­rant Shik and Amaru in its bound­ary-blur­ring, pro­gres­sive, flavour-for­ward course.

But there’s noth­ing else quite like it in Mel­bourne, in de­sign or flavour. In a crowded restau­rant mar­ket, that’s quite an achieve­ment.

Above, from left: Sunda chef Khanh Nguyen, group food and bev­er­age man­ager Brad Ham­mond and restau­rant man­ager Kosta Kalo­gian­nis. Right: Sunda’s take on otak-otak.

Bika am­bon, ba­nana custard, macadamia, pan­dan. Be­low right: rock oys­ter, co­conut curry vi­nai­grette, es­chalot, Tas­ma­nian pep­per leaf.

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