There have always been plenty of reasons to be cheerful about Anchovy. Take the Vietnamese blood pudding, for example. A quite brilliant calling card of a dish, it's been on the menu since the restaurant opened in Richmond about six months ago. It brings together a whole dance troupe of textures and flavours in just a couple of bites - the rich, custard-like texture of the pudding, the flavour of Vietnamese mint, rice-paddy herb, Shaoxing wine and star anise, the edges slightly caramelised from the pan, all tucked into a crunchy baby cos leaf with pickled ginger and Vietnamese mint tossed with a pickled ginger dressing. It's all over pretty quickly, but the flavour punch is powerful and lingering, the balance admirable. It could feasibly be a reason for a return visit in itself.
This cracker of a snack not only signals owner-chef Thi Le's talent, but also illustrates what Anchovy is all about - a modern, finessed approach to Vietnamese food, deploying carefully sourced ingredients and both Asian and European techniques. Modern Australian, if you really must. Eat there today and you may wonder why more of this hasn't been done sooner.
Le's CV - Universal, Cumulus Inc, Supernormal, The Town Mouse - promised great things, yet in the early weeks there were misfires alongside the numerous success stories on the Anchovy menu, particularly when it came to the larger dishes. A goat curry with taro, for example was heavy-handed and stodgy compared with, say, the clever light simplicity that could make a plate of stir-fried garlic shoots seasoned with cumin and chilli salt into something revelatory, particularly when served with a super-cold beer on a hot day. There was a dish of beef intercostals, meanwhile, in which the flavour of the meat was lost in the sugary onslaught of a sticky glaze.
And so in the beginning Anchovy came across as uneven, one of those places where diners in the know would limit themselves to the smaller dishes, leaving the others for the unwary. Combined with the spareness of the shopfront dining room - plain white walls, undressed timber-topped bar and concrete-topped tables, lit by a collection of dangling exposed Edison bulbs - it appeared slightly underdone.
Six months in, however, Le has more than matched the potential flagged by her CV and some of those brilliant smaller dishes. It may be that she's more familiar with the strengths and limitations of her small and somewhat elderly kitchen - she now delivers a line-up of dishes that are exhilarating, surprising, original and clever, from freshly shucked oysters with Kampot pepper through to rum parfait with ginger-beer granita.
A few of the original menu's dishes have survived. There's the blood sausage, thankfully, and the garlic shoots, plus raw beef dressed in a perfectly judged mixture of sesame and mustard oils, fish sauce, lime juice and tamarind, topped with pickled and deep-fried shallots and teamed with rice crackers. But there's plenty of new stuff, too. It's all worthy of attention and, as the breadth of Le's repertoire becomes more apparent, we find another layer of potential to the story - a "what'll she do next?" sense of anticipation.
Some of the best stuff is still found among the smaller dishes. Beef crisps - thinly sliced pieces of girello brushed with a mix of curry spice, kecap manis, fish sauce and chilli, then dehydrated and dusted to winning effect with a commercial curry spice mix - are nothing short of addictive. They're a truly great bar snack and a great match with a cocktail like the Pandan Collins, a mix of gin, pandan syrup, soda and lemon.
Anchovy does a good line in theme-appropriate cocktails based on classics (a Julep tweaked with grilled pineapple, say), and the short list changes almost as regularly as the menu. The cocktails are part of a two-page drinks list that, for all its modesty, nonetheless manages to cover a lot of ground. About 16 wines are listed, a mix of reasonably priced Old and New World labels that includes Australian rosé, Spanish tempranillo and Austrian grüner veltliner, and a short list of beer that sees Chang Lager sitting alongside a few Aussie craft staples such as Red Hill Brewery's Scotch Ale. The decent tea list features clever additions like Vietnamese iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk, and a house-spiced ginger ale.
That pared-back quality is in sync with the clean-lines-bordering-on-ascetic theme of the décor and the low-key, friendly style of service (courtesy of co-owner Jia-yen Lee and manager Ted James). The food does the heavy lifting.
Vietnamese blood pudding with pickled ginger, Vietnamese mint and cos.
Le's rice paper rolls certainly do their share. They arrive cut diagonally in half and filled with diced ocean trout, Vietnamese mint, coriander, coconut, noodles, and pickled and deep-fried shallots. It may look like a rice paper roll that you could buy by the truckload in nearby Victoria Street, but the trout has been lightly cured in a mixture of brown sugar, soy, mandarin peel, star anise, coriander seed and cassia bark, and there's a complexity of flavour here that emphasises the Modern Australian part of the Anchovy equation.
More modern stuff happens with the drop noodles - made in-house from tapioca rice flour - that are stir-fried with pieces of confit rabbit, cos leaves, Brussels sprouts and a peanut-free Vietnamese-style lemongrass satay. It's also there with superb lamb ribs, cooked and then steeped for a few hours in masterstock before being painted with a Kampot pepper-flavoured glaze, then grilled and served with a beautifully crisp and refreshing watercress and turnip salad.
Steamed clams have also been on the menu since Anchovy first opened, but where they were originally served in a heartily comforting, deeply coloured turmeric broth, they now come in a spicy chicken soup, with fermented rice adding a lovely tamarind-like sourness, aided and abetted by the citrus hit of kaffir lime leaves.
One of the best dishes on the menu is also one of the most traditionally Vietnamese - aside, perhaps, from one of the ingredients in the marinade. A whole spatchcock is marinated overnight in a mix of sesame oil, lemongrass, caramel, fish sauce and Coca-Cola (yes, the Real Thing), then grilled, roasted and dished up with sticky rice, spring onion oil and a cleverly spiced tomato sambal. It's comfort food, sure, but with its sweet, sour and citrusy notes, and soft and crisp textures coming into play with the juiciest little spatchcock you're likely to meet, it's comfort food taken to the next level.
The sweet stuff also leans modern, combining pretty plating with cleverly handled traditional ingredients. A rum parfait, flavoured with brown and palm sugars, and rum, is helped along by coconut cream mixed with lime juice and diced pineapple cooked with rum, sugar, star anise and cinnamon, then finished with a lovely ginger-beer granita.
Unfortunately for doughnut fans, Le's beignets served with condensed milk and passionfruit cream are, for the moment, unavailable because she's not happy with the results from her current deep-fryer (she's obviously a perfectionist because there wasn't much wrong with the ones she had been dishing up). The light and puffy morsels will return, however, once she is happy with them. Yet another reason to watch this space.
No restaurant gets everything right when it first opens, despite the pressure for immediate perfection from our voracious appetite for the new. As Anchovy shows, restaurants can take time to find their beat. Having a chef with the talent and experience of Thi Le in the kitchen meant good things were on the cards, but how very good Anchovy would become only truly became apparent a few months in.
And the best thing about the slow burn? The promise of more exciting times ahead.