Five words to put a smile on your face: waffle-coated fried ice-cream. Chef Jerry Mai's ode to the once-ubiquitous Aussie-Chinese dessert at her new city diner, Annam, is as good as it sounds. Better, even. The ice-cream is flavoured with coconut cream, the waffle crumb salty-sweet and satisfying in its crunch. Salted caramel sauce is poured over the top. It's good times in a bowl - and that's the way Annam rolls.
Co-owner Rani Doyle (left) and chef-owner Jerry Mai
Annam's menu reflects Mai's Vietnamese heritage, but, unlike her two pho and banh mi Pho Nom outlets, more influences are at play here. Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes she ate growing up are touchstones, but Mai has cooked with David Thompson and worked at Zuma, so Thai and Japanese influences get a run, too. Add a fondness for some of China's greatest hits - dumplings, hotpot, fried rice - great Aussie ingredients, martial arts flicks from the '60s and '70s, gluggable fruit-forward cocktails and a semi-private room equipped with black walls and a mirror ball, and you get a pan-Asian mash-up ready to party.
Chiang Mai pork sausage with pickled chillies and cabbage
Annam is not about stealth chilli assaults or challenging ingredients. Comfort is key here. But she knows when to chuck in a surprise burst of flavour, a good-looking cheffy flourish or a whack of smoke from the wood grill to ensure it's a poised sort of comfort. More linen and loafers than trainers and trackies, if you will.
Cuttlefish is fried in a rice flour and Sichuan-pepper batter blackened with squid ink. It's firm, sweet, juicy - the batter salty and crunchy. The pepper's numbing quality and the heat from the finely chopped chilli garnish tussle gently.
The Chiang Mai sausage, raucous with galangal and turmeric, comes with sheets of cabbage for wrapping, salted pineapple and essential green scud chillies. It's not to be missed.
Then there's northern Vietnamese pork hock curry, the meat carrying smoke from the grill, and made sour with the fermented rice it's braised with for a couple of hours. Fresh herbs add a layer of refreshment over a rich backbeat of galangal, turmeric and garlic. Young coconut jelly and coconut sorbet with coconut meat, grilled corn, salted peanuts and lime leaves, meanwhile, combine in a dessert to impressively refreshing effect.
Young coconut jelly with grilled corn and coconut sorbet
Annam occupies the space that housed Melbourne Japanese pioneer, Kuni's, for decades. The décor takes the familiar Melbourne-industrial template of exposed utilities, concrete floors and neon signage, then overlays it with a looped reel of martial arts films projected onto a wall over the main dining space, a wall of mahjong tiles, strings of fairy lights and an open kitchen with a smoking grill. Original? Perhaps not. But it's effective.
The wine list has its moments - the well-priced, nicely textural Airlie Bank Gris on Skins from the Yarra Valley or the juicy and vibrant Chalmers nero d'Avola - but has a work-in-progress feel to it, as though it doesn't entirely understand the food it's working with. There's a similar feel to the wine service, which can come across as green and unfocused. Cooking of this quality deserves better.
Take the warm salad - it should be on the radar for all vegetarians and the people who love them. There's a separate vegetarian menu, but this dish, combining green papaya, edamame, enoki, pickled baby king brown mushrooms with a robust, salty black vinegar dressing, makes it almost redundant.
And hey, vegetarians, if you're thinking of jumping the fence, give the grilled octopus salad some thought. Smoky, spicy octopus, green papaya and superb nuoc mam dressing deliver a mouthful of earthy, spicy, sour and crunchy satisfaction. Oxtail dumplings, the meat braised in masterstock and sarsaparilla, will inspire return visits, as might delicate crab banh cuon and fatty, sticky ssämjang beef ribs served with pickled radish, applause-worthy pineapple kimchi and a tamarind-heavy crying tiger sauce.
Sate grilled octopus with green mango and nuoc mam
Melbourne has a fondness for pan-Asian restaurants with a party vibe and a decent cocktail list. Annam belongs to that club, but the quality of Jerry Mai's food is such that it also stands apart. Precise cooking, deft balance and clean flavours are welcome in a genre that's often bereft of light and shade and too reliant on salt and sugar to do all the lifting. Not so here. And then there's that waffle-coated fried ice-cream.
What are you waiting for?