The weight of anticipation can be a heavy burden for a new restaurant, especially when there's serious pedigree involved. Coda, the new bar and restaurant in the CBD basement space formerly housing Mini, has more than its fair share of good genes, drawing from a pool that includes Pearl, Longrain, MoVida and Taxi. Add multiple delays from the inevitable building glitches, and the anticipation that built around Coda was, if not feverish, at least seriously hot and bothered. Coda has not so much met these great expectations as sidestepped them. There's a disarming sense of relaxed enthusiasm about the place that's instantly likeable and seems to show that the flipside of pedigree's heightened anticipation is the confidence and nous that comes from solid experience. Coda has slotted comfortably into the city's dining scene rather than bursting onto it.
One of the best moves made by Coda's owner-operators - Mykal Bartholomew (MoVida), Kate Calder (Taxi) and chef Adam D'Sylva (Pearl, Longrain) - was engaging design firm Projects of Imagination to overhaul the space. The designers of Trunk have turned what was once an almost claustrophobically cosy timber-dominated room into a sleek, monochromatic bar and restaurant that feels intimate but not cloistered. The frosted glass in the windows that run around the top of the room has been replaced with clear panes that bring the energy of the street into the space. Chairs, tables and banquettes have been stained or reupholstered in blacks and charcoals and the once enclosed kitchen is now open save for a mesh screen. Distressed walls and bare bulbs hanging from cords may be edging perilously close to Melbourne restaurant cliché but fit perfectly with Coda's savvy persona.
There is no doubt that this is a fashionable looking restaurant, but it's saved from being hideously cool by the good humour of the efficient floor staff and an often hilarious soundtrack that can jump from Amy Winehouse to Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers and Australian Crawl. The music is guaranteed to keep things grounded because it is virtually impossible to be pretentious with James Reyne warbling in the background.
Though there is a distinct (mesh-screened) divide between Coda's bar and dining areas, Adam D'Sylva's mostly small-dish menu is the same whether you're balanced on a stool or seated at a table. The list is a slightly lumpy meld of mostly Asian (and mostly Vietnamese and Thai) flavours with odd interludes from European bistro classics - snails, parfait, terrine. There is no fusion cooking in D'Sylva's repertoire here, but the way the dishes are grouped can be a little confusing on first read. There are certainly no rules being broken by combining distinctly different cuisines on the same carte, but the way they are placed here - with no discernible pattern - can make navigating it less intuitive than it perhaps needs to be.
There is little of that confusion when the food begins to arrive, however. D'Sylva's flavours are pronounced and often feisty but mostly well balanced, and the chef has a deft touch with dipping sauces and accompanying salads. The best-looking dish on the menu is undoubtedly the sugarcane prawns, their outer coating of squiggly fried noodles resembling cartoon Medusa heads. Skewered on fresh sugar cane, the prawns are covered in a paste of ginger, coriander and lemongrass before being coated in the noodles and fried.
Also good were the two betel (or "beetle", as the menu has it) leaf snacks, one fresh, one fried. The fresh one is all about sweet, sour and heat, with spanner crab mixed with galangal, lime and chilli, while the fried version sees prawn mince flavoured with Thai basil and ginger stuffed into a leaf that's dipped in a tempura-like tapioca batter and flash-fried. The brittle crunch of the coating is almost as gorgeous as its lacy good looks.
More deep-fried fun can be had with the blackened quail. Marinated in mirin, sake and soy, it's cooked quickly (in a fryer reserved exclusively for this dish, apparently) so that the marinade caramelises, leaving the salty-sweet skin beautifully sticky and slightly chewy. A little salad of shiso, daikon, daikon shoots and coriander is the ideally refreshing sidekick. There's more to the food than crunch and tang, happily. Take the seared Coffin Bay scallops set on slippery tapioca flavoured with milk and oysters and finished with a Champagne sabayon. Topped with fat salmon eggs and tiny, grassy rocket shoots, it's a subtle dish of elegant textures.
The Western dishes also have their moments. A classically smooth duck liver parfait is finished with a thin layer of Madeira jelly and served in a little glass jar. House-made brioche and an apple and nashi salad dressed with apple vinegar share the parfait's wooden presentation board. Baked snails under puff pastry lids aren't as successful, mainly because of the presence of slightly antiseptic preserved lemon alongside the garlic and thyme. Among the better larger dishes is a clever Asian version of the classic Portuguese pork and clams. D'Sylva wok-fries Spring Bay mussels with Shaoxing wine, lup cheong, garlic and ginger to good, salty effect.
Pastry chef Rebecca Creighton, another Pearl and Taxi alumnus, takes over at the sweet end of the meal. Her desserts might include a beautifully textured coconut and tapioca pandan pudding topped with seasonal fruit and a cleansing ruby grapefruit and ginger sorbet, or chewy little dumpling-like apple and goat's cheese fritters drizzled with leatherwood honey and teamed with honey ice-cream and za'atar. The list is compact at this stage but Creighton plans to expand on it soon.
Coda's wine list is intelligently selected and easily digested; most of it is devoted to the Old World with an emphasis on the elegant aromatics that are great friends with Asian flavours. The two-page list of half bottles is particularly attractive, a smart idea in a restaurant where dishes and flavours leap between continents and grape varietals. Sommelier Travis Howe (ex-Taxi) is a reassuring kind of wine guy with a knack for pitching the discussion to your level of expertise and interest.
There is little doubt that Coda is hot right now. Raised expectations have ensured that the reasonably compact basement will have few spare seats for some time. But it's not difficult to see the popularity outlasting the attraction of the new. The flexibility and quality of Adam D'Sylva's menu, an interesting and accessible cellar, a good-looking room and a great front-of-house attitude have come together beautifully. There is a sense of energy and fun to Coda that many other restaurants can only dream of. Perhaps it all comes down to pedigree after all.