When word spread that Geoff Lindsay was opening a restaurant that would put Vietnamese flavours front and centre, there was plenty of excited anticipation but not a whole lot of surprise. Lindsay is, after all, one of Melbourne's best-known - and best - exponents of the Mod-Oz slant on Asian cuisine, and the idea of his taking Vietnam as a springboard was never going to require a huge leap of imagination for those who've followed his career. So solid is the "love and marriage/horse and carriage" logic of Lindsay and Vietnam that Dandelion immediately felt as if it had always been going to happen.
There's logic too in the fact that Dandelion has hung out its shingle in Elwood, a suburb that's never exactly set the world on fire with its culinary trendsetting. Lindsay and his wife Jane, who has played an integral part in both the look of the restaurant and its wine list (in collaboration with Grant Van Every), live nearby and know about the dearth of Vietnamese restaurants in the vicinity. In the past they've had to schlep across town to Victoria Street to get a Vietnamese fix, and proximity and an obvious hole in the market became chief factors in Lindsay's decision to open his first post-Pearl venture in a shopfront on Ormond Road.
There's very little of Pearl in Dandelion. Whereas Lindsay's last restaurant is all about discreetly glimmering luxury, the new venture has a concrete floor, an open kitchen at the back packed and busy with trucker-capped chefs, and a feature light-well in the centre where a vertical garden is stacked on rusted metal racks. There are sleek light fittings shaped like paper lanterns, undressed timber tables set with cloth napkins, paper placemat menus, bottles of fish sauce and chilli sauce, and a series of etchings on one wall by the late artist David Band. It's a good-looking space that puts a well-designed, studiously casual foot forward.
Of course, we're not talking Hopkins Street casual here: a cursory glance at the menu reveals wagyu beef, Glenloth chicken, tuna sashimi and prices to match. This is Vietnamese food put through a Geoff Lindsay filter, so while the flavours are authentic, with plenty of those raw/cooked, sweet/sour, hot/cold moments, Lindsay deliberately avoids being hidebound by tradition. A playfulness and a sense of fun pervade the cooking and it works because there's a solid understanding of what is being played with and why.
Probably the best place to witness this is the menu's "wrap and roll bar" where traditional rice paper rolls, spring rolls and betel leaf wraps are given something of a modern sushi bar makeover to excellent effect. The most traditional of the rolls is a version of the ubiquitous pork and prawn rice paper roll that, at Dandelion, sees the pork barbecued full of punchy, smoky, slightly sweet flavour and teamed with firm chunks of king prawns and a surprising hit of sour green mango. The rolls are cut into four and arrive sitting upright with a sweet, chilli-flecked dipping sauce and mint leaves sprouting from the top.
There's more Japanese influence evident in the tuna sashimi rolls with good-quality fish diced, rolled into the rice paper with whole shiso leaves and served with wasabi and soy. The soft, serene stickiness of the rice paper works surprisingly well with the texture of the fish and seems to make the hot whack from the wasabi even more noticeable.
All the rolls come with specific dipping sauces, the best of which is the "Mrs T's magical sauce" that accompanies the soft-shell crab and avocado rice paper rolls. The Mrs T in question is the wife of a Vietnamese trader in Victoria Street, where Lindsay has been shopping for more than 20 years (since his Stella days, in fact) and the recipe is hers.
Those looking to relive memories of Hanoi will like the peppered wagyu nem, filled with minced beef mixed with generous amounts of black and white pepper and vermicelli noodles. The outside thin coating of rice paper is made for frying and arrives bubbled and delicate so it shatters when you bite into it. Roll it up in the accompanying iceberg lettuce with Vietnamese mint and chunks of fresh pineapple and you'll have different degrees of crunch coming at you from all directions.
Tempting as it is to simply work through the rolls, there's plenty of fun to be had elsewhere on the menu. In fact if your first visit here is with only one other person, you may find yourself mentally assembling a bigger group for next time to extend your reach.
The list's five salads all espouse a crisp and clean philosophy. You can go super traditional with a textbook Vietnamese coleslaw, all cabbage and basil, carrot and bean shoots, dressed with lime, fish sauce and palm sugar and a decent hit of chilli and tossed with steamed and shredded chicken. It's so clean and light it makes you feel like a better person for eating it.
Or there's a more Japanese-inspired number that combines silken tofu, liberally sprinkled with toasted black and white sesame seeds, with buckwheat noodles, shiso leaves, enoki, spring onions and a clean, soy-based dressing. Though it veers away from the Vietnamese script, it doesn't feel completely out of place. It's a little like the wine on the compact list in that it's not strictly culturally correct but it's certainly simpatico.
The wines have been chosen for their fragrance and restraint, and the list eschews big-flavoured chardonnays and shiraz for the likes of riesling, grüner veltliner and pinot noir. It's a smart Australian-leaning collection that strays into the Old World when needed and displays the charm and quick-wittedness thatonly a well-constructed short list can.
It's certainly a good list for matching Dandelion's restrained, authentic version of pho. The five versions of the traditional soup here are all based on beef, chicken or vegetable stock, wonderfully fragrant, almost fruity with the flavours of cassia bark, star anise, grilled onion and ginger, with noodles and bean shoots swimming within. Each soup - whether you choose the raw tuna, wagyu sirloin, crab, chicken or tofu - comes accompanied by sprouts, herbs, fresh chilli and lemon wedges. These, and the chilli, soy and fish sauces on the table, allow you to get all interactive and doctor your pho the way you like. It's good to take advantage of the lemon, a hefty squeeze lifting the soup to even greater revitalising heights.
Clean and crunch are always good but so is some heft. The pork belly simmered in caramel and black pepper has cult dish written all over it. It's ridiculously indulgent: roasted and finely sliced meat is placed in a claypot with dark caramel broken with fish sauce, copious amounts of black pepper and finely shredded cloud ear fungus. This thick, fatty, salty stickiness is accompanied by a small dish of red rice and a salad of crunchy sprouts and fresh herbs.
Slightly less sinful - though still a sleeve-roller - is the slab of barbecued spareribs. They're rubbed and marinated in soy, ginger and oyster sauce and then barbecued so that the marinade caramelises, after which they're braised in young coconut water that reacts with the meat, tenderising it to a point just short of falling apart. They come with a lychee and mint salad and really shouldn't be missed.
The lamb curry is also worth a look: thickened with broken-down taro, flavoured with star anise and intense, almost piney black cardamom, it's served with shredded green mango and a flurry of mint (garden, Vietnamese and spearmint). It also comes with a rice-flour and wheat-flour Vietnamese baguette, perfect for mopping up the thick velvety sauce.
Desserts toe something of a comfort food line, referencing Asian ingredients but erring on the side of European inspiration. There's an excellent caramelised banana cake served with tamarind ice-cream and coconut ice-cream, and a cute trifle-like combination of mango jelly, coconut custard, drunken ladyfingers and fresh lychees.
It's good to have Lindsay back, particularly when he's returned with such a spring in his step, easily satisfying expectations with his affinity for Vietnamese flavours. It may not be altogether surprising that Dandelion has hit the ground running but there's quite a crowd of us who are very glad it did.