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.