What to expect at Aru, the highly anticipated follow-up to Melbourne's Sunda
Executive chef Khanh Nguyen has cooked up a menu featuring a Vietnamese-Bunnings sausage sanga mash-up, potato wedges with sour cream remixed, and the ice-cream sandwich of his dreams. And he’s eyeing that 16 June open date, Melbourne lockdown be damned.
Is there ever a good time to open a restaurant in Melbourne? From the looks of the city's fourth lockdown which looks likely to be extended beyond its seven-day timeframe, it's a no.
But executive chef Khanh Nguyen has been clutching the blueprints for Aru since announcing his new restaurant in February last year. Despite hospitality's worker shortage, he's hired most of his staff. The kitchen is being set up. The recipes are tested. And he's eyeing that 16 June open date, lockdown be damned. "We're not going to delay it any longer."
Aru – the follow-up to Nguyen's other success story, Sunda – takes its name and inspiration from a little-known chapter of Australian history when Yolngu people of the Northern Territory's Arnhem Land traded sea cucumber with Indonesian mariners, including Macassans from Sulawesi, and traders from the Aru Islands, a low-lying archipelago in Indonesia's Maluku province.
To this end, the Aru menu rests on the flavours of south-east and east Asia, remixed for the modern Australian restaurant scene, underscored with fire, fermentation, smoke and curing techniques (the kitchen is after all, kitted out with bells and whistles including a humidity-controlled dry-aging room, and a custom-made wood-fire oven imported from the U.S.) and overlaid with Nguyen's Vietnamese-Australian heritage.
"Cooking over fire and smoking are some of my favourite flavours," he says, recalling large family barbecues at his grandparents' house. The nem nướng for example (grilled Vietnamese pork sausages) would be marinated with red shallots and garlic and brushed with a honey glaze that gave the sausages that prized, glossy caramelised outer. See then, the "bites and snacks" of the Aru menu which feature a duck sausage sanga, glazed with leatherwood honey, on soft white bread with caramelised onion and hoisin sauce. "It's like a Bunnings sausage sanga and nem nướng combined," says Nguyen.
Potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce? They've shape-shifted into hasselback potatoes with a spiced herb sauce and a dressing of Laughing Cow cheese – "the one cheese I'd find at home [growing up]" – and a potato-peel miso from their head of fermentation, Dennis Yong.
The house-cured meats are a throwback to Nguyen's time at Monopole, where he refined his charcuterie-making techniques. The cured pork neck with smoked egg cream and tomato rice echoes two classic Vietnamese rice dishes, cơm sườn (broken rice with pork chops) and cơm đỏ (tomato rice); while the bánh mì pâtés en croûte, made Instagram-famous during Nguyen's 2020 lockdown culinary experiments, are a permanent fixture of the Aru menu. And one bite of the cured, chilli-rubbed brisket with cardamom-spiked burnt onion sauce, Thai basil and bean sprouts, and diners' synapses and tastebuds will fire with the flavours of phở.
It's further down the menu that Asian and Indigenous flavours combine, from a dish of smoked chicken with lemon myrtle, turmeric and ginger; to a dry-aged duck with quandong and bamboo, plus babi guling, Aru's take on the Balinese suckling roast pork.
"We made this at Sunda for our first birthday with suckling pigs from [Victoria's] Western Plains Pork, and it has a nice, glassy, shatter-thin crackling," says Nguyen. Babi guling is traditionally served with rice, but at Sunda it's made to be wrapped with lettuce, Vietnamese herbs, and a trio of native-Australian sambals: a sharp desert lime and coriander combination, a creamy and textural macadamia and coconut number, and another with bush tomato: "It's quite rich and savoury, similar to sambal belacan."
He's particularly proud of the ice-cream sandwich, based on the kaya toast of Singapore and Malaysia. At Aru, the salty-sweet koji waffles are toasted over fire, used to bookend a kaya parfait, and come topped with a squiggle of Davidson's plum jam. "As a child I loved eating ice-cream sandwiches, but the biscuit was never crisp enough for my liking," says Nguyen. "This waffle has the same texture as an ice-cream cone. It's definitely crisp."
No doubt about it, Nguyen and his team are ready to go, and there's a nervous energy that comes from being so close, but yet so far, from unveiling the restaurant that's been waiting in the wings for 12-plus months. But decisions about lockdown are out of his control, and all Nguyen can do is keep his head down and stay busy. "We're not going to delay it any longer," he says. "[With Aru], it's not a matter of if, but when we can open."
Pending Victoria lockdown restrictions, Aru is set to open on Wednesday 16 June, 2021. Bookings are open now. 268 Little Collins St, Melbourne, Vic (03) 9939 8113 aru.net.au Open: Tuesday - Saturday, noon to late