At Kafe in Hanoi, chef Joel Manton rustled up hummus made with lotus seeds, and Caesar salad with quail eggs. During his six years living and working in Vietnam, he cross-pollinated local ingredients and western dishes to create the restaurant's mod-bistro menu.
Now having returned to Sydney, adaptation is the name of the game. In the lead up to opening Forty Licks in Sydney's CBD, his new Vietnamese bar-restaurant in partnership with restaurateur Tony Mowad (ex-Jet Bar Caffe), Manton is excited about bringing cha ca la vong, a Hanoi specialty of grilled fish with turmeric and dill, to Sydney diners.
The only problem is the snake head fish, traditionally used in the dish, is considered an invasive species in Australia. "We've substituted it with kingfish instead," says Manton. "My Vietnamese mother-in-law has given it the tick of approval."
The menu at Forty Licks features all the classics that are popular in Vietnam, but harder to find on Sydney menus. Take the ga roti, Vietnamese-style roasted chicken with lime-leaf and lemongrass, and bo la lot, beef wrapped in betel leaves, threaded onto skewers, then barbecued. But one of Manton's favourites is the pho chien phong: layered squares of rice noodles (Manton will be making them fresh in-house) that are deep-fried, and served with a sticky vegan oyster sauce. "It translates to 'fried noodle pillow'," says Manton. "They puff up so they're crispy on the outside, and sticky on the inside."
Just don't expect to see pho on the menu. "There are already a lot of mum-and-dad-run restaurants who do that in Sydney," says Manton. Instead, he'll be cooking up bun bo Hue, a spicy beef noodle soup that's sometimes described as pho's cousin. "It has a more complex flavour with lemongrass, shrimp paste and beef short ribs," Manton says. He's still undecided whether he'll include pork-blood jelly, a traditional component of the soup, in Forty Licks' version.
Manton and Mowad have also recruited bartender Kurtis Bosley to create a Vietnamese-inspired cocktail list. "He's created a cocktail version of ca phe bac xiu, a Vietnamese iced coffee with coconut milk," says Manton. "You can come in just for the cocktails, and have some of our bar snacks on the side."
The bar and menu at Forty Licks might look like any other Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney's CBD, but that's the point. "It's named after The Rolling Stones compilation album," explains Manton. "It's a bit rock 'n' roll, it has a bit of attitude, and it's memorable."
Forty Licks is slated to open 30 April at 24 York St, Sydney. It will be open Monday to Friday, 11am till late.