Khanh Nguyen’s Instagram handle – @genghiskhanh – is aptly-named. Like the infamous Mongol conquerer, the Vietnamese-Australian chef has prevailed through a who’s who of Sydney’s kitchens – Luke Nguyen’s Red Lantern, Justin North’s 2-hatted Bécasse, Dan Hong’s Mr Wong, Savage & Hildebrandt’s Cirrus Dining, and even a stint at Noma Australia – working his way up to and including sous chef at each of them. He did all this before hitting the big 3-0.
And then – at just 27 years young – Nguyen opened Sunda Dining with the
VC funding financial backing of the Halim Group. The high-energy venue, with a perennial ‘under construction’ look is nestled in Punch Lane in the typical ‘hush-hush’ Melbourne back alley way. In just one short year, it’s become one of the hottest (and depending on the dish, literally as well as figuratively), most interesting, and unique restaurants out there, Melbourne or Sydney. Even then, it’s been quite the polarising place!
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Sunda Dining
But of course, you’ve already done your research, no? You know that Sunda Dining’s philosophy is a stool resting on three legs: Southeast Asian-influenced cuisine, native Australian ingredients, and liberal doses of modern technique & interpretation. The name of the restaurant gives it away: Sunda comes from the Indonesian word Pasundan (referring to West Java), which refers to the Malay Archipelago islands. Southeast Asian cuisine as a whole is so successful precisely due to the cultural melting pot effect. Expect lots of coconut, curries, spices, kaffir lime, sweet peppercorns, accented with Aussie bush fare such as Dorrigo Pepper, quandongs, lemon myrtle and bush tomato. What you shouldn’t expect is authenticity, or you’re going to be in for a bad time.
But hey, even if you didn’t do your homework on Sunda, you probably know it as ‘that Vegemite curry roti‘ restaurant, such is its fame that it’s become a #foundongoogle dish and proudly displayed on a sign hanging outside the restaurant.
It really is something. The butteriest (is that a word? It should be a word) roti is served with a Vegemite-tinged curry that adds Goldilocks-level of umami, and topped off with a kaffir lime & curry oil. It’s a rich, unctuous treat that truly bridges two cultures. While I’m sure there’s half an adult’s caloric intake with each of these, I still make sure I get my very own: sharing one may have an even more adverse health impact.
Sure, there’s every possibility that Sunda Dining could be typecasted by its roti, but if it had to be its signature nail in its coffin, so be it: it’d be well worth it. Besides, Nguyen’s skills go far beyond this singular dish.
Take the wagyu rendang pie, a luscious number filled with fatty, marbly beef cheek that’s been caramelised over 12 hours in coconut milk, curry paste and Sunda’s secret herbs & spices. The dough is akin to a cross between a Chinese baozi and your typical table bread. The result? Fluffy, but with sufficient integrity to hold up its gooey insides. Some devilishly hot sambal on the side and a paper-thin pickled radish on the side to cut through it all, and it’s a dish that’s made to be re-ordered.
You wouldn’t think of a potato ‘gratin’ as a main, so perhaps think of this as art. The potato – thinly sliced by mandolin – is interspersed with roasted yeast, curry oil and green peppercorns and is then baked, pressed and fried. Finally, it’s topped with curried cauliflower cream, pickled quandongs, nahm jim, fresh herbs and shaved macadamia nut. All in a day’s work, right? France, meet Asia.
It’s so good.
Then there’s the Fremantle Octopus that’s so soft, I might have mistaken myself to be at a sushiya – and I’d forgive myself for it. The mollusc is (presumably) massaged with fervour, finished on the grill, capped off with fish sauce-pickled onion rings and then generously dusted with bush tomato powder. It may just be the best octopus dish I’ve had this year.
Other than some Sunda Classics, the menu itself changes frequently – seasonally, at the very least. However, at any given time, Nguyen gets a brainwave and the rest of us are handsomely rewarded for it. Case in point: this special of Clarence River prawn efu noodles. Longtime readers know that I’ll be found dead clutching a bowl of the stuff, so to serve up some of my favourite things along with it – fat prawns, curry butter, roe, and truffles to boot – makes for a dish that’s ‘order first, ask price later’. By the way, it was over $40. Also by the way, IDGAF.
Even relatively safe proteins aren’t really ‘safe’ at Sunda. Rangers Valley wagyu is a known quantity; Nguyen still respects it – cooked to epicurean perfection as it were – but takes it down the Straits with a sunrise lime satay and finished off with an Aussie touch of strawberry gum (i.e., eucalyptus) and – oddly – carrots. An undeniably interesting flavour combination, if nothing else.
By now, it’s quite evident that all of Sunda’s dishes incorporate, to some degree, Nguyen’s triple passion of Australian nativity, upscale technique and Asian sensibilities. But perhaps none codify his MO as much as the otak-otak. If you’ve had ‘authentic’ otak-otak, Sunda’s version will – at the very least – surprise. Where’s the banana leaf? Where’s the spongy fish cake? It stops mattering when you take that first bite into the stabilised spanner crab curry, literally full of itself, a flavour explosion that conjures up childhood memories of eating this stuff that, as someone of Mainland Chinese upbringing, I technically never had. That’s the power of the dish. The finger lime is perhaps gratuitous (it’s almost become too trendy of an ingredient), but I couldn’t fault its use; spread the good stuff – enhanced by the briny riches of sea urchin (a special limited-time topping) – over the puffed rice crackers and that primal, hands-on way of eating is preserved.
Sunda Dining’s Desserts, relative to its savouries, are a weak point in the lineup: well, I was worried that this restaurant was getting too perfect. That said, perfectly serviceable is the perfect descriptor.
As this particular visit was fortunately during black gold season, Nguyen made the most of it with a black truffle fried ice cream, that delivered plenty of richness, albeit at the expense of an overly-thick batter which made it too oily. I often consider my willingness to smash the entire thing solo as the hallmark of a great dessert and while this was good, it didn’t quite meet that high of a bar.
Sunda’s take on bika ambon was my first exposure to the spongy, springy Indonesian cake. It’s a North Sumatran in origin (specifically Medan) and is part of the kuih confection family. Its bubbly texture (formed during baking) gives it the nickname ‘honeycomb cake’. Nguyen modernises one of the two slices with a sea salt brulee (I’ll always take more textures if I can get ’em!), and it’s rounded out with what’s usually a pandan ice cream but is purple ube in this instance. The cake’s texture lived right up to the promise, though the ice cream was weak in flavour which took things down a notch.
Sunda Dining is truly a culmination of Khanh Nguyen’s culinary life: gastronomic technique (the fine diners), an appreciation of our own land’s bounty (Noma Australia), and of course his cultural heritage (Red Lantern, Mr Wong). You may have noticed that all these restaurants are located in Sydney. Our loss, Melbourne’s gain.
I expect Sunda Dining to be a fixture on the Melbourne eat list well into the future.
Date Last Visited: 2/Aug/2019 (two visits)
Address: 18 Punch Ln, Melbourne VIC 3000
Price Guide (approx): ~$80-100pp plus drinks
Additional photos from my first visit to Sunda Dining:
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to Sunda Dining
- Vegemite. Curry. Roti.
- And most of everything else
- No other restaurant like it
- The desserts can be hit-and-miss
- Expect authenticity? Expect a bad time.
- The Vegemite curry roti is now an off-menu item, so don’t be afraid to ask!
Would I return: it’s now a Melbourne fixture.
F8.5 | S4 | A2.5
See how I score here
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