An amuse bouche of pho. Yep, that happened. Forget the creamy pumpkin velouté or fiddly, clarified iced tomato soup or anything on tiny toast. A little bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup is now officially the only way we want start any meal. And that’s a fact.
This is third restaurant for the Nguyen/Jensens. First there was their Crown Street digs (still going strong, we might add), then there was Fat Noodle at the casino and now there’s Riley Street, with chef Mark Jensen at the helm.
There’s some seriously smart cooking going on here, too. It’s all about texture and fresh, snappy flavours. Take a slippery acid-forward salad of cloud ear mushrooms and fried bean curd, say, or the gelatinous and sticky mix of master-stock-poached-then-shredded Burrawong chicken and strands of poached jellyfish.
Fresh rice paper rolls are filled with a fine slice of duck and pork terrine, vermicelli noodles, red cabbage and pickled carrot. At $18 for three rolls sliced in half, you might not call it a value proposition, but it is a crunchy, fresh and peppy way to start the meal.
Red Lantern on Riley is a linen napkin and fancy chopstick affair – no Laminex or broken plates in the bottom of the stockpot around here, folks. The interiors are Art Nouveau via Saigon – lots of curling wrought iron, rich red wallpaper and a massive iron stalk holding a (red) lantern in its beak. All that’s missing is a slowly undulating ceiling fan. Cushy leather booths line the room while the centre is taken up with a large communal table. Which is a fine idea – despite the fancy fit-out, it's all about sharing.
On top of all those stylish interiors, you’ll get some punchy, well-executed takes on classic Vietnamese dishes. The thumb-sized cubes of fried rice cake are a must. Here, the glutinous chunks are served with tiger prawn, little pieces of caramelised pork, masses of deep caramel pork floss and a generous scattering of deep-fried shallot. It’s a crunchy, salty, rich mess of hot-damn tasty.
Speaking of classics, they do quite the bánh xèo here. The thin Vietnamese pancake is filled with fine slices of pork belly, prawn bits and a massive nest of bean sprouts. It all comes on an even massive-r platter with lettuce leaves, perilla and mint. Take a bit of the pancake, wrap it in herbs and lettuce and shove it all in one bite. Oh, and try the crisp, glossy roasted duck – it's mostly skin with a little meat attached to each slice. The rich sweet duck skin is brightened with tiny pieces of orange and a salad of raw shaved fennel and watercress.
If you want a super-quick wake up, go for a Vietnamese coffee. Here, a little individual drip filter sits on top of a glass cup sporting a layer of condensed milk. Mix it together and attack/start that heart. Pair your coffee with some chewy rice flour dumplings and black sesame ice cream or maybe – no, definitely – a wobbly coconut custard topped with runny caramel sauce.
This is one of those run-don’t-walk situations. It's new and relatively unknown for now, but soon enough it's going to be crowd-central. Happily, you can book. Risk a walk-in and risk getting a seat at this red-hot restaurant.