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Jerry Mai’s Annam is a mod-Viet ode to the ties that bind
Bar snack of the year? A hot contender is right here at Annam, where ink-stained fried cuttlefish is camouflaged on a textured black plate, given away only by whisper-thin slivers of red chilli and a cheek of lemon. It’s clever-clever presentation from Jerry Mai, who learned a thing or two in that department from time at Longrain, Gingerboy and Nahm. It’s equally true in the tasting, too. Mai’s on a mission to rescue cuttlefish from its C-list status behind calamari and squid, and if the combination of obsidian tapioca batter and the yielding white of the thick, sweet flesh – not to mention the numbing Szechuan pepper after-effects - is anything to go by, she’ll have converts aplenty.
Mai is known these days as the mohawked proprietor of the Pho Nom pho and banh mi shops (if you haven’t tried her excellent beef noodle soup, remedy the situation immediately), but Annam harks back to her chef training under the pan-Asian big boys, and then rewinds further to her start in life as a Vietnam-born refugee.
The menu is not obsessed with authenticity – trendy street food mixes it with Mai family faves; technique remakes tradition. It makes total sense to jump from that nuevo cuttlefish to a rival snack of oxtail dumplings braised in sarsaparilla, South-East Asia’s answer to Coca-Cola, so that they’re bathed in a sticky-fingered sauce like a classic bone reduction with the added power of anise and cassia bark. It’s the sort of dish that starts its engine in Asia before hovering somewhere over Europe – kind of like the spiced-up wagyu tartare that brings along a sawn section of bone marrow for company and smartly adds Chinese fried doughnuts as the carb of choice.
Taking over the Little Bourke Street site occupied for many years by Japanese stalwart Kuni’s, Annam exorcises the ghosts of varnished pine furniture and nails the casual cool brief. There are super-high industrial ceilings, a long granite bar and schlocky kung fu movies projected on the wall in a nod to the flickering telly of many a Vietnamese restaurant.
The incessant hum of the industrial extractor fans is a distraction but grab a seat at the bar for a sun-loving cocktail (ingredients like charred pineapple juice, hibiscus syrup and ginger liqueur outline the theme) and a plate of that shadowy cuttlefish. Slide into a mirrorball-graced red-seated booth with a bunch of mates and a banquet menu-sized hunger to pay due respect to the likes of the whole kingfish off the charcoal grill, with translucent rice paper for diners to DIY, first rubbing them with pineapple chunks then piling on the herbs, cold noodles and salad veg. Or pay homage to judicious wok action that finds beef swatches thrown around with a quorum of cumin, onion leaves and green peppercorn branches; it’s charry, oily and deeply hangover busting, should such an affliction be present.
Annam’s a crowd-pleaser of a joint, equally at home with a drink on the run or a full-scale assault. That’s no criticism of its vision. Anything but. It’s really a tale of Mai’s two separate lives: home and office, so to speak. Choose your own adventure, but don’t forget the cuttlefish.
Little Bourke St
|Opening hours:||Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm (limited menu 2.30pm-5pm), 5pm-late, Sat, Sun 5pm-late|