When your partner is a 'foodie' choosing a restaurant for his birthday dinner can be a precarious business. It's not a matter of selecting a tried and true, proven winner, because that will never do. It's about taking a chance, risking, selecting a restaurant that you hope will excel - and hopefully provide a symphony of flavours that will last in his memory longer than the expensive aftershave, or the carefully selected piece of clothing.
Tonight, every hope I had was exceeded, and I was treated to one of the best restaurant experiences I have had in a long time. Knowing my partner liked contemporary Vietnamese, I chose RQ on Crown Street. We had toyed with the idea of dining here a few times, but generally it had been rejected by my partner as he considered it to be a bit pricey for Vietnamese cuisine. But since I was paying, there was no option for this type of complaint, so off we went.
The restaurant is a calming oasis on the busy Oxford/Crown Street junction. The sandy marble feature wall (complete with inset Buddha) blends beautifully with the muted tones of the interior, white linen table cloths, napkins and the white jacketed wait staff. The large cylindrical lights look straight out of Wallpaper Magazine. But the real gem on the floor is one of the owners, Jeremy McNamara, who manages the front of house with charm, extensive knowledge, and a great understanding of old adage 'different strokes for different folks'. Identifying ourselves as 'foodies' meant that Jeremy catered our dish explanations to involve detailed cooking methods, long lists of ingredients, and he even went so far as to offer to email us the recipe of a dish we were particularly enamoured with.
I was surprised to find a broader menu than the contemporary Vietnamese that I was expecting. Chef Nhut Huynh also showed himself to be well versed in Thai and Cambodian flavours (hence the name RQ – ‘rice quarter’ – which refers to the South Eastern corner of Asia). Perhaps the most interesting fact is that he learned to cook in Australia, before deciding to go back to his parent culture to learn more about Vietnamese cooking. In fact this explains many of the Mod Oz touches in the cuisine, including the rather amazing Salad of House Cured Ocean Trout with toasted corn noodle, Green Papaya and Yarra Valley Salmon Roe ($17.50). Whilst the overall taste of this dish was Asian, the vodka and sugar cured Ocean Trout added a distinctly Mod Oz feel. In addition, the roasted corn noodles which the salad perched on made for innovative plating. I also enjoyed the way that the dish was given a more robust feel by the addition of roasted rice powder.
Entrees range from $12.50 to a very reasonable $18.50. I was hard pressed to choose a favourite between the Betel Leaves with House-Tea-Smoked Duck and Sichuan with Pickled Pork and Baby Leek Salad ($17.50) and one of their signature dishes, the Banana Flower Salad with prawn and chicken breast, coconut and chilli jam ($16.90). The betel leaves were perhaps the freshest I have tried, and the tea flavour totally infused the duck, making for a quite a party of flavours in your mouth. The slivers of pickled pork in the centrally placed mound of salad provided a welcome contrast to the bold duck flavours. On the other hand, the Banana Flower Salad was creamy, and incredibly seductive! The dominant notes in the coconut dressing were tamarind and chilli jam, with a slight fish sauce edge. For my personal taste it could have done with some more chilli.
After such successful entrees, I was delighted that the mains by and large continued in the same winning vein. Prices ranged from $23.50- $32.50 and they displayed the same wide ranging flavours. The best dish we tried was a more traditional Vietnamese hotpot of Pork Neck and Belly Braised in Young Coconut Juice with Star Anise and Whole Egg ($24.50) served with a Mod Oz twist on a traditional pickle – pickles with mustard greens. I was also impressed by the Triple Cooked Crispy Skinned Boneless Chicken with Green Papaya and Spicy Ginger with a Chilli and Coriander Relish ($23.90), as the chicken was succulent, moist and infused with the strong flavours that coated it.
Perhaps the least successful dish we tried was Roast Duck Stir Fried with Chilli Jam, Broccoli, Snow peas in a Green Noodle Fried Basket ($25.50). Whilst I liked aspects of the dish, particularly how it was plated, it contained an overwhelming level of saltiness. I enjoyed fried basil leaved on the top, though I felt that more care could have been taken to fry them all evenly, and avoid aniseed being such a dominant note in the dish. The duck itself however was cooked to perfection, even if the taste of it was lost in the melee of salty flavours. We took great pleasure in selecting from their small but well rounded wine list with bottle prices ranging from $36.50-$57.50, specially chosen to compliment the style of cooking. Allowing tasting of unfamiliar wines was a nice touch, and we enjoyed the selecting from the relatively large list of wines by the glass, including dessert wines and champagnes. Desserts themselves were eclectic but rather irresistible – the Warm White Chocolate and Croissant ‘Bread and Butter’ Pudding served with Coconut Rosewater Ice Cream ($12.50) will remain etched in my memory for some time. I also enjoyed rich decadence of the Brown Sugar Pie with Seasonal Fruit ($12.50) but it was let down slightly by the addition of old blueberries, and an overripe lychee in the exotic fruit selection.
Whilst they don’t do takeaway, for fear of spoiling the food through travel, this innovative duo have opened a neighbouring outlet called Snakebean. With an emphasis on quick, easy to eat food, this hawker style outlet is sure to be a success. For me though, it’s RQ all the way, especially since their slightly higher prices are well justified by a fusion of Mod Oz and South East Asian cooking that works in more instances than it fails.
RQ: 294 Crown St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010. Phone: (02) 9360 8688