Wincing a little at the spelling of the name, I entered Phamous Kitchen with some trepidation. I’m not a big fan of Sydney’s Thai Foon of Thai Riffic restaurant pun names and I feared that Vietnamese restaurants were about to become just as Hanoi-ing... Luckily, in this case the name is simply a reference to the owner and chef, Thanh Pham. He lives in Bankstown - pretty much the heart of Sydney’s Vietnamese community - but has brought his cooking skills to bear in Balmain.
The restaurant is situated on the highly competitive restaurant strip opposite Balmain Hospital and Gladstone Park. It slotted into the site vacated by One6Eight, just two doors away from another Vietnamese restaurant pushing a more traditional schtick.
Gone are the high-backed red chairs and bright red feature wall in favour of a more muted setting that had me thinking Vietnamese day spa. Scando-inspired chairs, a sauna-like wooden banquette and paneling on the walls, plus mock exposed beams and dangling hipster bulbs make this an on-trend contemporary dining room, in neutral, taupe tones that Balmain residents will probably relate to.
We’re dining on a tight budget, but manage to get in three dishes for our $55 spend. We begin our meal with a Lettuce Delight ($7.50/each). These lettuce cups pack an intensely savoury punch from the combination of roasted duck, water chestnuts, sesame, shitake mushrooms and lap cheong (Chinese sausage). The natural sweetness of the lettuce leaf is the only respite from the intense umami of the dish. My palate whimpered for a high note - perhaps bright chilli - even if it was done in an add-your-own fashion, to ensure the dish retained its broad appeal.
Wagyu Betel Leaves ($16) arrive as a pretty row of grilled wagyu fingers, wrapped in betel leaves, and presented under a medley of lightly pickled vegetables. Compared to other versions of this dish I’ve tried, it’s gentler on the char, perhaps in order to showcase the quality of the premium wagyu interior? It’s presented with mayonnaise, which is a departure from the original dish. It’s clean and simple, but not quite the showstopper it could be with more char and sharper, acidic bite.
If you haven’t already guessed, the menu here is a little wider than straight Vietnamese. Pham is showcasing the way Vietnam's Southeast Asian neighbours have influenced the cuisine. These influences include China in the North, and Thailand and Malaysia across the country's Southern aquatic border. You’ll see Malaysia's impact in the Rendang Curry Chicken ($24).
Topped with curling sweet potato chips, this curry has just the right amount of chilli to be lively in the mouth. The chicken and cubes of sweet potato are perfectly cooked, and the gravy is rich with coconut and turmeric (also explaining its attractive yellow hue). The only downside was it had an intensely salty character that had me reaching for my water glass much more than usual. I probably need to drink more water anyway...
The fact that $55 proved to be enough to order food for two people demonstrates that the menu here is keenly priced.
233 Darling Street, Balmain
Ph: (02) 8668 5865