Good Eating, Vietnam
Sydney’s suburbs are often dominated by one or two ethnic groups: Chinese in Chatswood, Koreans in Campsie, Indonesians in Randwick. The vibrant southwestern suburb of Cabramatta is an uncanny simulacrum of Saigon. The sidewalks are lined with potted mandarin trees, silk shops, and herbal apothecaries. Children wear the blue and white school uniforms common in Indochina. One local butcher even offers homesick customers gia cay—imitation dog meat. (It’s actually pork seasoned to taste like dog, a delicacy in Vietnam’s rural north.)
It’s maddeningly hard to find respectable Vietnamese food in New York. So I’m sold on Thanh Binh from the moment I step in and see wicker baskets overflowing with greens and aromatic herbs. Unlike most other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese cooking focuses on fresh, clear, vibrant flavors and textures, with minimal use of oil and fat. The herbs are key in Thanh Binh’s goi cuon (summer rolls), which we assemble ourselves, moistening a sheaf of rice paper, topping it with shrimp, bean sprouts, and a tangle of rice vermicelli, then layering on sprigs of spearmint, purple shiso, holy basil, cilantro, and lemon balm. It’s then rolled up, burrito-style, and dunked in a pungent blend of hoisin and nuoc mam (fish sauce). Thanh Binh’s menu lists no fewer than 251 dishes, so Michael and I embark on an all-afternoon feast, highlighted by an extraordinary pho (beef noodle soup) whose stock—infused with marrow and spiced with star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves—has been simmering for 26 hours. After our umpteenth course we’re joined by the owner, Angie Hong, a vivacious woman with short-cropped hair, an Hermès belt, and a massive Gucci gold bracelet. Hong left Saigon for Sydney in 1971 and opened the first Thanh Binh in 1993; there are now three locations. With its Scandinavian bentwood chairs and gallery lighting, this branch on Arthur Street is the most upscale. Still, it’s authentic enough to have a sign posted in the bathroom reading PLEASE DO NOT STAND ON TOILET SEAT.
Malaysian Goes Modern
Ask Sydneysiders of a certain age where they first tasted chiles, galangal, or lemongrass and you’ll likely get a two-word answer: the Malaya. Established in 1963, this is the granddaddy of Sydney’s Asian restaurants, and its evolution—from a modest storefront on George Street to a gleaming, ultramodern stage-set overlooking Darling Harbour—parallels the rise of Asian cuisine in Australia. One thing that hasn’t changed is the laksa, that magnificently hearty Malaysian soup, which might be even better than Michael’s. The broth is at once creamy and piquant; the bean sprouts are crisp, the king prawns plump and firm and briny. "Then again," Michael says in his own defense, "this isn’t authentic laksa. I mean, they make it with cow’s milk." Back in the sixties, coconut milk was nearly impossible to source in Australia, so, yes, the Malaya’s cooks substituted cow’s milk. Blasphemous or brilliant, your pick—the recipe endures to this day, and it works.
What’s Japanese for ’No, No— Thank You!’?
If the Malaya was Sydney’s first great Asian restaurant, Tetsuya’s is certainly its most famous. Japanese-born chef Tetsuya Wakuda is Australia’s answer to Alain Ducasse, and on a good night his food might be worth the challenge of scoring a reservation and the eye-popping tab. Unfortunately, our dinner is fussy and overwrought, and the service feels rote. For my money, a more memorable meal can be had at Yoshii, a five-year-old Japanese gem in the Rocks. Though few tourists have heard of the place, Yoshii might be the finest restaurant in all of Australia.
Ryuichi Yoshii—a boyish 45-year-old Nagasaki native who moved to Sydney a decade ago—is the culinary equivalent of an art-house director, trading in quiet, probing, experimental drama. Taking seats at the tiny sushi bar, we surrender to a mesmerizing 17-course omakase adventure. "Thank you," Yoshii says as he passes us our first course: an eggshell, perched in a silver cup, containing silky egg custard, a chiffonaded snow pea, bonito broth, and astoundingly rich sea urchin (diver-harvested the previous day in Tasmania), ornamented with gold leaf. By the fifth spoonful we’re humming from the protein buzz and are inclined to stop right there.
We don’t. The next 16 dishes come at us like a fireworks display—white asparagus sprinkled with smoked mullet roe; roasted Wagyu beef paired with fried lotus root; mirin-marinated black cod with diced bacon and kumquat; masala-dusted red snapper dotted with splashes of puréed mango, chile, and spring onion. And for the finale, eight varieties of sushi, served one by one on tiny, whimsical ceramic plates. Hypnotized by the swirl of Yoshii’s knife, we delve into saffron-orange ocean trout, glistening toro, buttery smoked eel, raw mantis prawns from Perth. Even the palate cleanser—an icy shot of mango-lemongrass granita—is exquisite. By the time we stumble onto the street, giddy from sake and Yoshii’s endless stream of "thank you’s," four hours have passed, but we’re surprisingly not full—instead, we feel entirely energized. An hour later, we’re at Spice I Am for a nightcap of papaya salad. ✚
Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L special correspondent.