'Annam' is a term that was used by the French when they occupied Vietnam before the war in the late 1800s and 1900s, explains Olivia Hardie. “They used that word outside of Vietnam to refer to the country – the Vietnamese people never really used it."
Hardie is a part of the management team at Jerry Mai’s hotly anticipated new Little Bourke Street restaurant, which she's opened with business partner Rani Doyle. A Vietnamese-Australian who migrated to Melbourne with her family early on, Mai is cooking the food of her childhood at Annam plus some dishes she’s learned along the way, working at venues like her Melbourne street food chain Pho Nom, and David Thompson’s Nahm in London.
“The menu’s got a little bit of everything in there. We don’t like the term ‘pan Asian’ at all but there’s tastes and flavours and inspirations from around Asia,” Hardie says.
For the most part, Annam is Vietnamese but you’ll also find Cambodian food on the menu (Mai’s dad is Cambodian and the family lived there briefly before arriving in Australia), Thai and Laos influences, and even some Japanese flavours.
Mai is famous for her unconventional flavour pairings, a trait seen in Annam’s housemade dumplings: oxtail is braised in sarsaparilla (you know that sweet, syrupy soft drink that was popular last century?) until it forms a rich sarsaparilla-based jus. On the more traditional side, there's rice paper rolls made to order with fillings like wagyu and raw tuna; a Cambodian-style goat curry with pea eggplant, green papaya and roasted rice; and a charcoal grill is smoking up some hawker-style whole fish, coconut-roasted chicken and beef ribs.
But it’s a couple of desserts that have, to the team’s surprise, stolen the show thus far. One is a waffle-coated fried ice-cream drenched in salted caramel sauce, a riff on the old Chinese restaurant classic. The second is a young coconut jelly which arrives as half a young coconut housing coconut sorbet, coconut jelly and grilled corn.
“Coconut and corn is a flavour pairing that’s quite popular in Vietnam,” Hardie says. “We’ve taken that and used it in a sweet; it’s refreshing but also it’s got that kind of earthy flavour from the corn.”
The vast space seats about 100 over a number of seating options spanning booths to lounges to a bar and high top tables. A handful of lighting styles abound, with festoon lighting used to evoke Asian street-side dining.
For the moment, Annam is only open for dinner but that’s all changing as of next Wednesday when they roll out a lunchtime menu; check their website for menu updates.
Annam is open daily from 5pm-11pm and will be open for lunch from Wednesday 8 November, 12-3pm.
56 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne VIC