“Everything I’ve done in my career has come down to this,” said chef Khanh Nguyen on a recent Instagram post. “It’s a mix of everything I’ve learnt through my career working at some great restaurants with amazing chefs. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their mentorship.” Call it a function of millennial attitude, but words like these don’t come out of the mouths of chefs often these days. But when they do, it makes a cool change in an industry sometimes full of hot air.
Melbourne diners might not know the name Khanh Nguyen yet, but they will. With a resume that reads like a who’s who of restaurant hits from the past 10 years – Red Lantern, Becasse, Mr Wong, Noma Sydney, The Bentley Bar & Restaurant and finally Cirrus – there’s no doubt Khanh has collected more than a handful of skills during his career to date. His first solo venture is Sunda Dining and it has all the makings of something with true substance; a powerhouse of technique, cultural richness and a flavour profile that’s all its own.
The concept? To create a dining experience that showcases the flavours of Southeast Asia in a refined, modern context. Simple enough, but given the level of perfection that the simplest of dishes from this vast region can be, can you really improve on them?
“When I worked with Dan [Hong, executive chef at Mr Wong], he said ‘If you can’t do it better, don’t do it.’, and that’s true,” says Nguyen. “I guess you could say what we want to do at Sunda is to take the flavours of Southeast Asia and create an experience with them. By using native Australian ingredients and techniques collected from everywhere, it’s a taste of something familiar, but different at the same time.”
The 78-seat Punch Lane restaurant offers guests three large communal tables, while a handful of diners can watch the kitchen theatrics at the bar downstairs. Smaller tables and a second bar can be found upstairs for more intimate drinking and dining.
Expect rich, aromatic Asian curries, warming spices and fermented flavours, clean and bright seafood and punchy fragrant fresh herbs. It’s all the tastes and textures we love about this cuisine, but showcasing native Australian ingredients like kangaroo, saltbush – and yes, even Vegemite.
“It’s an idea that came from my time at Noma, where we made our own version of Vegemite. It’s very umami and adds a real richness and depth to dishes.”
It’s a new kind of authenticity, and we like what we’re tasting.
Tues - Sat 6pm-10pm ; Fridays 12pm - 11pm
18 Punch Lane, Melbourne