At newly opened restaurant Firebird in Windsor, pretty much every dish hits the charcoal grill or wood-fired oven at some point. And that even includes cocktails, with burned citrus and charred pineapple.
Commune Group director Simon Blacher says, "When you go through Southeast Asia, in Thailand, Vietnam, anywhere, everything is cooked over charcoal. That sweet smell you get; the fat and the pork, it's delicious and really evocative."
Commune is the group behind popular Vietnamese eateries Hanoi Hannah, Japanese restaurant Tokyo Tina and Italian wine bar Neptune. "We're lucky to have never been bound by traditions. The flavours are there, but all of our restaurants generally reinterpret them in a different way," explains Blacher.
For Firebird, he enlisted chef Steven Ngo, who grew up in the countryside outside of Ho Chi Minh City. "My mum would cook traditional Vietnamese food. We'd catch fish in the river and get vegetables from our garden. My mum inspired me a lot to cook," Ngo shares.
Ngo has a deep understanding of Vietnamese cuisine, as well as Thai, thanks to the years he spent working at Long Chim and Chin Chin in Melbourne. At Firebird, he loves merging fresh Vietnamese dishes with bold Thai flavours.
You can't go past the pipis, which are served in canh chua, a sour tomato and tamarind soup that has been reduced into a sauce. Blacher explains, "The pipis open over charcoal so what happens is that some of the liquid comes out and the smoke jumps back in. When you eat them, you get a bit of smokiness on the shell which adds another layer."
The 250g, 500g or 1kg servings come with a fluffy Chinese doughnut to soak up the sauce.
Ngo takes his ingredients seriously and is not one to cut corners. Take duck a l'orange, a French dish that has been reinterpreted by the English and Vietnamese. In Vietnam, vit nau cam sees a duck braised in orange juice and spices. At Firebird, spices are a big part of the dish, but Ngo chose roasting over braising.
He brines the duck overnight with cinnamon, star anise and orange, then stuffs it with spring onion, lemongrass and orange. In the morning, he bastes it before briefly putting in the oven. He then hangs the duck to roast slowly for several hours. "For the sauce, we use duck fat, fish sauce, palm sugar, lemongrass, spring onion, cinnamon, star anise, Worcestershire and orange juice," reveals Ngo.
Finally, the duck is chopped and served with pickled ginger and burnt orange to cut through the richness.
"We like eating with our hands and getting a bit messy."
Fans of Vietnamese street food will be excited to find banh trang nuong (grilled rice paper, sometimes called Vietnamese pizza or taco) on the menu.
"It's a dish that comes from Dalat, in the mountains, but you can find it everywhere in Vietnam now. The rice paper sheets are thicker there, that's why in Melbourne not many restaurants do it because they don't have the right rice paper," explains Ngo. In Vietnam, the rice paper is topped with things like quail eggs, pork floss, Sriracha, dried shrimps and cheese, before being grilled. At Firebird, the rice paper is topped with egg, as well as mushroom pate and sweet chilli sauce made in-house.
Several other dishes like the eggplant in red curry, green papaya salad and grilled banh mi are also vegetarian.
With its loud music, 70's inspired décor and bar flanked in the middle of the restaurant, you can feel Firebird has been built for fun. "We like eating with our hands and getting a bit messy. I want people guzzling beer and not taking themselves seriously," says Blancher.
223 High St, Windsor
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