• Aru's sandwich is inspired by Bunnings sausage sizzles and Vietnamese family barbecues (Kristoffer Paulsen)Source: Kristoffer Paulsen
Sunda's Khanh Nguyen is curing brisket in pho spices and reworking childhood memories into new dishes at Aru in Melbourne's CBD.
Audrey Bourget

11 Nov 2021 - 10:37 AM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2021 - 11:24 AM

Recently-opened Melbourne restaurant Aru explores Southeast Asian flavours – much like its sibling Sunda. But this newcomer on Little Collins Street delves even deeper into Vietnamese cuisine, and further explores the European influences in that part of the world. It even sometimes bifurcates to take cues from Japan or China. This mash-up could be worrying in the wrong hands, but when you know chef and co-owner Khanh Nguyen is at the helm, you can only get excited.

“A lot of the menu is based on my childhood memories of food I ate growing up that's nostalgic to me,” says Nguyen. “Every single time there was a special occasion, it would be an excuse to have a gathering. My mum has six siblings, so everyone brought their families over and we’d have a barbecue, something on the spit, something cooked over fire. There was lots of sharing, lots of different dishes, lots of flavours. That's why we're trying to do with our menu.”

Case in point: the duck sausage sanga, inspired by Bunnings' sausage sizzles and nem nướng that he’d devour at family barbecues. At Aru, the duck leg sausage is glazed with leatherwood honey and served on a soft Chinese-style bao shaped like a slice of white bread. Caramelised onions, Kewpie mayo and a fermented hoisin, chilli and peanut butter sauce complete the snack.

A section of the menu is dedicated to charcuterie, but not as you know it. Each item is inspired by a dish, such as beef brisket cured in pho spices and pâté en croûte with flavours of banh mi.

Nguyen started working on the pâté en croûte during last year’s long lockdown, and the result is impressive. Rich pastry encases a pork shoulder terrine and a chicken liver pâté centre. “Obviously, it looks nothing like a banh mi, and some people might be offended, but if you actually eat it, it tastes just like a banh mi,” he says. On the side, you’ll find the usual sandwich trimmings: pickled carrot and daikon, onion and mayo.

The pork and prawn wontons are based on his mother’s recipe: “Certain dishes she makes, you can’t get anything as good as that anywhere.” Her secret is using coarsely minced pork and packing a lot of spring onions, shallots and water chestnuts to add texture. The dressing is Nguyen’s creation: a mix of spicy vinegar, charcoal oil and brown butter.

“Obviously, it looks nothing like a banh mi, and some people might be offended, but if you actually eat it, it tastes just like a banh mi.”

Other dishes that have proven popular so far are the dry-aged duck, and the Balinese babi guling-inspired suckling pig, which is served with three sambals made with native ingredients like desert lime and bush tomato. “The skin is brushed with coconut water, which helps it caramelise and go a nice golden brown. It has a nice shatter, almost like a caramel shatter,” says Nguyen. There are only eight to 10 portions available a day so you’ll have to be quick to try it.

If you notice a lot of words like “blistered” and “burnt” on the menu, it’s most of the cooking happens over red gum wood and charcoal in a large wood-fired hearth. You can keep a close eye on it and what the chefs are cooking if you request a seat at the bar, which faces a long open kitchen.

Nguyen and his team are also using other traditional techniques like dry-ageing and fermentation to bring up flavours. Shelves are full of ferments like orange kosho, pumpkin miso and banana vinegar, the result of working with Furrmien’s Dennis Yong.

With the multiple Melbourne lockdowns delaying the opening of Aru, Nguyen says the last year has been challenging, but that he’s happy to finally be up and running. “When I opened Sunda I thought it couldn’t be more true to myself. This restaurant is also true to me, but a different side of me,” he muses.

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268 Little Collins Street, Melbourne
Tue – Sat 12 pm - 3 pm, 5.30 pm - 10pm

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