DARLING Square, Sydney’s newest lifestyle precinct, is wedged between Darling Harbour and Chinatown. Anchored by The Exchange, a stunning spiral-shaped building designed by Kengo Kuma, one of the world’s leading architect firms, the glamorous space will eventually be one of the city’s major foodie hubs with more than 70 restaurants, cafes and shops. The first tenants hung out their shingles mid-year, including Hello Auntie, a CBD outpost of the original restaurant of the same name in Marrickville.
Back in 2015, chef/owner Cuong Nguyen decided to embrace his Vietnamese heritage after honing his skills in Italian, French and Japanese cuisines. His brand of contemporary Vietnamese quickly attracted a loyal clientele in the inner west and scored rave reviews from major restaurant critics.
Nguyen didn’t want a carbon copy of his Marrickville premises in the smart new digs – a chic combo of stone floors, mood lighting and sleek walls courtesy of Kathryn Ashley Hospitality Design Studio and designer Terry Kim. Another key drawcard is the Japanese sake pairings, hand-picked by Nguyen, and the innovative, Asian-inspired cocktail list, including fresh mixes such as Koh Samui (pandan, white rum, Thai basil and lime).
Only a few of the Marrickville menu listings have made the journey downtown, including fried rice with XO sauce and banh xeo – a brilliant turmeric crepe crisped against the side of a wok, filled with your choice of meat or seafood, and cut at the table with a pair of scissors. It’s traditional but seems bang up-to-date at the same time.
Nguyen has given free rein to his creativity and the curated menu relies on descriptions rather than proper names. We started with spring rolls filled with shredded angus beef and dipping sauce. The wagyu beef with foie gras was a textbook lesson in fusion cuisine. Sophisticated is the operative word throughout the menu from the egg noodles with shimeji, shiitake, stracciatella and pistachio to the crispy vegan option of broccolini, XO sauce, tomatoes and basil. For those who really want to get away from the tried-and-true, there is also dry aged duck – a Vietnamese spin on cured meat cooked at the very low temperature of 55C and served at room temperature.
Only one dessert is offered for those with a sweet tooth. Like many restaurateurs with an Asian heritage and an appreciation of Western tastes, Nguyen specialises in desserts that straddle both cultures. We enjoyed a deconstructed cheesecake spiked with soy sauce that knocked the socks off sickly versions of the old classic.
A big shout-out has to go to the staff. Professional, polished and elegant, they are also relaxed, friendly and fully across Nguyen’s creative vision for his latest project. Magical in all seasons with the trees lit up at night in Darling Square, a visit to Hello Auntie is a treat for all the senses. Hello Auntie, Shop 2, 16 Nicolle Walk, Darling Square, Haymarket; visit hello-auntie.com.au.
There’s been a mini wave of French restaurants opening their doors over the past few years from Hubert to Metisse. The select club has been joined by Franca Brasserie, which has taken over the former Fratelli Fresh location in Potts Point. The credentials of head chef Alexis Bessau (Est, Bather’s Pavilion) and pastry chef Travin DeHoedt (Bistro Guillaume, Bennelong) are impeccable. The decor is equally upmarket and the work of Steel and Stitch, who also overhauled Chula and Lobo Plantation. You can see where the money went at a glance from the lavish use of marble to the velvet chairs, green leather booths and open cellar with 250 wines.
The cocktail list was curated by Alex Raclet (Rockpool Group) and veers from the simply great Stonefruit Bellini (Chandon blanc de blancs, white peach, apricot puree, apple cider reduction) to the playful Double Trouble (two miniature martinis, single estate Belvedere Smogory Forest and Lake Bartezek vodka, served extra cold with condiments).
Reinvented classics rule and even the French onion soup with croque monsieur will make you re-evalute the old standby. Other entrees to take you down memory lane with a new perspective, include tuna sashimi nicoise and olive tapenade, foie gras and rhubarb pain d’epice and beef tartare, Jerusalem artichoke and chives. For mains, just-cooked perfection is the standard for corn-fed chicken, pomme puree, butter lettuce and apple jus, and wagyu bavette, eschalot and French peas. Finish with a chocolate tart and truffle ice cream to end things in style. Franca Brasserie, Shop 2/81 MacLeay St, Potts Point; phone (02) 9167 2921.
Lotus Dining shuttered Fujisaki, its Japanese eatery in Barangaroo, early in the year. The group has gone back to its roots in Chinese contemporary cuisine for the replacement – Bund. The fit out – vibrant splashes of red and gold, neon lighting and street art murals – are meant to evoke the waterfront Bund area of Shanghai and a central bar semaphores that cocktails are a major magnet for after-work drinks.
The ’80s playlist lifts your spirits on entry. There’s plenty of dumplings on offer as you would expect at a Lotus Dining venue, including king prawn jade har gow and pork and sweetcorn dumplings. The selection of flame-grilled skewers from seven spiced salmon to hot and spicy octopus do a brisk business. But don’t fill up on the small plates and dumplings at the expense of the mains, including Xinjiang inspired lamb cutlets, char-grilled with cumin and coriander and Bund’s XO Australian king prawns, wok-fried with asparagus. A good selection of 20 beers from Kloud from Korea to local brew, Yulli’s Amanda Mandarin IPA. Bund, Shop 2, 100 Barangaroo Ave, Barangaroo; phone (02) 9052 9188.