Uncle in St Kilda is known for its casual Vietnamese fare and rooftop terrace that overlooks Carlisle Street. Its second venue manages to hold onto that same vibe, even though it's located in the middle of the CBD. The first-floor views through foldout windows and leaf-latticed ironwork afford glimpses of the plane trees outside, and the bamboo furniture and tropical lighting ensure the space isn't at all stuffy. Somehow Uncle manages to capture all that is wonderful about Vietnam — the sunsets of Ha Long Bay, the colonial style of Hanoi and the lanterns reflected in the river in Hoi An — and transfer it to the Paris end of Collins Street. This is a magic carpet situation right here.
The menu showcases the level of freshness you expect in great Vietnamese food. The dishes feel modern but there's no doubting the origins of these flavours; although chef and co-owner Dai Duong has tinkered with them, they come straight from generations of Vietnamese mothers. We suggest starting in the 'little guys' section of the menu before working your way through to a banh mi or bao and onto the big guys. The $59 'all the best bits' option is a good one if you want to take decision-making out of your meal.
Just popping in for a snack? The betel leaf with lime-cured hapuka with coconut, pomegranate and chilli ($6.50) and the smoky wok-tossed edamame with beer nuts and chilli salt ($8) are perfect accompaniments to one of the cocktails that have come into the city from the St Kilda menu. Try the Mekong Splice ($19.50), which is essentially dessert in a glass, as it mixes white rum, mango sorbet, tea shrub, lime, chilli and coconut foam. Otherwise, choose from the list of predominantly Victorian-sourced wine and beer.
Burrata is not something you see on Vietnamese menus often, but Duong serves it with heirloom tomatoes, pickled papaya, Thai basil, puffed wild rice and his own experimental whisky barrel-aged fish sauce ($20). It's like a cheeky little Italian man-bun interlude with a Vietnamese twist. Spot on.
Uncle's signature crispy pig's ear banh mi with pickles and peanuts ($6.50) is a tasty way to up your pig's ear intake and probably the best way to tick that little body part of your 'things I have eaten' list. Our waiter's favourite dish is the master stock crispy pork hock with banh hoi, lettuce wraps, fragrant herbs and nuoc cham ($39) — and for good reason. Think DIY lettuce leaf bundles of fall-apart meat in its own caramelised sauce, woven rice vermicelli and a slightly spicy dipping sauce. Order this.
Save room for dessert or lament missing out on a set Vietnamese coffee with coconut ice cream and sesame for dessert ($12). Either way, you won't regret a visit to Uncle — they take bookings for groups of all sizes, and you'll get a whole lot of kudos for when you suggest it for a mid-week after-work catch-up with mates.
Images: Greg Elms and Jo Rittey.