Every picture tells a story, and this one is no different. A Vietnamese mother and son clutch bowls of steaming goodness fresh from their kitchen, destined for hungry diners at their St Ives restaurant, Petit Saigon.
But theirs is a longer journey. Head chef Thuy Hang Nguyen, also known as Mary to her customers, fled the Vietnam war 35 years ago on a boat with her husband. Eventually she landed a job in a bank but tired of the company culture, and as a passionate cook whose delicate Vietnamese flavours kept memories of their homeland alive in her family’s hearts and minds, resolved to open a restaurant.
Amazingly when the family opened Petit Saigon, an exploration of the cuisine of South Vietnam, they had no experience running a restaurant. “It was chaos,” smiles son Kevin, the front man of the establishment. “We didn’t know what we were doing, it was crazy. But with the recipes from my grandmother and mother filling our menu, we soon built up a base of regulars.”
As we sit down to dine in this trendy neighbourhood eaterie replete with wood panelled walls, Asian artefacts and low-hanging contemporary lighting, a steady stream of mid-week diners come and go, quickly devouring bowls of steamy, brothy goodness like the Vietnamese staples Pho Bo or Pho Ga.
But we opt for the less obvious, linger-longer options: Com ga xao lan: stir fried turmeric chicken in coconut cream with peanuts, lemongrass and vermicelli, a subtle but pretty dish. As well the table fills with my companion’s other choices – delicious crispy skinned quail pieces with a lemon-pepper dipping sauce, Bo luc lac – little cubes of tender beef with a pepper and onion accompaniment, and lots of warming rice. This was washed down with coconut juice pepped up with chunks of real coconut flesh.
The final flourish of the mains was the House Special – Banh Hoi Chao Tom Thit Nuong – a do- it-yourself rice paper roll building exercise. Presented with a plate of sugar cane wrapped prawns, grilled beef pieces, peanuts, vermicelli noodles, pickled carrot and a basket of herbs and green leaves, the idea is to create your own roll, a prospect known to daunt some diners.
Attempts at this feat of culinary gymnastics at this writer’s house result in most rolls looking like something the cat threw up, so a masterclass was long overdue. As Kevin deftly showed us how to pile and wrap, he explained that “the secret’s in only soaking the rice paper sheets for a few seconds. It’s fun and people love the interactivity of this dish.”
We finished off with their secret dessert, a curious concoction of deep fried ice cream wrapped in filo pastry, accompanied by strawberries, nuts and caramel sauce. Replete already, it early finished us off. More traditional coconut jelly and banana desserts are lighter alternatives.
All the dishes are reasonably priced, creating space in your week for a quick bowl of something wonderful in a dive in/dive out style, or for a longer more indulgent feast that still won’t break the bank.
The kitchen is in full view and we watch Mary deftly juggle frying pans, woks and tongs. This family has come a long way – and St Ives is the better for it.
The low down:
Petit Saigon Vietnamese
166 Mona Vale Road, St Ives
Entrees: $8 – $12