“Memories framed on the wall last a lifetime in our hearts.”
I’m really interested in the concept of others being ‘observers’ of our lives. Our close friends and family, who have known us for a long time, understand the hurdles we’ve vaulted or staggered over. They do not judge us at face value, but know the complexities and incongruities of our twisted lives and love us anyway.
But as the pace of our lives speeds up, it’s evident that more openness about ourselves can put others at ease; that appropriate sharing in a public forum can be welcoming and even endearing.
When Tara and Vien decided to renovate their restaurant Can Tho Kitchen (pronounced ‘Gung Turh’) in Runaway Bay, they travelled back to their roots. It was a journey that they decided to share with their patrons.
Their home town, Can Tho, is ever present. Besides the restaurant’s name, there are Mekong Delta echoes in the menu: our food arrives in little courses to share, there’s an abundance of seafood as well as pork, the flavours of Vietnam accenting every dish.
“We want to welcome you into our home through traditional Vietnamese flavours from our kitchen recipes.”
“Vien uses Mum’s recipes, adapted where necessary for the Australian palate. You’ll notice that the tables are smaller… We want people to eat the way we eat at home, sharing dishes, having a drink and taking time to relax and talk around the table,” Tara tells us. “Forget about the idea of an entrée, main course and dessert. Just order what you want and the dishes will arrive one or two at a time for you to share.”
That’s exactly what we do.
First, our Softshell crab arrives, four crunchy parcels sitting on mounds of fresh pickles with a ‘4 elements’ dipping sauce (10). Neatly arranged on a beautiful oblong dish, I realise how much contrast improves the presentation and flavour of a dish. There’s an element of surprise as the decadent crab is accompanied by the tang of vinegar!
Next, six handmade Chilli steamed dim sim arrive, smothered in a tangy sweet sour chilli sauce (9). This is a sensational dish, one of my favourites of the evening. The dim sim yield to the fork with just a touch, and there’s real depth to the sauce. Addictive!
Labelled ‘Viet taco’ (16) on the menu, the traditional Banh Xeo (or Vietnamese pancake) is filled with prawn, pork belly and bean sprouts. As the pancake is made on rice flour, this dish is one of the gluten-free options noted on the menu! It’s food to feel and touch. We section off pieces of pancake, wrapping them in a lettuce leaf filled with mint; the best way to achieve the contrast of textures that’s a crucial element of this dish.
Pork is commonly used in Vietnamese cuisine, more so than here. Pork and prawns cooked together in a clay pot is for us an unusual combination, yet a traditional Vietnamese staple (22). Slow simmered in caramel palm sugar with fish sauce and chilli, it’s a delicious substantial dish. I find myself sweeping up the dregs of sauce with some rice, not willing to let any of it go back to the kitchen.
Our dessert of Mung bean with coconut cream and ice-cream has a texture of soft nougat. Like many Asian desserts, it’s really interesting, not too sweet. We noticed this trend in Bali as well: the balance has swung towards ‘savoury’ in many desserts. Adventurous diners will really enjoy this dish.
Now with a liquor license, there’s a range of wine by the glass or bottle (30 – 42), beer (including Beer Hanoi), spirits and cocktails available. It’s reminiscent of steamy nights in Saigon as you tuck into a Mekong Delta, or the Saigon Mojito – Mount Gay Silver rum with fresh lime juice, mint leaves and soda muddled with seasonal fruit (15). BYO wine only is also an option at $8 per bottle.
While the food and bar menus carry the flavours of Vietnam adapted for our shores, the concept is reinforced by the restaurant’s refurbishment. The simple restaurant which Tara and Vien opened in 2002 is unrecognisable today.
With the help of graphic artists Frank and Mimi, the walls and branding of the restaurant plunge us into a stylised rendition of the family’s life story. The lush vegetation of their homeland in the Mekong Delta (the ‘rice bowl’ of Asia containing the world’s largest inland fishery and the largest tiger population in the world), is overlooked by an imposing image of Emperor Quang Trung (one of Vietnam’s most powerful and popular leaders, who overthrew the Chinese and reunited Vietnam). The long voyage across the sea is documented by family photos and a stamp commemorating the day Tara and her mum landed on our shores, coincidentally Tara’s second birthday: “Australia 16 – 04 1981 Viet-Nam”.
There’s extraordinary care and attention paid to detail: full bunches of flowers on the table, material and stamped rice sacks brought back from Vietnam on a recent trip, gorgeous plates from ‘Made in Japan’, the drinks menu featuring first day stamp envelopes from Tara’s uncle, simple burnt timber-topped tables paired with replica 1930s vintage Xavier Pauchard Tolix Stools… Everywhere it’s old and new together: old and new homeland, family recipes with a modern twist, stories of self and family presented to a new audience, an ancient heritage presented as a 21st century work of art.
So it seems fitting for me to ask Tara and her mother, Ngan Nhan, to pose in front of their image, a mural from a photo taken so long ago when Tara was a tiny child. It’s Ngan Nhan’s presence: her recipes, her heritage and protective care of her daughter (and now of her grandchildren) which we feel most strongly in Can Tho.
Looking around these walls, I’m reminded of the advice to ‘Surround yourself with the people and things you love.’ As we share a meal together, we are included as part of this family. We also begin to appreciate the people and experiences which they have loved, we bear witness to their culture and traditions, their values and their lives.
“…when friends and family gather, all good things should be shared.”
5/465 Oxley Drive, Runaway Bay Ph: 07 5529 0098
Open: Tues – Sun 5pm – 10pm
NOTE: This review has also been published on Blank Gold Coast.
NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast was a guest of Can Tho Kitchen Bar.