It's firm, sweet, juicy - the batter salty and crunchy. Vegetarians, sing out, there's a separate menu. Precise cooking, deft balance and clean flavours are welcome in a genre that's often bereft of light and shade and too reliant on salt and sugar to do all the lifting. The floor staff are long-time pros, extremely friendly, well-tooled to advise, though sometimes embattled if shorthanded.
It's not to be missed. There are two types of Asahi and Young Henrys beer on tap and special cocktails, such as the vodka and chocolate bitters Annam Iced Coffee, made with house-made condensed coconut milk. But she knows when to chuck in a surprise burst of flavour, a good-looking cheffy flourish or a whack of smoke from the wood grill to ensure it's a poised sort of comfort. The floor staff are long-time pros, extremely friendly, well-tooled to advise, though sometimes embattled if shorthanded. On the flip side, the collagen-rich, fermented rice-thickened pork hock curry brightened with pickled fennel and daikon is dense-going to those unaccustomed to mellow, meat-driven curry styles. Those snacks are kingly: Wagyu mince is electrified by a spice mix, all cumin and hits of fennel, mixed through with roasted bone marrow instead of egg yolk. But first you might start at the long granite bar running the length of the high-ceilinged room with a tinnie of Hanoi Beer or Young Henry's lager, a crisp riesling No. The ice-cream is flavoured with coconut cream, the waffle crumb salty-sweet and satisfying in its crunch. And that would be understandable. On the wall, Mai's favourite terrible-excellent kung fu movies are being projected. The restaurant is also home to waffle-coated fried ice-cream with shredded coconut in the batter and warm salted caramel sauce drizzled all over. But Annam isn't rolling in late-to-the-party with a wok-and-roll mural in tow. Cooking of this quality deserves better. It's a potently sweet wallop of flavour that has me done for after one while a table nearby doubles down on their order. But where a lot chefs have been opening burger joints and Pezzo bars to subsidise their fine dining habit, this is Mai flipping and reversing it, throwing back to her restaurant roots under chefs like David Thompson, her time at Longrain, Gingerboy and Zuma in London, and pulling on her personal history as a Vietnamese-born refugee raised in Australia. Mains include braised pork hock served with fermented rice and fennel salad. Annam belongs to that club, but the quality of Jerry Mai's food is such that it also stands apart. It's firm, sweet, juicy - the batter salty and crunchy. Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes she ate growing up are touchstones, but Mai has cooked with David Thompson and worked at Zuma, so Thai and Japanese influences get a run, too. Vietnamese mint, shallots and Chinese doughnuts, the superior carb of Asia, make it the best of the 36, versions you've eaten this year. But small amounts of chaos also feel right. You'll find both a breath of fresh air. Sate grilled octopus with green mango and nuoc mam Melbourne has a fondness for pan-Asian restaurants with a party vibe and a decent cocktail list. Annam is the work of chef Jerry Mai, the mighty force behind fast and fresh Vietnamese pho and banh mi stalls, Pho Nom.
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