St Cloud is a fresh-faced Vietnamese restaurant sitting pretty on Burwood Road in the leafy suburb of Hawthorn. Its name floats above the front door like – well, like a cloud, basically – and the kitchen is dishing up dreamy interpretations of traditional Vietnamese fare for lunch and dinner.
Formerly a furniture factory, the front room has been kitted out with dark wood furniture, hanging plant boxes and kitschy décor – like a remarkably large table lamp in lime green and coral pink. Upstairs, there’s a second dining room which can seat up to 80 people, and a rooftop terrace overlooking the rush and flow of traffic.
Conceived by James Klapanis, the man behind Quaff restaurant in Toorak, and two of the team from Richmond’s Feast of Merit, St Cloud aims to merge Melbourne’s love of hawker-style food with its love of coffee, cold-pressed juices and cocktails. It’s clever thinking, given that this city seems to have an insatiable appetite for all four. And so far, St Cloud is succeeding at being the type of bar-eatery where you stop in for a quick bite and end up staying til last drinks are called.
But enough about all that. You came here to read about the food, right?
The menu is focussed on fresh, local produce and the type of new-wave Vietnamese flavours seen at Pho Nom, Susie Wong, Paperboy Kitchen and Uncle. For lunch, there are tick-the-box staples like bánh mì, papaya salad and pho, which can also be ordered as takeaway (#picnicgoals). Rice paper rolls are a DIY job – they arrive dry-stacked on a plate with a bowl of warm water and tidy rows of vermicelli, bean shoots, herbs and fillings. It’s a fun, messy, and ultimately rewarding way of eating. We recommend trying it sober at lunch rather than tipsy at dinner with a cocktail in your hand.
Baristas are pouring St Ali’s coffee made with your choice of cow’s milk, almond milk, coconut milk or Bonsoy, as well as lurid green matcha lattes. The coconut iced coffee is perfect for hot summer days - while hot chocolate by Elixir, with 70% raw cacao and coconut blossom sugar, will warm you up in the winter months. Pleasingly, the kitchen has cottoned onto 7-Eleven’s game and is serving up slushies made with coconut water and fresh flavours like lychee, guava and Thai basil. There are a couple of cold-pressed juices on offer rocking flaxseed oil, fresh ginger and the ubiquitous kale, and a housemade ginger & lemongrass soda.
Dinner kicks off at 5.30pm and the menu follows the tried-and-true share plate format. Smaller plates lead with spring rolls, served with lettuce and nuoc cham, and stuffed with pork, prawns and fish. Bánh khot, better known as Vietnamese pikelets, are a stand-out – made from coconut and turmeric, they’re the perfect size and shape for dunking in chilli-spiked dipping sauce. There are also sticky chicken wings and briny wok-tossed pippis, although the latter would be better off served in a deep bowl to retain the tasty coconut broth.
Larger dishes are designed for two, and pair well with the mix of salads and sides on offer. The Vung Tau whole organic chicken with herbs, chilli and sriracha is an obvious crowd-pleaser, and the caramel pork belly will keep fans of crackling happy. Showstopper-wise, the lemongrass beef short ribs are so meltingly tender that they arrive with a fork and spoon rather than a fork and knife. It’s a showy move from the kitchen, but one we can’t argue with – it’s like eating meat butter. The Vietnamese slaw with kohlrabi, pickled onion, coriander and mint provides the perfect accompaniment to this dish; the zingy flavours of the slaw cutting through the fatty richness of the meat.
As for desserts, there’s nothing listed on the menu but waiters do the rounds enthusiastically discussing whatever’s been dreamed up by the resident pastry chef that night. Overall, while this is definitely Westernised rather than authentic Vietnamese food, the dishes are interesting enough to be attention-grabbing but familiar enough to be not scary. Vegans and the gluten-free crowd are well catered for, and there’s an ‘I’m So Hungry’ set menu for $55 per person.
They’re serious about their drinks list at St Cloud, too. There is beer and cider on tap, in bottles and in tinnies, and they’ve clearly been chosen based on two criteria: the flavour, and how they match with the food on offer. While it may seem odd to have a $7.50 Bia Hà Noi from Vietnam on the same page as a $150 bottle of French champagne or $117 Malbec, most of the wines are available by the glass and you won’t have to splash out of a lot of money to have a tipple here (unless you want to). The house red, for example, is complex, robust and infinitely drinkable, while the two rosés on offer compete with the crisp white selection for the ultimate in summer-drinkin’ title.
The cocktails veer into experimental territory and borrow heavily from the Vietnamese flavour book. The Saintly Sage is a stickily sweet, toffee-coloured concoction made with turmeric bourbon, sage-infused honey syrup and orange bitters. It comes with a shallot-encrusted ice cube, skewer of bacon and lone sage leaf. The turmeric flavor is not particularly strong, however, the caramelly flavour of the bourbon is unmistakable, and as the ice cube melts, there is a distinct tang of shallot (and a few floating shallot bits). Whether or not shallots belong on an ice cube is a matter of personal taste, however, it’s certainly an interesting concept, although the execution could use some improvement as the bacon just hangs limp and salty after a while. The Hawthorn Rickshaw is similarly sweet, and made with cucumber-infused gin, Thai basil and blood orange. It’s delicious, but if you’re not a fan of alcoholic confectionary, you might want to steer clear.
Hawthorn’s foodie scene has been on the up-and-up for a while, and St Cloud is offering something a bit edgy that fuses street-style fare with low-key bar vibes. It plays on the nostalgia of Melbournians who have been to Vietnam and fallen in love with the street food, and supports Victorian farmers by showcasing locally sourced produce. A mere hop and a skip from Auburn Station, we recommend heading east to welcome this adventurous newcomer with open arms and empty stomachs.
Image credit: Provided, by Kate Shanasy
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