If you are new in town and are slow to find your dining legs, the best restaurant recommendation you can probably get is from a local chef, restaurateur, or a food-mad front-of-house staff. So it was on a recent jaunt to Melbourne. We were snacking in the elegantly contemporary French restaurant Comme, and asked the restaurant manager’s advice about where to head next. He diligently directed us to Coda.
I’m glad he did, as it’s unlikely we would have stumbled across this trendy joint, hidden at basement level on fashionable Flinders Lane. It was buzzing with a noisy lunch crowd when we walked in. The tables were all taken. We were lucky to land ourselves the last three stools at the bar.
On a culinary high from our last snack-attack at Comme, we were soon on first name terms with the waiter. He talked us through some of Coda’s signature small plates then suggested the chef send us out a selection. It was an easy sell.
We settled into our pews to watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen behind the bar. One carefully picked leaves from a bunch of herbs. Like ants, others pooled together in small groups from time to time, focusing on a communal issue, then dispersed again to their individual tasks.
Coda’s cuisine is contemporarily Vietnamese, due to owner and chef Adam D’Sylva’s extensive travels throughout the country.
First off the pass was crispy prawn and tapioca betel leaf ($5.80 each), which was deep-fried to golden perfection. It delivered a burst of fresh, fragrant, spice heat, and a decadent crunch.
Next, a fresh betel leaf parcel of spanner crab, galangal, roasted chilli and lime ($5.80 each). It was a fresh alternative to the previous deep-fried betel leaf package, but lacking a little in oomph given that crab – tasteless at the best of times – was the key ingredient.
A plate of zucchini fritters ($22) were little deep-fried crispy bombs, which complimented well with gooey-soft tufts of Amore buffalo mozzarella. Mint leaves added a vibrant touch. The over-salted dressing let the dish down.
Sugar cane prawns ($7 each) looked like mini osso bucco covered in crazy tendrils of crisp vermicelli. A soft herbaceous mixture of minced prawn and myriad herbs was moulded around sugar-cane sticks, which burst with fragrant smells of south-east Asia burst when prized from the sugar cane. The vermicelli shattered then melted on the tongue. A house-made sweet chilli sauce delivered a hearty kick.
Hervey Bay scallop with pearl tapioca and Yarra Valley salmon caviar ($7 each) paid a fair tribute to Australian ingredients. The scallops were plump and just cooked. The Champagne infused tapioca added zing.
Our appetites had started to slow, but we were told the fish of the day – barramundi fillet steamed in Shaoxing wine dressing ($38) – was a must. It was already on route from the kitchen. We were suffering palate fatigue by the time we dug in. But i’m glad we did.
The barramundi, sprinkled with chilli flakes, star anise, and cinnamon, was skilfully steamed, leaving the flesh plump and flakey. Then it was added to the Chinese wine dressing which was infused with star anise, chilli, ginger, and garlic. The sauce had been reduced until the alcohol burnt off.
The dish, heavy on lime juice and whole garlic cloves, was a lesson in balance: hot, sweet, bitter, sour, salty. A melting pot of terrific flavours, it was laced with huge pieces of red chilli sliced on the diagonal. Chunks of kipfler potatoes were a surprise find.
We raved about the dish so much that head chef Matthew Lawdorn kindly shared his recipe. I can’t wait to try it (I’ve been holding off because I’m just not sure where it fits in to The Food Sage’s sustainable seafood challenge).
The steamed barramundi was clearly the winner of the day. But we had over-extended ourselves comfort-wise. My advice: If you visit Coda and put yourself in the chef’s hands, as we did, know where to draw the line because the kitchen won’t do it for you.
Readers may also like:
Berowra Waters Inn: A reflection