Sunday, 4 May 2014

Nhu Lan, Richmond, Victoria (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

If one can fall in love with a sandwich, banh mi is that sandwich. I think I grew bored of sandwiches as a food sometime after the 100th sandwich of primary school, yet banh mi - with its combination of French baguette, cold cuts, herbs and vegetables - is magical and addictively tasty. As Anthony Bourdain so eloquently put it, banh mi is 'a symphony in a sandwich'. The call of great banh mi is so strong that Alissa and I bypass inferior but closer stores and drive a relatively long distance just to eat at banh mi specialists Nhu Mai in our hometown of Perth, and popping into one of Melbourne's best was high on our list of priorities while we were over.

If you do an online search for the best banh mi in Melbourne, and Footscray bakery Nhu Lan comes up repeatedly. Unfortunately, the week we were in Melbourne was also a week of closures on the rail and tram system heading towards the Footscray area, making the task of getting from Preston to Footscray a little more difficult than it was worth. Thankfully, Nhu Lan's other store in Richmond proved a more conveniently located compromise.

Nhu Lan offer quite a few different banh mi options - mixed cold cuts, barbecue pork, meat balls alongside vegetarian options like tofu just to name a few.

Sandwiches are skillfully made to order, with the staff assembly line able to pump out the banh mi at an impressive pace.

Being a bakery and not just a sandwich shop, Nhu Lan have a host of bakery standard fare both sweet and savoury, including danishes, croissants, custard buns, and the warm Vietnamese Pork Pies pictures above.

Given that we were spoilt for choice of fillings, Alissa and I decided to go with different options. Mine was the Banh Mi Thit - the classic sandwich of various pig-based cold cuts. Being baked in-house, the bread was nice and fresh, with the characteristic crunchy crust contrasted with a soft interior. This was near best in class. Though very good in their own right, there was something not 100% satisfying about the fillings. While I saw a decent selection of cold cuts, pate and all the right vegetable and herb fillings (the long cucumber stick was even cut relatively thin as I prefer it), the balance seemed a bit off to me, and there was a strong light soy flavour that stood out a bit rather than integrating into the overall experience. I felt that the chilli kick could have been hotter, but otherwise I couldn't quite tell if there maybe was not enough meats or not enough of the sauces, and if I were to return I would probably try the 'Special Roll' with the extra meats to see how it compares. Don't get me wrong - this was an above average banh mi and the bread itself was faultless, but considering Nhu Lan are held in such high esteem I suppose I was expecting a bit more. Instead, it just made me realise how good we have it with Nhu Mai in Perth.

Alissa went with Banh Mi Suon Nuong, a roll with a char siu filling. This was an interesting change to what we usually have, though I have to admit I think I preferred the mixed cold cuts of my Banh Mi Thit; there is is something about that combination of various cold cuts that is magical; even the herbless Foie Gras Pate Banh Mi we ate in Hanoi was great because of the combination of the sliced meats (and, well, because it was also loaded with foie gras pate). The salty soy flavour in my banh mi was not as obvious in Alissa's however, perhaps owing to the juices from the char siu giving it its own flavour.

Finally, the Pork Pies. I think Alissa and I were expecting the filling to be char siu, similar to the flaky triangular pastries often served by dim sum tea houses. Instead, this was more like the traditional British pork pie, with a sausage roll-like solid filling. This was tasty enough, but it was a case of expectation and reality being so far apart that we couldn't really enjoy it 100%.

The Verdict: Very Good
Although what I've written probably sounds a bit negative in parts, there was actually a lot to like about our meal; we even considered going a third banh mi to greedily share before deciding to take a break and head into the city for coffee instead (we ended up have tea, scones and cake, but that's another story). For a place as renowned as they are and in a busy part of the town, the $4 asking price is very impressive and very affordable - in inner city Perth and the CBD these would go for almost twice that price, and we have to drive quite a ways to get our $5 banh mi fix at Nhu Mai. Next time we're in Melbourne I'd love to try their Footscray store, however as it stands I've got to say I think Nhu Mai in Perth has the superior banh mi.

Nhu Lan on Urbanspoon

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