Hanoi Hannah's new venture, Firebird at 223 High St, Prahran (03 9088 8093) is but a squint away from its HH Express Lane (186 High St, Windsor) on the other side of the same street. That 93m walk between the two eateries on the same street sets them apart in suburbs. One is deemed Windsor, while the other is Prahran. The Commune Groupowns and operates two more HH's in Elsternwick and Richmond, as well as Tokyo Tina, as the name suggests, leaning towards Japanese food, and of course the Mediterranean wine bar Neptune.
The two HH's housed in the same area mere meters apart is not an issue as both menus are quite different. The Express Lane is all about the rice paper rolls, the spring rolls, Banh Mi, and bowls of curry, stir fry, Pho and no dessert.
Firebird on the other hand is an entirely new concept. Its menu is grill-driven and packed with flame-licked Vietnamese/South East Asian flavours. There's not a Pho or Banh Mi in sight, and Firebird does serve dessert. HH pretty much bridles Windsor and Prahran with their Neptune Food & Wine (212 High St, Windsor) just 17m away from Firebird.
Comes in handy for when the restaurant is busy; you could merely walk over and wait a mere 17m away, sipping drinks at Neptunes. Set a little further apart, Tokyo Tina (66A Chapel St, Windsor) is not really that far away either at a 600m walk away.
Firebird is housed where once a two level furniture store stood. HH has had the building for a couple of years and have had design firm Ewert Leaf refurbishing the building. Ewert Leaf were also the design team behind Neptune and HH Richmond.
Firebird's upper level has not been utilised for yet more floor space, but instead has been gutted to keep it a single-storey, making way for a beautiful high ceilinged space, with natural light beaming in from what was the old upstairs windows. The staircase that used to lead upstairs, now removed, remain in essence a pattern of exposed bricks zig-zagging up one side of the wall. This venue also sports projections on the walls, while further in, the dining area is dimly lit.
The restaurant is open 7 days a week from 12midday and opened its doors to family and friends on Wednesday 4 March; opened to the public for dinner only on Thursday 5 March and was fully open for lunch and dinner for the first time the day I went on Friday 6 March. Newbie it may be, but it's definitely not wet around the ears, with The Commune Group's combined experience of running many restaurants and bars.
The Chef at Firebird is Vietnamese born Steven Ngo; former head chef at renown Thai restaurant Long Chim before it closed down. Ngo draws on all the flavours from his childhood. Tuan also from Vietnam is the sweet maker as he mentions to me.
Living in the area, I'm always excited to race over and try out the new restaurants that keep popping up on and off Chapel street along the stretch of Windsor, Prahran and South Yarra. High ceilings, its spaciousness and the open kitchen are a drawcard of welcoming warmth. Perhaps other diners found it odd that I sat facing the kitchen instead of the windows facing the street front. I was more interested in what was going on in the kitchen.
There's a fully stocked bar on one side of the wall where you can buy some wines; white, red, sparkling & rose by the glass, and sake. You can get beer on tap or by the bottle and six different cocktails. The classics are available on request. For the G rated version, you can get plum and ginger soda, Vietnamese lemon lime bitters, housemade passiona, Vietnamese coffee (hot or cold), jasmine and peppermint tea, sparkling water and Capi (dry ginger/ginger beer/lemonade/grapefruit).
From a menu of snacks, smalls, rice & noodle, from the fire and dessert, I did my best to maximise the variety I could order and would fit in my tummy. As it was, I ended up having two desserts as the wait staff thought I was pointing at a different dessert. Rather than send it back, I decided to have both as I'd already started on the first one by taking a bite before I realised, 'wait a minute, I thought I ordered something else'. Needless to say, I rolled out of there filled to the brim, but happy and satisfied.
I requested just a half portion (1 skewer instead of 2) of the smalls which was the charcoaled squid skewer and the hot and sour ox tongue skewer so as not to feel overly full, yet getting the variety to talk about. Both were beautifully cooked and tender to the bite. Simply plated up on a strip of banana leaf, both the greens and the piquant sauce accompanying it were a perfect addition, adding to the flavours of the squid and tongue.
From the snacks section, the Scotch quail egg and green rice flakes was a good recommendation by staff. I was somehow expecting a plain quail egg on a plate and what came out was a delightful surprise. The egg was perfectly cooked, still soft in the yolk and the outsides encrusted with crispy rice flakes. There was more of the green rice flakes on the plate, which turned out to be perfect for mopping up that delicious little serving of salted duck egg relish.
Other snacks on the menu consisted of grilled banh mi charred eggplant relish and black pepper crab with green mango and rice crackers. Other smalls included grilled rice paper sweet chilli, mushroom pate, hot mint; beef carpaccio, citrus, sawtooth coriander; and Hanoi spring rolls banh hoi.
Amongst other choices of broken rice claypots; green dry curry; grilled pork and roast duck from the Rice & Noodle menu, I chose the grilled daily fish (rockling) 'cha ca', turmeric, galangal, rice noodles. It's a case of eating it any which way that suits you. You can choose to wrap the fish in the rice noodle parcels, or eat it separately like I did. I love the typically Vietnamese sauce it came with, which I poured all over the rice noodles and enjoyed its simplicity. It also worked as a great dressing for the greens and Vietnamese fresh herbs accompanying the fish which I enjoyed separately. It was well cooked but just a tad over cooked for me.
If you'd like more sides to add to your choices, there's fresh tomato, Thai basil, pomelo; green papaya, snake bean, chilli, dried shrimp; wok-tossed morning glory, lemongrass sate; grilled banh mi, garlic oil and pandan steamed rice.
As an aside, you can choose the all in (4 courses) option at $58 per person and $48 for vegan. It was mentioned that it suits best a group of people as there's more to share.
A large part of the restaurant is free for walk-ins, but you can also make your bookings online. Bookings are taken at any time and for any size until 6.30pm. Group bookings of 8 plus people can be made at 6-6.30pm or 8.15pm onwards.
I couldn't possibly fit anymore in if I wanted to leave room for dessert, so I didn't order anything from the fire though there were many tempting choices. Starting simply there's the shredded bbq corn with spring onion oil and sesame salt; an Asian take on corn with butter and salt. Then there's charred cabbage, with chilli roasted peanut and Thai basil oil. Next is wood-roasted eggplant red curry with fresh coconut cream. Fire tossed pipis 'canh chua' with burnt tomato, tamarind and grilled Chinese donuts which you can order in 250g, 500gm or 1kg portions.
I did consider the grilled flounder with brown butter citrus nouc mam and fries but luckily changed my mind as I would not have fit it in. There's also charcoal chicken with burnt chilli nouc mam; t-bone with three day BBH sauce, lemongrass, medium rare; smokey pork ricks with extra rich curry reduction and duck l'orange which is very slow roasted duck, grilled citrus, Firebird excellent sauce, and pickled ginger. You can order a whole or half duck. This leaves more on the menu for me to try out, next visit.
Of the three choices of dessert, I ended up chowing down on two. I pointed to the charred Thai tea creme brulee but the wait staff thought I was pointing at the wood roasted citrus tart, and thank goodness for that. It was a real winner for me! That tart was just perfection on a plate. It was zesty, not too sweet, and topped with burnt orange slices. That syrup on the side was to die for.
The third choice of dessert being slowly roasted pineapple slice sorbet with chilli and caramel, a pattern emerges. The desserts are a perfect light way to finish a meal without weighing you down.
Perhaps I should have eaten the charred Thai tea creme brulee first as its flavours (with the tea) were not as strong or robust like the zesty tart, but more a gentle, not too sweet, charred custard. However, I had already taken a bite into that delicious tart, so the brulee came off second best for me. Depends on individual tastes as not everyone likes something a little tart in flavour.
Welcome to Prahran's latest addition with flavours licked by the flames.