Even though it was sparsely filled when we arrived early one weeknight, the space below apartments felt quite cramped with square tables all joined up to form ‘communal’ tables or sorts. The small-ish menu reminds me of any Asian takeaway menu, with sections for entrées, soups, salads and mains split into wok-fry and specialty.
|Red chicken nem nuong skewers , nuoc cham from Xage, |
Crown Street, Surry Hills
It was less flavoursome and moreish than versions I’ve tried at friends’ family barbeques. The nuoc cham doesn’t help all that much in terms of flavour, nor does the bed of cabbage garnish – but a safe start to the night nonetheless.
|Honey tofu summer rolls|
|Canh chua - spicy sweet-sour soup with black tiger prawn|
It takes about three mouthfuls before I can identify the key flavours of the soup: sour (tamarind and the freshly squeezed lemon), sweet (presumably palm sugar) and burning. It’s hard to see how much chilli (or what form of chilli) you’re actually consuming because of the quite dim lighting, but if the dying tastebuds on my tongue could guesstimate, they would say there’s a great, big load.
From third mouthful onwards, all I could feel was the burn so I couldn’t even appreciate the firmly crisp prawns, sweet tomato, soft okra, green beans or Asian herbs – it just hurt too much. Water helped; the Joker’s Peak 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from Orange (bought from my Hunter Valley trip) didn’t.
And on that, I find Vietnamese food particularly difficult to match wines – those salty, sweet, sour, spicy flavours in almost every dish seem to kill white wines (though something dry would probably be ideal). I may well stick to beers from now on.
|Five-spice duck papaya salad in basil chilli peanut sauce|
I then ventured to a piece of duck – also safe if not a bit boring and lacking the promised five spice flavour. A mouthful of the dressed green papaya was also fine with mostly sweet and sour notes. I didn’t taste chilli until the very bottom of the plate when I must have had a sliver in my mouthful of papaya.
Despite the unreliable heat indications, the salad was nicely refreshing and entirely appropriate for a warm evening.
|Black tiger prawn xa ot with okra, lemongrass chilli sauce|
And with the jasmine rice, it was bearable with a slow and serious heat, but no exploding heads nor burning pants. With my now cautious and tender tongue, it was a little difficult to discern flavours, but the prawn dish was a textural delight – I adored the crunch of just cooked prawns as well as the sticky softness of the okra.
|Caramelised slow-cooked Berkshire pork shoulder thit kho|
However, I was a big fan of the spicing used in this slow cooked dish, which reminded me of Chinese five-spice but I don’t think was. Perhaps cinnamon gave the underlying sweetness and warmth, but it was rich in umami flavours that kept me going back for more, even after the point of being stuffed.
Xage doesn’t have any dessert offerings, and to be honest, in the tight and very loud space, it’s not really somewhere I would choose to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. This is also not helped by the numerous walk-ins getting turned away, so we graciously climb out of our seats, pay and leave the dangerous game of hot dots to the others waiting.