74-76 Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 4450
There’s been a lot of buzz about new restaurants opening in Melbourne lately. The Age had an article about a slew of new places opening, giving a bit of a guide to the ‘what’s hot’ darling venues of the Melbourne culinary scene. Places with hospitality rockstars at the helm, or at least bank-rolling them. I’ll admit I’m excited by this season of openings, as evidenced by my repeat visits to Chin Chin in particular. But there’s also a lot going on closer to home.
For those of you who don’t visit Footscray often, you probably don’t know that it’s one of those suburbs going through something of a makeover. Hopefully nothing too extreme, but there are medium density apartment buildings popping up everywhere, and we’ve now got a big patch of lawn – albeit surrounded by temporary cyclone fencing – in front of the train station! Within a week, Footscray saw three new restaurants opening for business. The rather unimaginatively named “Footscray Asian Buffet Restaurant” and cumbersomely named “Nha Hang Cong Tu Bac Lieu” both opened for business in the newly built Westville Central building opposite Little Saigon market last week. Half a block away, Sen has just opened. Sort of.
‘Sen: the hidden taste’, a tagline which is so tantalisingly ripe for lewd or derogatory jokes, is the re-incarnation of the veteran Ha Long restaurant. I’ll admit I had avoided Ha Long since I moved to Footscray, largely because i didn’t like the food at the Richmond branch. Turns out I was being unfair, because the new owner of Sen is the old chef of Ha Long, having bought out the previous owners. And the food is pretty good. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.Though then again, Sen does have quite an attractive ‘cover’ now. Sleek, modern branding, comfortable stylish chairs and not a TV in sight, you get the sense that Sen is pitching quite squarely at the Sapa Hills market. A look at their menu will indicate the same, with Northern Vietnamese dishes like bun cha Ha Noi, and the same ‘family-style dishes’ section. But hey, originality isn’t exactly a hallmark of Vietnamese restaurants.
My first visit to Sen was on their second day of business. The huge bouquets of flowers – customary gifts from family and friends of the owners to wish them good luck in their new business – were proudly on display, and they had yet to add any fish to the tanks. Signage was still being stuck onto the doors, and the place buzzed with energy and excitement.
Sen has quite a large menu, stretching from a selection of noodle and rice dishes for the single diner, to an array of main dishes to share, with all the requisite starters you’d expect on a Vietnamese menu. So how do you benchmark a restaurant with such a wide selection? I like to just go for my favourites. I started out with a bun bo Hue, eschewing the pho because I’m usually wary of full-menu restaurants’ renditions of pho.I’m really glad I chose bun bo Hue that first visit. The bowl was heaving with beef flank, cha (processed pork loaf) as well as the customary cube of congealed blood. Yeah, not for the meek. Or maybe the meek should man up and eat some blood, and they’ll become less meek. Anyway, the super surprise was the inclusion of a chunk of pork hock. So often omitted, the pork hock is one of my favourite parts of a good bun bo Hue. Ironic, because it’s usually billed as a ‘chilli beef noodle’. The broth here is fragrant and punchy, but I still prefer Dong Ba‘s broth, even if they’re not as generous as Sen with the animal parts.
Check out that pork hock action!Il coinqulino – aka my housemate – chose the Singapore noodles. Yes, I was dubious. And yes, I cringed: because who the hell orders a Singapore noodles at a Vietnamese restaurant? But hey, he’s from Italy, and that was what he felt like eating, so who am I to judge? Turns out it was a good choice, even if it’s not particularly Vietnamese. The serving was massive, and full of goodies. I tried a little, and my only quibble was that it needed more spice. Which is to say, it was masterfully cooked; not too oily like so many Singapore noodles I’ve eaten elsewhere.As il coinquilino had never heard of custard apple, let alone tried it, I suggested that he try the custard apple smoothie – it’s called a cocktail on the menu – while I had the jackfruit one. Custard apples are in season, so there was a lot of “Wow, this is delicious!” – sluuuuuurp – “Argh! Brainfreeze!”. Rinse and repeat.My second visit was a solo one, so I thought I’d try another of my favourite dishes, bun cha gio thit nuong (rice vermicelli with spring rolls and grilled pork). I’m going to put an ambit claim out there now: best bun thit nuong I’ve had in Footscray. The pork was smoky and beautifully charred, yet succulent; the spring rolls were crisp and tasty, and I was a little put off initially by the chunky lettuce and pickles, but they add a great textural contrast to the noodles.My next visit was with the @eatdrinkstagger kids, Lauren from Footscray Food Blog, and @fatbooo. The intention was some #phosmash-ing, and true to form I had the pho bo dac biet. Gem and Tris arrived late, and by that stage I’d already started eating the pho. It’s telling that I recommended that they skip it. There’s nothing offensively bad about it, but the broth is a little too sweet, and heavy-handed with the MSG. As I said, I tend to avoid pho at places which don’t specialise in it, and Sen is pretty much a case in point. I don’t mean this as a slur, but they do other dishes so much better, and frankly, standards for pho in Footscray are understandably high.A little more adventurous on the day than I, Lauren and Boo shared a bun moc, which was rice vermicelli with meat balls and cha. I’ve never tried it myself, but both said it was good, remarking on the interesting flavour of the meatballs.They also shared the bun cha Ha Noi, which looked mighty tasty. Again, the pork is grilled beautifully, as you can see.I didn’t manage to get a photo of it, but the bo la lot (beef wrapped in vine leaves) at Sen is great, too. The beef is seasoned better than at most other places.
We decided to finish off with a round of dessert drinks, partly because Lauren had her daughters with her, and partly because we’re all big kids too! Everyone else had custard apple smoothies, but having seen another table order it, I was taken by the che ba mau (three colour drink). Though really, it’s a four colour drink, because they’ve got the mung bean puree in there too! It’s a total winner, and when I gave it to one of Lauren’s daughter to try, I had a tough time getting it back!So yeah, if you haven’t been, and are looking for a good all-rounder in the area, definitely give Sen a try. You shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a table, even though it’s new, because they really know how to cram the tables in!Custard apple smoothies are badass.