First thing’s first: Burrow Bar has moved. After five years in a moody basement space in the depths of De Mestre Place in Sydney’s CBD, it’s hopped a couple of streets over to another moody basement space; this time below Clarence Street.
But this new venue also came with an upstairs restaurant area with a kitchen already installed. It was bright, sunshine-filled and had windows looking out to the street beyond. In other words, the antithesis of the vintage speakeasy feel of Burrow. So, owners Chau Tran and Bryce McDonough decided to turn it into a Vietnamese restaurant, as a tribute to Tran’s heritage and a shared love of the cuisine they both grew up on in western Sydney. Cash Only Diner (yes, it takes card) is all about the food of Hue, where Tran’s mother is from – a city in the middle of the country that brings together the sweetness of southern Vietnamese’s cuisine with the funky, fermented and salty flavours more common in the north.
Fittingly for a restaurant above a bar – and one with its own banging cocktail menu – the dishes make very amenable drinking partners. They have been designed by a fleet of chefs brought in to help recreate the dishes Tran’s mum (who trained in a French finishing school in Hue) has perfected over the years. They’re made for sharing and are often interactive. There’s the com hen – baby-clam rice spiked with ginger, and a clam broth poured over at the table. The “crack” rice – jasmine rice topped with crispy chicharrons and a gooey egg – is what McDonough describes as a dish you’d have when you “get home late and drunk”. Banh xeo – savoury turmeric pancakes enveloping pork and prawns – is a dish that tends to be on the larger size at other eateries, but is made smaller so diners don’t get too full.
“We want everything to be shareable,” says McDonough. “Vietnamese restaurants follow a similar format to Chinese restaurants … everything comes out in large sharing format. We wanted to tighten that up and make everything smaller and shareable so that people could try more of the menu. There’s no point putting rice on every plate when people can order the style of starch that they want … and build their own experience.”
A big hit has been the cha ca thang long – a whole barramundi with dill and turmeric.
“We are selling out of it, but we try not to buy too much because we have a strict ‘nothing frozen’ policy (within reason) and so the fish has to be bought in every two days,” says McDonough. Like many other dishes on the menu, Vietnamese flavours and techniques have been applied using ingredients readily available in Sydney – Tran says they bought “one of every whole fish” at Sydney Fish Market to work out which would work best in the dish.
As for desserts, there’s waffles stuffed with stretchy mochi and pandan, and a pillowy sponge cake. And cocktails also bring in those Vietnamese flavours: the rim of the Jade Memories, which is made with coconut milk, syrup, lime juice and Irish whiskey, is sprinkled with sesame, sugar and salt – elements you’ll find in many Vietnamese desserts. A Negroni is given a green-mango twist, and there’s a boozy version of a Vietnamese iced coffee.
The space is light and bright: people-watch from the large windows on one side of the room, or turn your attention to the chefs at work in the open kitchen on the opposite side. An exposed-brick wall and stripped-back decor create a relaxed, casual dining environment.
“Drinking is meant to be fun, eating is meant to be fun, but people take it so seriously,” says McDonough. “Get back to basics – this is about celebrating a moment; our job is to help people experience something new and fun.”
Cash Only Diner
1 Barrack Street, Sydney
0450 862 147
Wed to Sat 12pm–11pm