Uncle is a bespoke new restaurant on Carlisle Street in the beachy, sunny St. Kilda neighborhood of Melbourne. The creation of dining industry veterans Rene Spence and Dai Duong, this spot serves up a modern take on classic Vietnamese cuisine — think crispy pig ear banh mi, or a lemongrass & coconut marinated scotch fillet. Uncle's style of modern Vietnamese extends to their coffee program as well, as the restaurant offers a delicious, noteworthy take on the classic Vietnamese-style ca phe sua da made with Market Lane Coffee, condensed milk ice cream, and a Technivorm Moccamaster.
Both Spence and Duong share a love for detail, and Uncle reflects that. The pair enlisted the help and expertise of other industry professionals, including Foolscap Studio (the designers behind Patricia Coffee Brewers), and Bowen Holden, who is the founder of Patricia. Mr Holden has worked with Spence & Duong previously, and their mutual understanding of quality service led to Holden lending a hand in creating Uncle's singular ca phe sua da service.
Mr Holden is keenly aware of the problems with restaurant coffee, “considering all of the effort that goes into a high quality restaurant. It seems such a waste for those restaurants to throw away the last experience of the night.” At Uncle, rather than going pods or hiring a staff of full-time baristas, they’ve done away with the espresso machine altogether. It's all batch brew here, wonderfully repeatable filter coffee, which is a point of variation from the traditional Vietnamese coffee brewing method.
A typical ca phe sua da is dosed high, generally made with relatively poor quality coffee beans that are roasted very dark, or sometimes mixed with chicory, and then brewed over condensed milk (or taken black). In choosing the Moccamaster, Holden wanted an approach that was “of the highest quality, approachable, and efficient.” He says that from an operations perspective, choosing “highly consistent, trainable, and clean” batch brew was an easy choice.
Using filter coffee from the Moccamaster isn't their only twist: for the dairy base, they use a condensed milk ice cream sourced from local supplier (and ice-creamery extraordinaire) Jock’s Ice Cream. There is also an option for straight black filter coffee, as good as anything you'll find in Melbourne right now, where filter coffee is undergoing something of a boom.
Let me gush about the food for a moment. Tasty coffee is the perfect accompaniment to Uncle's modern Vietnamese cuisine, with a strong foundations in traditional methods and an intimate knowledge of its origins thanks to chef and co-owner Dai Duong. Everything is super fresh, flavourful, and smart. Lime-cured hapuka fish with coconut and chili wrapped up in a betel leaf, Vietnamese chicken coleslaw, surprisingly affordable portions (marked on the menu from ‘little’ to ‘big guys’), and an outstanding, pointedly traditional selection of phở options.
This restaurant is modern, not fusion. Influences from 21st century Vietnam are soaked up and translated back to St. Kilda, and the pairing works. This is one of the world's great food cultures being let out play in one of the world's great food cities, with a shared love of coffee in the foreground.
All the different elements of the space come together beautifully. The first level is a moodily lit bar, catering to patrons waiting for a table or who are indulging in a quick snack and a beverage.When you wander upstairs to the restaurant you’re immediately hit with light wood tones and beautifully tiled walls and tables. There’s also stunning tableware by Fork Ceramics, glazed in an array of colours that are very complimentary to Uncle’s fit-out – not surprising, considering the ceramics are made by Ruth Spence, co-owner Rene’s wife.
Listening to these folks talk about coffee, design, and food, you realize that all three are viewed as equal parts of a whole. This is not a restaurant with a coffee program — this is delicious coffee being part of a restaurant's DNA. To close, let's turn again to Bowen Holden:
As much as we want to inform people of what they consume, I think there’s something beautiful about people simply enjoying something”
188 Carlisle St, St Kilda
Tues: 5pm – Late
Wed through Sunday: 12pm – late