Dining at Aru, Melbourne
It was just 37 days after the opening date; it already felt like a well-oiled machine that’s been operating for a year. Of course, you would expect nothing less from hotelier and restaurateur Adipoetra Halim. With no sign of stopping, his ‘Johnny Depp to Tim Burton' Khanh Nguyen delivers the goods on this strong sophomore blockbuster.
The space is designed for high energy. Wide service and traffic paths, feature hearth and fermentation shelves are the first things you see; kitchen pass front and centre like a beating heart pumping through to each table, a bar area that continues the long space, and a temperature-controlled wine section that’s somewhat ‘open' for anyone to admire yet neatly tucked away, nice and dark. Dining spaces are divided into smaller zones — it seems like a subtle but clever pandemic-ready design if space restrictions ever get activated again.
We booked for seats at the bar counter — definitely a pro-tip if you like to immerse yourself deep as an audience to everything that goes on in the kitchen, catch big glimpses of chefs ‘in their zone' and being able to throw the occasional questions about ingredients and techniques (while they’re 8 dockets deep at peak time, of course). To paraphrase an old saying, “I love hard work. I could watch it all day.” With a cocktail in my hand.
My cocktail was a whiskey highball, designed by group bartender Darren Leany. I told our waitress I was in the mood for something ‘spritzy’. The Starward and tea made it complex with enough booziness in there, and the mango component made it too easy to drink. The CO2 in there satisfied my original brief. Perfect.
“Pick 2 from each section” was the ordering guide, and we were happy to oblige. Choosing was not hard. 3-4 words to label each dish tells us that the menu doesn’t really want you to worry about what you’re ‘in the mood for’. Just say the dish name that’s there for the sake of identifying and ordering, and trust the chef something good is going to arrive at your table. Ok, hint taken. The rest of the process was pretty much a culinary eeny, meeny, miny, moe and expect a bloody good meal.
Mussels on thin baguettes with tamarind jam was first up. Crunch, yum. Leatherwood honey-glazed duck sausage on top of a bao dough bread came together. Smashed that. The smokiness combined with the delicate sharpness of the onions reaffirms the simple yet timeless ingenuity of the humble sausage sizzle. Aru’s just showing us another way of doing it — at ‘Collins St’ level. Nice, show us some more.
Pâté en croute constructed with banh mi components was up next. That pop of Maggi-seasoning jelly to me brought that element of ‘hey refined dining, this umami, complexity and punch are from street food!’. Almost punk rock. Our next dish, the turmeric-laden smoked chicken ‘salad', accompanied that just fine.
The wine list is a pleasure to navigate, courtesy of Richard Buck and Michael Kovatseff-Burton. By this time, I was relaxing with an Etna Bianco wine by Benanti, made out of the Sicilian Carricante grape varietal. Light with no traces of oak, slightly saline, dry. The Etna area it was grown in is volcanic and mineral-rich, which always contributes to a more interesting palate. Lovely.
With our main course, we had a side of green papaya charged with nahm jim and the incredibly moreish kangaroo jerky. Alongside it — spanner crab fried rice with white Kampot pepper. At ordering time earlier, I did decline our waitress' recommendation of truffles added to our fried rice, but Chef Khanh himself happened to be at the pass near us when that dish arrived, and he asked if we wanted truffle with it and I couldn’t say no to the chef! No regrets. The depth added just elevated an already super modern version of this Sui Dynasty original.
Our big and last savoury was the dry-aged duck, with the textural cavolo nero or black cabbage, a quandong cameo, and a bright dusting of Davidson’s plum powder. What a finish.
The two desserts that afternoon were of the opposite ends of the spectrum. Something creamy and something bright:
The richness of the tapioca pudding laced with butterscotch is paired with the aromatic characters of the banana. Classic. Honeycomb with wattle completed the multi-layered texture.
Next, the citrusy nature of the Davidson’s plum is at play here in the coconut-fused kaya jam waffle dessert. The waffle itself provided both the elements of crunch and balance with salted Koji. Mouth-watering.
Service for us was prompt, unobtrusive, and deliberate. Again, all little hallmarks of a venue designed for high energy and good volume — all within a carefully thought-out and highly refined environment, steered by Dawn Bannon.
Our visit to Aru has left us planning our next one.
Aru is at 268 Little Collins St, Melbourne