My husband is Indian. I am decidedly not.
Early in our relationship, I met a lot of his relatives and friends. We went to great big weddings together and dropped into homes where a mere 50 of the host’s closest friends had just popped over.
Those days were a blur of faces and names and my soon-to-be-husband imparted some valuable advice. “If you can’t remember a name, just call them uncle (or aunty).”
When I was at a loss, I would use the term uncle and be greeted with warm approval and welcoming smiles. In many Asian cultures, Indian and Vietnamese included, uncle is a term of both endearment and respect. By using the term uncle, I was signalling my regard. I was also acknowledging a community who subsequently, generously and warmly welcomed me in.
As I walk up the stairs to celebrate the launch of Uncle on Collins St, the warm neon glow of the bannister feels almost like an embrace. It is as if I am discovering the magical effects of that term of endearment all over again.
Uncle on Collins St is the second restaurant by Rene Spence and Dai Duong who have been welcoming and feeding St Kilda residents since 2013. For those northern Melbournians who never cross the Yarra, Uncle does new-school Vietnamese food, focussing on playful flavour combinations with varied influences.
Some St Kilda favourites have come over with them- can anyone say “crispy pigs’ ear bahn mi and the famous mini pho?” But about 80% of the new menu has been developed specifically for Collins St. It screams an understanding of food in its context – of pleasing the guest – much like when visiting uncle. The food is exquisite. But the food is not the main character, you are.
Speaking to Dai about the menu is almost as fun as eating from it. His passion and excitement are contagious and before long he dashes off to procure me some silken tofu with green mango, snake beans, scud chilli and candied anchovies. It is spectacular.
The cocktails have also been developed with the new location in mind and include The Paris End, made with Westwinds The Sabre gin, basil syrup and lychee. The space has a rooftop vibe, with large, fold-out windows opening over Collins St which I suspect will be very popular with the after-work crowd.
Uncle is another offering to the dining public of Melbourne by Foolscap Studio, whose beautiful commercial and hospitality interiors seems to be popping up all over Australia.
The large space is divided into sections with woven rattan that has an almost tiki vibe while reminding me nostalgically of the interiors of my childhood. A material palette that includes laser cut steel, rattan, tiled tabletops, plantings and concrete comes across as honest, fun and without pretension- much like the food and staff.
Rene tells me that the Uncle team includes a core of six. Not only is there Rene and Dai but also Luke, their numbers man, Bowen Holden of Patricia-fame and Rene’s dad who is a hospitality and PR veteran held in high esteem. It also includes Foolscap Studio’s principal designer, Adele Winteridge who started out as the contracted designer but became so passionate about the vision that she is now a minority stakeholder.
And that probably sums up Uncle best - it is a passion project for some very talented people.
And they do an incredible bahn mi.
Uncle is located at level 1, 15 Collins Street and is open Monday- Sunday 12noon- late. You can also visit them on Carlisle St, St Kilda.
You can see more of Foolscap Studio’s work here.