Phone: (09) 630 5790
Rating out of 10: Food: 7, Service: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 7
It's a curious phenomena of our culinary times that so much food invented to eat standing up is being served in places where you pay to sit down.
Check the menu. Does it include the words "authentic" and "alleyway"? Can you order things on sticks and stuff stuffed with other stuff? You are almost certainly in a street-food eatery. Expect flavours synonymous with countries that enjoy year-round warmth, repackaged and sold at prices that reflect restaurant heating bills.
At Sen Vietnamese Kitchen and Bar, I suspect that bill is huge. This is a very large space. The night we visited they were only utilising the upstairs, but even that was vast.
In this restaurant within a restaurant, we took banquette seats by the balcony ("Discombobulating," said Bryan, as he peered down through the perspex railing) and started with summer rolls. They were okay - $14 for four, slightly dry on the ends, and lacking zing inside. Lemongrass skewers ($4.50 each) were far more successful, with the citrus flavour of the herb fully permeating the splodge of pork mince wrapped around its length.
Our favourite starter was the Vietnamese pancake ($16.50). The batter, traditionally made with rice flour and coconut cream, managed to be both fluffy and crispy and there was enough pork and prawn filling to ensure our table of four got a decent taste each.
A pause between courses while I try to think of the right word to describe the service. Refreshing? Unfiltered? Bryan was thrilled to be referred to as a "sweetheart" and "young man". The instruction to "hang on to your knickers" when our mains arrived was probably apt, given how much food we'd ordered.
You could have a reasonably cheap night here if you stuck to the $19.50 end of the mains menu - spicy lemongrass chicken or grilled pork, served with a small pile of thin rice noodles. The latter was mystifyingly tender until I realised that some of the meat was actually flattened pork mince patties (seriously tastier than that sentence reads).
The soft-shell crab ($27.50) definitely needed its tamarind sauce accompaniment to cut a greasy mouthfeel; in contrast, some of the chunks in the clay pot pork belly ($23.50) lacked essential fat.
Dish of the night was definitely the $26 "shaking beef" that hit bitter and sweet notes via oyster sauce and a bed of thick-stemmed watercress.
The menu includes six vegetarian options, including the lotus stem salad ($14.50) we added to our order. It was texturally interesting, but I wanted more mint. Maybe the menu was suffering seasonal malaise, but actually, I wanted more fresh mint-coriander-lime-etc, across the board.
We got one of everything on the dessert menu and there were two stand-outs: a really toothsome $12 black rice pudding and a $10 glass of "lotus" pudding (we'd already been warned the lotus seeds had been swapped for passionfruit) that was light and creamy, sweet and tart.
The young fellow finished with a green tea, and we scraped our plates clean. Lucky we were wearing stretchy knickers.