In Short: La Sen is a family-friendly, traditional Vietnamese restaurant located in the buzzing Randwick district. The warmth from the restaurant decorations and service, plus the wonderful smells eminating from the restaurant’s kitchen, makes it a great place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, and just indulge in some good soul-comforting food.
For the Coco and Vine team our love of the Asian culture is never-ending. Each year you will find the members of the team in Japan, Singapore, India, Malaysia, and most recently, the team travelled through Thailand and Laos. So, when the Ompty team alerted us to an urban gem in Randwick featuring authentic Vietnamese cuisine, our arms did not need much twisting at all. La Sen’s location on La Perouse Road is among a collection of eateries that is adjacent to the historic, art decor Ritz cinema.
La Sen focuses on an extensive menu of Vietnamese offerings. Having traveled through Vietnam, and also having friends of Vietnamese heritage, we have developed a love for the cuisine of the region. Think Pho, char-grilled pork, and fresh summer rice rolls. La Sen will accommodate you if that’s what you crave.
Stepping into the restaurant from the bustling, cold windy weather outside, it was like being transported into a whole different world. Actually it very much reminded us of our visit to Hanoi in the middle winter. From the warm, glowing ceiling lamps to the small fireplace in the corner, you immediately felt warmer and calmer just by being in the restaurant. Then, you are greeted by the friendly staff and we caught whiff of the familiar aromas of Indochine cuisine as we walked past the open kitchen. Everything about the restaurant helps to reinforce the warmth of the restaurant. From the green plants hanging from ceiling, black lacquered wooden furniture and walls peppered with traditional Vietnamese souvenirs like the traditional straw hats, plates and photos, they all makes you feel like you have stepped out of Sydney and you are sitting in Hanoi.
La Sen’s menu is so extensive, it reads like a book! I found myself amazed that there were so many varieties of Vietnamese dishes, some of which I am familiar with, while others were totally new. So we decided to try three familiar favourites, and one new and different seafood main which we had never previously tasted.
You can never go wrong with the Grilled Prawn Paste on Sugarcane (Chao Tom). It is a popular dish that shows up in practically every Vietnamese restaurant because it’s fun, fresh, loads of flavours, and it basically has all the food groups incorporated. Squares of fine rice vermicelli noodles (Banh Hoi), fresh lettuce, pickled carrots, cucumber, crushed roasted peanuts, sautéed spring onions and a tangy fish sauce are all nicely displayed on a huge plate. You begin by taking a piece of lettuce and placing a square of the delicate fine vermicelli cake on it, followed by a slice or two of the char-grilled, well-seasoned prawn paste, a bit of the pickled carrots for acidity, a slice of cucumber for added freshness, a sprinkle of peanuts for the crunch factor, some sautéed spring onion, with a splash of tangy fish sauce for added saltiness and umami-ness, and its ready to be eaten. Traditionally, this dish is eaten with your hands, but either way whether you choose your hands or utensils, all you want to do is get it into your mouth and experience the explosion of flavours and freshness.
Another of my favourite Vietnamese starters is the Vietnamese Crispy Pancake (Banh Xeo). Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a simple egg omelette. Traditional Banh Xeo, gets its egg-like colour from turmeric, and it’s actually a pancake-like batter. It is seasoned and fried ’til thin and crispy, then filled with prawns, pork, mung beans, shallot, onion and bean sprouts, served with a tangy fish sauce and a small salad of pickled carrots, lettuce, mint and cucumbers. What excites me, is that it is light, fresh and so full of flavour that you would find yourself finishing the whole dish and still not feel full, or guilty at devouring the deep fried omelette! In La Sen, you can order your Banh Xeo with additional roast duck as well, which elevates the dish to a next level.
You cannot go into a Vietnamese restaurant and not order a bowl of Pho (Rice Noodle in Beef Broth). In fact, the Pho noodle soup has often been used as a benchmark indicator of how good a Vietnamese restaurant is, as everyone seems to have their own secret recipe for making the all-important stock, making it a differentiating point. In the case of La Sen, their broth is just what you have come to expect of a bowl of good classic Beef Pho; rich, meaty, spicy and steaming hot. If you are not as adventurous, you can order your Beef Pho with just the rare sliced beef, or even get the Chicken Pho (Pho Ga). But the best, is the Pho Bo (Beef) Combination, because it comes with the lot, which includes rare sliced beef, braised beef, beef balls, and beef tendons. The noodles were silky and slippery, a perfect complement with a rich flavourful broth. The meats were tender and not over cooked, while the beef tendons had the perfect chewy bite to it. It is the perfect comfort food, and La Sen does a spectacular job at making this classic Vietnamese dish, just like the way it would have been made in a traditional Vietnamese household.
Because Coco and Viner Sacha loves both seafood and trying new foods, he could not resist ordering the Caramelised Fish (Ca Kho Nuoc Dua) that is featured on La Sen’s menu. It is a caramelised fish in young coconut juice and fish sauce in claypot. The liberal use of soy sauce gives it the familiar Asian flavours and color. Although this is a fish dish, there is no hint of fishy flavours at all, indicating the freshness of the fish. It is cooked to perfection and oh-so-soft and tender that it just crumbs apart easily at a touch. The best part of the dish is actually the sauce as it is sweet, sour and salty all that the same time, loaded with spices and flavour and goes perfectly with a bowl of plain white rice.
La Sen’s owner Jessica and John have done a great job with the restaurant, and with its extensive menu you would not have any issues finding a dish to suit your taste. It is definitely a hidden culinary gem in Randwick that would require multiple visits to sample all the items, and you can always be guaranteed good service and quality wholesome food.
*Coco & Vine dined as guests of Ompty Media and La Sen. However, all opinions and photos are our own.