Behind a dark door in the quiet of the Narrabundah shops is the white fluorescent glow calling you to XO. Inside, the restaurant is minimalist chic: woven cane chairs and simple marble-topped tables, a stylish modern fit out that's somehow reminiscent of traditional coffee shops in Malaysia and Singapore.
From the same team behind Morning Glory in New Acton, the XO menu leans on head chef AK Ramakrishna's Malaysian heritage.
Dishes playfully mix Malay and Cantonese words with English, just as they are ordered on the streets of Malaysia, and influences from throughout southeast Asia are evident throughout the one-page menu.
The drinks sound fun, house cocktails like Japerol Spritz and NWA, Negroni with Attitude are twists on classics.
There's a lot to choose from - a good selection of beers, sake and whisky and a solid Australian focused wine list that includes a full page of Clonakilla's shiraz viognier vintages.
There's something for everyone here, whether you're a traditional fried chicken wings type or if you're tending towards the more adventurous. Not one for fusion food, I'm not sure about the idea of Asian bolognese ($21) but can't resist the lure of a 60-degree egg - and I'm glad I did.
The almost translucent egg sits on top of stir-fried udon noodles and chicken ragout, the runny yolk becoming a rich silken dressing that brings all the elements together. It's delicious, nostalgic yet inventive, a modern version of the Malaysian classic pan mee.
The pho dumplings ($16) are a standout. Four plump dumplings in a clear beef broth topped with beansprouts.
Biting into each dumpling is like having the perfect mouthful of beef pho - diced beef with a good hit of herbs and chilli, the beansprouts on top adding freshness and crunch. It's a clever twist on a street food dish; in fact, I struggle to think of a more memorable reinvention of a classic dish like pho.
Lamb kari ($32) is excellent too - well-balanced, flavourful and well-rounded, spicy but not overly hot. It has a depth of flavour that's reminiscent of a home-style curry, polished with the technique of an experienced chef.
Charred cabbage ($12) is a little left field. The cabbage leaves are topped with a miso crumble, burnt butter and little buckwheat seeds that add a surprise crunch. It's sweet and savoury with a vinegary kick - nothing like the customary Asian greens option.
If I had one complaint it would be that the Si Yau Gai ($30) - a bone-in crispy skin chicken in soy sauce - is difficult to tuck into, let alone share, without a knife. While the dish is well-cooked, it lacks some of the inventiveness and excitement of other dishes.
It is rare for dessert to be surprising these days, but the Chengdu snow is genuinely intriguing. Imagine a salt and pepper dessert - the first bite is confusing - savoury, salty and peppery but the following bite is intriguing.
A bit of silken white chocolate mousse, the tingle of Szechuan peppers, pops of freeze-dried mandarin and melt in the mouth snow. The contrast of textures and flavours keeps every bite interesting and before you know it, it's all gone.
Service is relaxed and attentive without being overly intrusive. It's obvious that the staff have all tasted the food, know it well and are confident making recommendations.
It's hard to describe the magic of XO - the dishes appear simple, but there's thought and an element of playfulness in each one combined with a firm foundation of technique and an in-depth understanding of flavours.
The reference to nostalgic Southeast Asian food memories and the undeniable innovation present in each dish that means I'm already planning my next visit.
Address: 16 Iluka St, Narrabundah
Owners: Greg Lally, Kent Nhan, AK Ramakrishna
Chef: AK Ramakrishna
Lunch: Wednesday to Friday, noon to 3pm.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 6-11pm.
Noise: Quite difficult to hear
Vegetarian: Some good options