Nestled in Crows Nest, along the stretch of Pacific Highway, is chef Harry Nguyen’s quiet and modernist-inspired cafe, Monte Alto. The painstaking attention to detail within food is reflected in the interiors of this eatery: minimalist, classy, simple. Indeed, the aesthetic sensibilities of this venue embrace the finest of contemporary design.
“We’re trying to connect the dots and find common ground, drawing together different food and drinks and cuisines and art,” says Harry, the owner. He makes me a coffee, then tells me that the paintings hung on the walls around us were done specifically for Monte Alto.
The place is a hipster brunch cafe by day and a bustling bar by night, serving an innovative fusion of Vietnamese and Australian cuisine. Harry recognises the stigma of Asian foods being seen as cheap alternatives, and sees it as motivation to work harder; to reinvent the cuisine and remove Vietnamese dishes from that social misconception. On the new Winter menu, items like the coffee rubbed pork roast and the stuffed chicken marsala are a perfect combination of both worlds. For him, food is not just an intellectual understanding but an emotional process, too.
I make food with my emotions. Same with my coffee. I sell things that I like. I wouldn’t put a thing on the shelf or sell anything to a customer that I don’t personally like myself.
In Italian, monte alto translates to height within nature: tall trees, large mountains and high forests. And the heights, too, of Harry’s vision for this restaurant. “We opened on the 13th of July 2016,” he tells me. “We didn’t have the best coffee or the best food. Even now, we still think we don’t have the best food but we’re somewhat there and we know the direction that we want to go in. We know what people like about us here. We don’t get many bad reviews because people can see the effort that we put in to make everything happen.”
The bar is an impressive sight, stacked almost to the ceiling with whiskeys and wine. “I know we shouldn’t try to be the best at everything, but we do anyway,” Harry admits. “We have more coffee than anyone around here – cold brew, cold drip, we have three grinders, single origin, decaf. At night, we have more wines than maybe 90% of the restaurants in the area and more whiskey than probably 100% of restaurants. And a long list of cocktails. We try to give everyone an option. We try to do the most we can for people, which is the most important thing.”
Harry is perhaps one of the most humble restaurant owners I’ve ever met, not at all afraid to get his hands dirty. His passion is evident from the way he talks about his hunger (no pun intended) to make this career work. “I don’t meet many people who want to succeed as badly as I do, to the point where I’d do anything it takes to keep things going. I’ll do deliveries, I’ll cook, I’ll make coffee, I’ll wait tables – I genuinely want Monte Alto to succeed. It’s not about proving who I am or what I am. People around me know my character so I don’t really need to prove that to anyone else. It’s more about proving it to myself.”
See Issue 4 for more.
Editor/Writer for ECX.