A week or so later, we returned to try the menu properly. We started again with a cocktail each - Craig cleverly chose the pick of the list, a Baked Beijing Apple and Wild Nettle Martini ($14) and I had a very nice Rambutan and Lavender Lollipop Martini ($14) which sadly had to be made with a frozen Rambutan, as they are out of season. This is seriously one of the better cocktail lists I have enjoyed lately.
We were seated near the open kitchen, which had a rather amazing back lit marble counter (there's also Florence Broadhurst wallpaper, cool asymmetrical paper lights and low lighting).
We pretty much left ourselves in the hands of host (and providore) Joe Natale, and his first suggested dish was Thai Steamed Pork, Prawn and Shitake Dumplings with Plum Sauce ($12) - not my usual fare, as I tend to find the pork used in them gristly and the wrappers gelatinous, but in this case, I was wrong! They were fabulous, and I would order them again without hesitation!
The second dish, the Lab kai of Chicken and Liver, Lemongrass and Mint in Iceberg with Spicy Sour Dressing ($15) was my least favourite, which should not by any means diminish it, as it was a crunchy, tasty, and quite lemony burst of flavour in the mouth. The liver was not a dominant note in the dish.
The best savoury dish of the night was the Tea Smoked Quail with Roasted Garlic and Black Pepper Sauce ($16). This is not my usual sort of Thai dish, and I did question the almost Chinese flavour base, but was informed that this is an authentic Southern Thai dish - in fact all of the dishes come from a Southern Thai sensibility, and the chef, May Busyarat comes from a village in this area. The quail was perfectly cooked, and the smoky flavour of the dish lingered on the tongue until the mains arrived.
My choice for main, Crispy Duck with Sweet Rambutan and Tamarind Sauce ($30) and was their signature dish (yes, not unusual for a reviewer to have to eat the signature dish, I know) but this time it coincided with my taste, so I was happy. The duck was well cooked - the fat rendered, the skin impossibly crisp, and the sauce was delightful. The rambutans became curiously savoury in the sauce, which had taken up some of the game elements of the duck itself, and were possibly my favourite part of the dish. All in all, a very successful dish!
Craig's choice was the Pad Prick Khing Crispy Pork Belly with Snake Beans and Lime Leaves ($22) and again, it was an exercise in crisp skin - a very well cooked pork belly indeed. I liked the flavours, marveled at the freshness of the snake beans, much more lightly cooked than I am used to, and again a very successful big taste dish - be warned, it looks a lot less impressive than it was, it was actually a big serve that we struggled to finish, as was the duck.
Now after trying to beg off dessert, we were told we needed to try the Bua Loi with Pandan Leaf, Taro, Pumpkin and Sweet Coconut Sugar ($8). OH MY GOD BECKY! Words can barely describe the impact of this warm, soupy, coconut and caramel flavoured bowl of goodness. It was SO to my taste I perked up from the dense and rich meal and anxiously waited until we were unattended to drain every drop from the bowl. Who would have thought that heaven would be an Asian dessert, prepared for the monks who bless houses in a small Southern Thai village, where the people are poor. But I'm telling you, it is - heaven.
Chef Mai Busyarat has cooked at China Doll and Tuk Tuk, but has clearly been given her head at this restaurant, and her cuisine shines. For vegetarians there are the following selections (the Miang I tried at the launch, and they were lovely):
Rambutan miang with green peanut nahm jim ($3.50)
Crispy silken tofu w sesame tamari sauce ($9)
Thom kha mushroom hot pot with coconut cream lemongrass and galangal ($18)
Stir fried roasted pumpkin w egg tofu garlic stems and chilli ($18)
Steamed broccolini w oyster sauce and mushroom soy ($12)
Fried rice w gai lan cherry tomato and chilli jam ($7.50)
If you like Thai, and particularly if you like interesting Thai and/or cocktails, this is a restaurant well worth checking out.
96 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst
Ph: (02) 9360 7772
*If you think this sounds familiar, so did I - I must confess to liking the same dish at Oceanic Thai much better - Max Mullins' subtle and deft handing of the produce and the flavours made for a better dish. Upon chatting to one of the owners, Joe Natale, I did discern that they had dined at Oceanic Thai a few times, and had chosen not to put the dish on their permanent menu because of wanting to promote points of difference. It was however hard not to compare the two restaurants.