Climb into the bamboo cage in a glass box perched over the bustling hawker outlets of Sydney’s latest dining precinct, Kensington Street. Ringed by bamboo and textural green feature walls, the clever folks at Giant Design have given Mekong a relaxed organic feel, a green oasis of calm set above its faster-paced sibling, Lower Mekong.
After cutting his teeth with accessibly pitched Vietnamese at Mama’s Buoi, it feels like Chef Tiw Rakarin has really come into his own in this restaurant. This time he takes you on a meandering journey down the mighty Mekong, which – if your geography fails you – flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Plucking ingredients, cooking techniques and flavours from all along the river’s winding path, Rakarin assembles an inventive menu that also reflects the contemporary way Sydneysiders like to eat. The light, bright, one-bite bar snacks at the front end of the menu will make more sense when their pending liquor license finally arrives. Order Little Crumb ($6/2 pieces) anyway – it tames spicy rounds of rice-crumbed Laotian sausage with avocado puree, and instantly makes you hungry for more!
Well-charred betel leaves make Pig in a Blanket ($13/4 pieces) another drinking-snack winner; they’re wrapped around Thai-style grilled pork neck and drizzled with a tamarind-based sauce.
With all the hallmarks of a future signature, freshly picked crab and prawn Squid Ink Dumplings ($12/ 2 pieces) are complemented by a fragrant chicken broth that is poured at the table. The thin black wrappers are steamed on a cheesecloth-topped pot in the style of Vietnamese banh cuon, and the resulting blend of crab, prawn and orange zest is delightful against the star anise and cassia-flavoured broth.
Restaurant Manager Ryan Christopherson is a strong advocate for The Lady of Shallot ($15/ 3 pieces), which tones down the fish sauce in a Vietnamese-style nuoc cham, to show off the smoky bacon oil the scallops are seared in. Christopherson, who has great enthusiasm for the food he’s presenting, calls this one a “Mekong indicative dish.”
However the dish I’ll remember Mekong for is dubbed Full Moon ($28). It arrives rather grandly in a coconut shell accentuated by a burning stick of cassia bark. The coconut is stuffed with tiger prawns and an egg-based coconut curry mix that reminds me of the otak-otak that’s popular across a number of countries in Southeast Asia. This curry is bold and spicy, so dig deep into the shell to include strips of young coconut flesh in each spoonful - they work to cool it down.
By way of contrast, Sweet Lemon Rumdul ($28) takes a gentler Cambodian approach to curry, using a sweet potato and lemongrass paste to render beef rib into something quite unctuous and yielding.
A generous Truffled Garden ($8) side takes care of your vegetable needs with char-grilled cabbage dotted with tiny king brown mushrooms, presented in a compelling light soy and truffle oil reduction.
Over a half-coconut shell of Bangkok Ice Cream Bowl ($10) – a dish that feels like a coconut ice cream based riff on ice-kacang - we start planning our next barge down the Mekong. And there isn’t much on this menu I wouldn’t like to try…
Level 2, 14 Kensington Street, Chippendale
Ph: (02) 9282 9079