“We might have a modern setting, but the food is authentic. I’m not sous viding any meats,” laughs Tona Inthavong. He’s talking me through the Green Peppercorn story at their inner city venue upstairs at the Civic Hotel.
It’s a story that started with his family growing their own food to survive in a Thai refugee camp, when they emigrated to Australia during the Laotian Civil War; and has resulted in two brothers each having a successful restaurant group (Tona Inthavong owns Holy Basil).
As you delve into the extensive menu here, you’ll taste parts of the Inthavong story, though it’s likely none will impress quite so much as the handmade Lao Sausages ($11.90). Cooked on the charcoal barbeque, these moist, flavoursome sausages are made from Tona's father’s recipe, and even more delicious when dipped in his mother’s special nahm jim style sauce.
Green Peppercorn’s menu presents both Laotian and Thai cuisine. Tona describes the two as “sister countries” though he points out Thai cuisine has more creamy, Chinese influences. Laotian is in fact closest to Issan food, from Thailand’s Northeast. Laotian food is spicier, more pungent, more bitter and earthy according to Tona, something you can taste for yourself in the Laotian Papaya Salad ($12.90) (the Thai version of this salad is also on the menu, so you compare the pair side by side). The dominant note in the Laotian version is fermented crab paste – made from freshwater black crabs found in flooded rice paddies in Laos. The salad is cleverly presented with pieces of plain white cabbage. The cabbage’s natural sweetness works to reset your palate from the dish’s spicy, sour, pungency; giving you a moment’s breather before you reach back in for more of this compelling dish.
For something a bit gentler, check out nam khao or Crunchy Rice Salad ($14.90). It’s basically a Laotian comfort food dish made using leftover rice that’s fashioned into balls (like arancini) and fried off, before being crushed up and served in a salad. “Lao-style sang choi bao we call it,” Tona explains, indicating we should wrap it up in the accompanying lettuce and betel leaves. It’s an easy dish to like, what with the crunch of crisp rice, peanuts, mint, coconut and chewy morsels of cured pork; providing you avoid the super-hot dried chillies garnishing the pretty plate.
Green Peppercorn doesn’t let you down in the drinks department either. Not only are there bespoke, cuisine-appropriate cocktails like the Rhubarb & Lemongrass Martini ($18), or the even-better Thongchai Martini ($18) teaming rhubarb-infused sake with tequila and fresh passionfruit, wines are also extremely well priced.
“We want people to come and dine with us and feel like they’re not getting ripped off,” said Tona. Most bottles sit around the forty-dollar mark, including the Chaffey Bros. Düfte Punkt Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Weisser Herold ($39/bottle) that goes gangbusters with Laotian food.
Weighing in at around the kilo mark, whole fish dishes like the Crispy Snapper with Green Mango Salad ($45.90) are just the ticket to wow big groups. The clever addition of green apple slivers to the cashew-dotted salad gives this dish a familiar edge, and makes it all-year-round eating for when green mangos or papayas are out-of-season.
With a small sleight of hand, Tona delivers our pad kapao - Chilli Basil & Garlic Pork Stir Fry ($12.90) – saying: “This is the same dish you’ll find everywhere else.” This totally belies how good the Green Peppercorn version of this dish is, especially when eaten with Crab Meat Fried Rice ($17.90).
Before you overload on carbs however, I should mention that the Fried Ice Cream ($14) here gives Spice I Am’s must-have Thai happy ending, "Better Than Sex", a run for its money.
The luminously green Pandan Brulee ($14) ain’t a bad way to end your evening either.
Keep your eyes peeled for Tona Inthavong’s fourth restaurant; word is: it’s already in the pipeline.
Civic Hotel, Level 1, 388 Pitt Street, Sydney
Ph: (02) 8080 7043