The music is great at Bistro Mekong. Massive Attack, Janis Joplin, Genesis and Zero Seven all feature on the diverse playlist, but, if you ask Victor Altavilla about it, he’ll tell you his favourite band is actually Nothing But Thieves.
Despite cold weather keeping the punters away, I really enjoyed my evening inside the heated plastic tent, set in the courtyard of the Quadrangle Shopping Village. Altavilla is a big part of why; more than just a music aficionado, he is warm and clearly experienced at managing the floor.
As Operations Manager, Altavilla is responsible for two restaurants within Dr. Stanley Quek’s expanding group. He currently looks after Viet, which sits below the original Mekong in Kensington Street, and this one that brings across mostly the same Mekong menu to Sydney’s North Shore.
The interior space here is very small, with one painted wall in the famous Mekong emerald green, and some fishing basket lights and bamboo poles for continuity.
So, like most patrons, we find ourselves sitting in the outdoor tent. It’s edged with leafy foliage, flickering flame heaters and fairy lights, giving it a quite romantic feel on this cold and drizzly evening. The 2014 Greystone Gewürztraminer ($65) is a good way to kick off your night.
The wine is soft with a sweet start, offset by a good spine of acidity; and, when drunk against the Bistro Mekong Shared Plate ($28), it’s a winner with every bite. The Mekong formula is simple and effective – update South East Asian favourites with higher quality proteins, modern touches and an eye to presentation. While the Vietnamese turmeric pancake is pretty standard, the grilled betel leaf parcels hide a surprise: they’ve switched out the usual beef for pork belly enriched by well-rendered fat. Run them through the chilli and anchovy-based brown sauce, they punch the mid-palate hard. Fresh coconut stained red with beetroot and topped with white spanner crab make the tacos both eye-catching and fun. Crisp chickpea crackers balance small mounds of wood-smoked trout set off by roasted chilli, Spanish onion and lime zest - it’s actually a pretty spectacular plate.
Mains, like the Soft Shell Crab Masala ($25), keep up the presentation and the high quality proteins. The soft shell crab is delicious, and cooked beautifully, but the surrounding sauce is too sweet and tame in the flavour department. With fresh tomato, it screams Kan Tong louder than curry, and has me wishing for some sambol to spice things up and give it a more savoury middle.
Pumpkin and sweet potato throw out the balance of the Beef Cheek Cambodian Curry ($30). The beef cheeks are cooked well, but with virtually no chilli, there’s nothing to cut against the sweetness bar some peanuts.
The prices here are good when you consider both mains come with their own accompaniment – three mini milk buns in the case of the crab, and a super-crisp roti with the curry. For five bucks apiece, you can also add these on to any dish.
With some trepidation, I dive into dessert expecting it to be super-sweet, but the Deep Fried Ice Cream ($12) turned out to be amazing! It sees vanilla ice cream fried inside savoury brik pastry, then drizzled in a moderate amount of dark sugar syrup against a row of freshly sliced banana.
Even the Charcoal Cake ($12) avoids the too-sweet trap with sesame, fresh coconut and dark chocolate ice cream all keeping the flavours nicely adult. Hoping with time some balance will be restored to the mains, which at this stage are better over in Kensington Street.
Shop 5, 100 Edinburgh Road, Castlecrag
Ph: (02) 9958 3177