Friday, January 7, 2011

X(age) marks the dot

In some of the warmer regions of Asia, spicy foods are seemingly counter-intuitively used for cooling oneself in the hot weather - the logic being evaporation of sweat on the skin through internal heat; thus reducing body heat. Xage on Crown Street in Surry Hills is a place you can practice this philosophy. BYO wine, and sweat towels if you’re that kind of chilli eater.

Even though it was sparsely filled when we arrived early one weeknight, the space below apartments felt quite cramped with square tables all joined up to form ‘communal’ tables or sorts. The small-ish menu reminds me of any Asian takeaway menu, with sections for entrées, soups, salads and mains split into wok-fry and specialty.

Red chicken nem nuong skewers , nuoc cham from Xage,
Crown Street, Surry Hills
There are some vaguely familiar menu items and then the completely foreign to me, although the Vietnamese natives among us mostly reaffirm authenticity. However, the nem nuong little resemble what we’re accustomed to: reddened chicken mince instead of the traditional pork, and deep fried rather than grilled.

It was less flavoursome and moreish than versions I’ve tried at friends’ family barbeques. The nuoc cham doesn’t help all that much in terms of flavour, nor does the bed of cabbage garnish – but a safe start to the night nonetheless.

Honey tofu summer rolls
Similarly safe though not bog standard were the summer rolls (or rice paper rolls) filled with vermicelli noodles, vegies and in this instance, tofu sweetened with honey. Softness and subtlety featured here, topped with a pile of alfalfa sprouts and partnered with a decidedly un-hot dipping sauce.

Canh chua - spicy sweet-sour soup with black tiger prawn
We started playing with fire, or rather dots, with the soup dish. On the menu, dots signify a level of spiciness – one for spicy and two for very spicy, although most menu items have no dot at all. The canh chua has one dot from memory, and arrives as a small bowl piled high with vegetables.

It takes about three mouthfuls before I can identify the key flavours of the soup: sour (tamarind and the freshly squeezed lemon), sweet (presumably palm sugar) and burning. It’s hard to see how much chilli (or what form of chilli) you’re actually consuming because of the quite dim lighting, but if the dying tastebuds on my tongue could guesstimate, they would say there’s a great, big load.

From third mouthful onwards, all I could feel was the burn so I couldn’t even appreciate the firmly crisp prawns, sweet tomato, soft okra, green beans or Asian herbs – it just hurt too much. Water helped; the Joker’s Peak 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from Orange (bought from my Hunter Valley trip) didn’t.

And on that, I find Vietnamese food particularly difficult to match wines – those salty, sweet, sour, spicy flavours in almost every dish seem to kill white wines (though something dry would probably be ideal). I may well stick to beers from now on.

Five-spice duck papaya salad in basil chilli peanut sauce
After the soup, we were filled with trepidation for the coming dots. I think there was also one dot on the duck salad, which we were told was “very hot” and couldn’t be adjusted because of the “pre-made sauces”. I nervously started on a sidelined cherry tomato – fine, probably as it was undressed.

I then ventured to a piece of duck – also safe if not a bit boring and lacking the promised five spice flavour. A mouthful of the dressed green papaya was also fine with mostly sweet and sour notes. I didn’t taste chilli until the very bottom of the plate when I must have had a sliver in my mouthful of papaya.

Despite the unreliable heat indications, the salad was nicely refreshing and entirely appropriate for a warm evening.

Black tiger prawn xa ot with okra, lemongrass chilli sauce
The two-dotted prawn stir fry should have been absolutely blow-your-head-off, pants-on-fire heat going by the one-dotted soup. But it looked tame enough; no fiery redness, no abundance of chillies and seeds, piles of vegies amid the prawns.

And with the jasmine rice, it was bearable with a slow and serious heat, but no exploding heads nor burning pants. With my now cautious and tender tongue, it was a little difficult to discern flavours, but the prawn dish was a textural delight – I adored the crunch of just cooked prawns as well as the sticky softness of the okra.

Caramelised slow-cooked Berkshire pork shoulder thit kho
We were pre-warned by the waiter that the thit kho consisted of some fatty parts of pork, which I’m okay with. I didn’t realise he was talking about entire chunks of fat. Large cubes entirely of skin and fat. I didn’t even realise the shoulder was such a fatty cut; although the pieces that weren’t all fat nearly verged on dry.

However, I was a big fan of the spicing used in this slow cooked dish, which reminded me of Chinese five-spice but I don’t think was. Perhaps cinnamon gave the underlying sweetness and warmth, but it was rich in umami flavours that kept me going back for more, even after the point of being stuffed.

Xage doesn’t have any dessert offerings, and to be honest, in the tight and very loud space, it’s not really somewhere I would choose to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. This is also not helped by the numerous walk-ins getting turned away, so we graciously climb out of our seats, pay and leave the dangerous game of hot dots to the others waiting.

Xage Vietnamese on Urbanspoon

7 comments:

chocolatesuze said...

lol so much burning!

Helen (Grab Your Fork) said...

have heard a few people rave on about xage and lol, thit kho is all about the fat and the skin. caramel makes it all taste so good!

Tina said...

Hi suze - Yeah, surprised I could even taste afterwards.

Hi Helen - Nup, I just can't do cubes of fat... :(

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