Monday, May 13, 2013

Spice I Am Balmain: A Thai explosion

It's a rare suburb in Sydney that doesn't have a Thai restaurant and takeaway these days. The big flavours of Thai cuisine have captured the local palate and assimilated into a Sydney identity of their own.

The Spice I Am group of restaurants is one of the city's trailblazers, along with Chat Thai, both of which have carved out respective titles among Sydney's many Thai restaurants with multiple venues.

Golden Siam cocktail at Spice I Am, Darling Street, Balmain
My first experience at the Surry Hills Spice I Am many, many years ago was a sweat-dripping feast of laughs and BYO beers. Since then their Balmain and Darlinghurst restaurants have both lifted the bar on dining experience while seeming to drop the heat factor for the chilli-shy masses.

Indeed, there's even a tempting Thai ingredient-inspired cocktail list at the Balmain outlet, including the tropically sophisticated Golden Siam with dark rum and amaretto, shaken into a fizz and hidden well by a trio of pineapple, guava and lime juices.

Mini curry puffs
With Singha and Tiger beer by the bottle too, we nibbled on that classic Australian starter: the curry puff (of which I have a great story and recipe to share at some later date).

They're not kidding at Spice I Am when they say mini curry puffs either - these were adorably cute, one or two-bite morsels of golden pastry filled with a lightly curried filling with plenty of potato.

Bour tod - deep fried prawn betel leaf
My professed love of fresh miang betel leaves was was chucked into the deep fry with the bour tod starter. Somehow, a prawn manages to stick to the surface of the deep fried Phuket style crispy betel leaf - like a surfer on a really thin and crunchy green surfboard.

Served with a drizzle of a sweet chiili sauce, crushed cashew nuts, red chilli and coriander leaves, this oily innovation just made me crave a fresh betel leaf package even more.

Mini pork satay
More familiar was the pork satay with tender, charred lean pork, skewered and also served in a mini size. I could polish off plates of this with sticky rice, hot weather and a few beers.

Yum hua plee - banana flower slad with king prawns and chicken
To the larger dishes we started with a salad of shredded banana flower: a uniquely Thai ingredient that's leafy textured and great with spice and sourness.

Topped with both deep fried king prawns, the slivers of banana flower were mixed with shredded chicken breast and a seriously hot combination of roasted coconut, shallots and a nam prik pao dressing with plenty of chilli.

Homok - steamed fish curry in banana leaf
I had wanted the homok fish curry, steamed and formed in banana leaf, to be like Malaysian otak otak. It was similar, a Phuket-style basa fish fillet minced with curry and betel leaf, although without the char goodness and the intricate spice blend, but again, it was pretty darn hot on the tongue.

At this point, the beer bottles were starting to gather on the table, with water refills coming thick and fast.

Pad prik khing - crispy pork belly
I think the phrase "crispy pork belly" has become one of those triggers for Sydney diners that gets an immediate reaction and/or order.

It worked with us, sending a red curry paste stir-fried pork belly dish with green beans, chilli and kaffir lime leaves our way. This time, the crackling skin on the pork went some way in distracting us from the searing curry and chilli heat, though I wished there were more beans in the dish.

Prawn red curry
There's nothing quite as disconcertingly comforting as a heat-packed Thai curry with loads and loads of steamed rice.

The prawn red curry was fairly generously sized with large, well-cooked, tail-on prawns, and Thai eggplants and slightly bitter pea eggplants which are not always common in takeaway Thai food.

Mango sticky rice
While desserts aren't generally my thing, I make an exception when my tastebuds are calling for soothing help and there is beautiful, seasonal mango on offer (this visit was from late 2012).

Thai restaurants seem to have a knack for sourcing the best local mangoes for their sticky rice desserts - this one featuring an appropriately petite pile of pandan-scented sticky rice - hands down my favourite Thai dessert.

BTS (Better than Sex)
The heavier, signature Spice I Am BTS dessert - well known through their House restaurant in Surry Hills - was a hot mess but not a contender for me.

No doubt, the pandan gelato was perfection but I found the toasted brioche and "Thai caramel sauce" altogether too rich and too sweet to stomach, especially after the explosive flavours of dinner.

Spice I Am Balmain isn't your standard suburban Thai takeaway: it is Balmain afterall, and with seductive cocktails and desserts on offer, I don't think anyone is complaining about the explosion of Thai food across Sydney's palates.

Spice I Am @ Balmain on Urbanspoon


Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

It's pretty sad I've yet to visit any of the Spice I Am restaurants. I think what might be part of the reason is that I get so much good and cheap thai/laos food so close to home and it always hits the spots. I've heard heaps about the BTS dessert, but people prefering the deed haha

Vivian - vxdollface said...

I've still yet to visit the Spice I Am's too! Been told that the spice is quite heavy and I don't think I would be able to handle the heat :( the yum hua plee looks very interesting, reminds me of the jap kakiage

Michael Shen @ I'm Still Hungry said...

Wow I haven't had any of the dishes on this post but seems like Spice I Am is still doing great beyond Darlinghurst!

john | heneedsfood said...

I'm so glad they don't shy away or crumble to the weaker palates when it comes to the chilli. I'm still wanting to try the Balmain outpost, and seeing it here has urged me to head over to the peninsula.

milkteaxx said...

have heard many raves about this place, looking forward to the BTS!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

We really liked that our meals were spicy, sometimes some places hold back on the spice but not here!

Tina said...

Hi Tina - This is true. There's a lot of Thai out there but I always like Spice I Am for an authentic and seriously spicy hit.

Hi Vivian - Oh yeah, it looks like that, doesn't it?! Not deep fried though, thankfully. It is pretty hot but they label the menu, pointing out the particularly hot stuff.

Hi Michael - I haven't been to the Darlinghurst outlet, but I have a bit of a soft spot for the original.

Hi John - Haha, well there are Surry Hills and Darlo if you don't want to cross any bridges ;)

Hi milkteaxx - They're well known for chilli heat and that dessert :)

Hi Lorraine - Definitely not. House, their Surry Hills sister restaurant is crazier (hotter) still!

Anonymous said...

so is the BTS, BTS? If you know what i mean. tell us, pls


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