Friday, May 31, 2013

A hoot of a time at The Owl House

From the moment we stepped into the moodily-lit, narrow, downstairs bar of The Owl House in Darlinghurst – on Crown Street not far from the Stanley Street intersection – we were in the very good and charmingly capable hands of owner and sommelier Amir Halpert and bar manager Owen Davies.

Winner of the Best Bar Food award in the 2012 Good Food Awards, The Owl House is a bit like a small restaurant with an excellent bar, or a small bar with an excellent kitchen. Either way, they’re doing something special in the terrace space with a perch-friendly bar and tiny kitchen headed by ex Aria chef Roy Ner downstairs; and a perilously tight, turning, wooden staircase to a warm upstairs dining room with a balcony overlooking the Crown Street action.

Downstairs at the bar at The Owl House
There aren’t many venues in Sydney that can claim to have both a fully formed bar and kitchen – one or the other often dominates. However, the food and booze feature equally at The Owl House; so much so that as part of their cocktail degustation, the bar matches some drinks to the food while the kitchen matches some dishes to the cocktails.

Ex New Yorker Halpert says that their full, proper degustation with matched, half-size cocktails is a first for Sydney. He was treating us to the degustation, with a few extras for good measure (dishes marked with * are not part of the standard cocktail degustation).

Margarita pearl at The Owl House, Crown Street, Darlinghurst
There was no fluffing about at the start – we got straight into tequila with a touch of molecular mixology: a margarita-filled pearl, starting the palate with a literal explosion of lemon juice and tequila in the mouth.

Freshly shucked Pambula oyster with Herradura anejo tequila sour foam - served
with Tequila Flower cocktail
The tequila theme continued with the first cocktail, Tequila Flower, featuring elderflower liqueur and orange blossom water, which went some way in repressing the tequila hit from Don Julio blanco.

Matched with the cocktail was a fresh-as-it-gets Pambula rock oyster hidden beneath a cloud of Herradura anejo tequila sour foam, naturally.

The tickle of tequila hit the palate first, preparing it for the most impossibly perfect and briney, freshly-shucked rock oyster in a seriously heavenly combination.

Kadaifi prawn with chickpeas tuile. Matbucha dip, heirloom tomatoes, caper berries and
tomato vinaigrette - served with Saffron martini
My jaw hit the table at the sight of the kadaifi pastry-wrapped prawn. The impressive thin wall of deep fried kadaifi aside, there was wonderment at the supersized prawn which would have rivalled a lobster.

The mille feuille-styled tuile wafers were made of chickpeas and tasted just like hommus, interspersed with colourful heirloom tomatoes and tomato-based Matbucha dip, while artsy squiggles of dressing completed the picture.

The Saffron cocktail matched the Middle Eastern flavours of the dish and was a great martini option for those new or still a little reluctant of the notoriously strong cocktail. A touch of sweetness and saffron exoticness added to the chilled botanicals of gin was just about the perfect cocktail for me.

Halpert then brought upstairs and shook a 1930s Cosmopolitan: fairly classic but for the spiced cranberry puree which added great depth. The sweet, light flavours of the Cosmopolitan were an unexpected match for the fish of the day.

Fish of the day with diamond shell clams. beetroot carpaccio, golf carrots,
semi dried kalamata olives and tomatoes - served with Cosmopolitan cocktail
The gasps of presentation surprise continued, and several half cocktails in, I managed to forget what the fish of the day was – something in a thin fillet, firm and flaking, served most deliciously with a crumble of semi-dried kalamata olives which added just the right amount of savouriness.

The wooden serving board was scattered with crimson puddles of beetroot thins, asparagus spears, tiny carrots and diced tomatoes in an ultimately healthy and artistic representation of a fish dish.

Smoked bone marrow and ox tail croquette* - served with Titanic by Stefan Trummer cocktail
From the bar snacks menu I had spied a lust-worthy croquette that Halpert kindly included in our meal. Bone marrow and ox tail might seem unlikely croquette fillings but through the ridiculously crisp crumb shell, an extremely smoky mixture of pulled ox tail and less discernible bone marrow was revealed.

The beefy croquette was matched to a cocktail homage to New York 'bar chef' Stefan Trummer's signature Titanic cocktail featuring champagne sorbet, Ciroc vodka, elderflower liquor and sparkling wine - a thoroughly enjoyable, girly concoction.

Deconstructed casoulet: Duck confit, braised pork shoulder, Toulouse style sausage, white beans and carrots* - served with Jack Rose cocktail
From the small dishes part of the menu, the deconstructed casoulet ended up being my absolute favourite, not only of the meal but possibly of the year so far.

The copper pot was filled with piping hot white beans bursting with porky flavour, while the excellent sausage, braised chunk of pork shoulder and confit duck drummette each vied for top spots on the white bean puree podium. Each component stood very well on its own and was divinely homely combined.

The Jack Rose cocktail of calvados apple brandy, lemon juice and pomegranate seeds lightened the richness of the wintry deconstruction.

Lamb cutlets with roasted baby eggplant, zucchini ribbons and pickled eschalots with semi dried tomatoes, goat's curd and chargrilled eggplant dip and lamb jus - served with Smoky Robinson
I could barely stomach the thought of a final main meal, which the kitchen had plated as a full size board of three lamb cutlets.

It was all happening on top of the stripes of smoky eggplant dip: semi dried cherry tomatoes, vibrant green ribbons of zucchini, pickled rings of eschalot and well-roasted baby eggplants, with a rich jus served at the table too.

The Smoky Robinson cocktail of Remy Martin V.S cognac, Drambuie, ginger and smoked capsicum with lemon juice was the ideally strong finishing touch.

Berry parfait served on balsamic glaze with poached rhubarb and berries - served with Chocolate Martini
Somewhat defeated at the sight of dessert, I nonetheless tried the berry parfait, served on lurid streaks of balsamic vinegar glaze and berry puree. Tart and refreshing, with poached rhubarb on the side, it was a surprising accompaniment to the thick and rich Chocolate Martini of 68% Valrhona chocolate, Belvedere orange vodka and Grand Marnier.

It's not that often that I'm completely enamoured with a meal or restaurant. I walked out of The Owl House very full and nearly ecstatic following a consistently astonishing degustation. The warm buzz of booze might have had some small part to play, but I can't remember the last time I had a meal that didn't peak and trough as such, but was steadily amazing throughout.

The presentation of their dishes is undoubtedly elaborate, and perhaps over the top for some, but the genuine heart and soul of The Owl House – from the menu to the service to the fit out and philosophy – makes any visit a hoot of a time.

Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of The Owl House.

The Owl House on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 27, 2013

Turning Japanese: Hot dogs at Chanoma Cafe

I’m not really a huge fan of hot dogs – I think too many supermarket frankfurts in my childhood may have marred my view of the red-skinned sausage in a bun.

But now, there are much better quality frankfurts, artisan breads and all sorts of gourmet toppings on offer that make me look twice at a hot dog. One on my mind was the Japanese-influenced hot dogs at Chanoma Café in Regent Place, taking over where Azuma Patisserie was previously.

Matcha banana frappe at Chanoma Cafe, Regent Place, George Street, Sydney
Chanoma is positioned as a specialist matcha teahouse; purveyors of their own batch of Japanese green tea. The tea philosophy is somewhat overshadowed by some insane dessert creations of green tea soft serve and drinks like the sweet, if not artificial, Banana Matcha Frappe with optional whipped cream.

Chanoma Cheese Dog with German blutwurst sausage
Oddly enough, I was more interested in the hot dogs which come in several variations, each with the choice of three types of sausages – and not frankfurts at that. I’m told the most popular is the Slovenian kransky while there’s also a spicy Spanish chorizo and German ‘blutwurst’ with not blood but pork rind in the filling.

My Chanoma Cheese Dog with the blutwurst was certainly a cheesy affair, although one that turned plastic-y after not too long. The buns are not overly soft nor sweet; and perfectly sized for the sausage.

Spicy Meat Lover's Dog with a chorizo sausage
More meaty and exotic was the Spicy Meat Lover’s Dog, served with the selection of a chorizo sausage. The chorizo itself was really decent, but piled on with a spicy mince, mayonnaise and shallots may just have taken it over the top.

The hot dogs are well sized for a light meal although bigger appetites could easily polish off two of them.

Shaked fried with soy butter and seaweed
Probably my favourite part of the quick pre-cinema meal were the Shaker Fries, served shaken in a paper cup with a choice of shaker seasonings. The soy butter and seaweed was my irresistible choice, and what a winner.

The crisp fries were manageably buttery with dried seaweed flakes, and tasted exactly like soy-flavoured okaki rice cracker snacks. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to deviate from this flavour to try the other Shaker Fries.

It looks like the tides are turning on hot dogs - I really think so.

Chanoma Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Caffeine hits: Win The Australian Coffee Guide 2013

For a lot of Australians, coffee’s not just an eyelid-lifter – it’s a way of life. Coffee culture differs between states, and even suburbs, so The Australian Coffee Guide 2013 – featuring reviews and ratings from all over the country – is a handy travel companion for coffee connoisseurs in the Australian “bean scene”.

The Australian Coffee Guide 2013
(Image courtesy of Piccolo PR)
The Australian Coffee Guide 2013 founders, Izaac Trpeski and Megan Rullis, embarked on a pilgrimage around Australia to identify 100 of the best coffees in the country, included in the guide using an evaluative grading system.

Cafés that appear in the guide have been selected based on their coffees' body, crème, aroma, acidity, temperature, roasting and subtle nuances, with food, atmosphere and ambience omitted.

“We appreciate people have competing coffee preferences," says Rullis. "Some opt for a mild taste, others prefer an acidic kick. Our guide uses a consistent judging method for individuals to source a coffee that’s right for them”.

Win one of three copies of The Australian Coffee Guide 2013 

Food, Booze and Shoes is giving away three copies of The Australian Coffee Guide 2013, with thanks to Piccolo PR.

To win, simply email foodboozeshoes @ with your answer to the question below (please include your mailing address – note: this will only be used for the purpose of sending prizes to winners):

“What is the best coffee experience you’ve ever had?” 

Giveaway entries must be received by 9.00pm AEST on Sunday, 2 June 2013. Winners will be selected based on the most interesting, passionate answers and will be announced on Monday, 3 June 2013 here and on Twitter. Giveaway open to Australian addresses only.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Burnbrae Wines lunch for Pyrmont Festival

Even though there's now a chill in the air, Sydney is ablaze with outdoor festivals: among two of them, Vivid Sydney which starts on Friday and Pyrmont Festival of Wine, Food and Art, which kicked off last weekend beneath glorious blue skies.

Celebrating wine, food and art from Pyrmont and the Mudgee region, the festival runs through to this weekend too with wine and food matched meals, and art and photography exhibitions.

The view from Ripples Sydney Wharf, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
Last Saturday I was treated to a sunny waterside lunch at Ripples Sydney Wharf with Mudgee’s Burnbrae Wines matched to a three-course lunch featuring John Susman’s Kinkawooka mussels and Pepe Saya’s cultured butter.

With Burnbrae offering wine tastings ahead of the meal, I could taste two whites, a rose and three reds before electing what to have with my lunch. I rather liked being tasked with matching my own wine and food, though with the delicious drops on offer, it would have been hard to go wrong.

Burnbrae Wines tasting at Ripples Sydney Wharf
Burnbrae's 2012 Pinot Gris was a people-pleaser - much richer in colour than your normal pinot gris with subtle pear characteristics. Meanwhile, their lightly French-oaked 2011 Chardonnay was one that would turn anyone into a 'cardonnay' drinker - perfectly balanced with minimal acidity or oakiness.

The 2012 Rose was aromatic with notes of strawberry and boiled lollies, and almost tasted the part too. Burnbrae's 2011 Shiraz Viognier was just how I like a shiraz, big and fruity while the 4% Viognier content is meant to give the wine intense colour and length of flavour.

Burnbrae’s famed 2008 Clive Gale is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot - the latter grape of which I'm not too familiar with although it was a distinctly chalky cabernet merlot on the palate.

Bread rolls and Pepe Saya cultured butter
After wine tastings with Trine Gay, general manager of Burnbrae Wines, we happily tore into warm bread rolls and foil-wrapped pats of Pepe Saya cultured butter.

I remember the first fantastical time I tried this wondrous churned butter and it was every bit as good this time, best served as an even butter to bread ratio.

Crispy tempura prawns with lemon & parsley mayonnaise
There was a seafood bias in the selection of three entreés, which was more than fair given the waterside setting.

The tail-on tempura prawns were indeed crisply battered as advertised, with five fresh, springy specimens to mop up the creamy and sprightly lemon and parsley mayonnaise. We successfully matched the Burnbrae 2011 Chardonnay to this summery option.

Custom Kinkawooka mussels pot and Pepe Saya cultured butter
There was no way I was going past the Kinkawooka mussels entreé, served in a custom branded pot and lid designed for shell discards with Pepe Saya butter and toast on the side.

In what's been a very successful partnership between John Susman (for South Australia's Kinkawooka) and Pierre Issa (Tempe's own Pepe Saya), the two brands together are becoming a signature for mussel dishes in Australia.

Kinkawooka mussels in white wine & cream finished with Pepe Saya butter & crusty bread
The kitchen at Ripples Sydney Wharf had the plump molluscs just cooked with cream, white wine and parsley - the mussels themselves tender perfection in the light, very-drinkable sauce while heavily buttered toast was an ideal mop for all the juices alongside a glass of the Burnbrae 2012 Pinot Gris.

The kitchen pass

Pan seared snapper with steamed Kinkawooka mussels, leek & herb
spaghettini and Pepe Saya butter
Kinkawooka and Pepa Saya also featured in a main offering of pan seared snapper - a generous, pink skin-on portion of the firm fish balanced on a tangle of leek and herb spaghettini which was al dente and pleasingly green in flavour.

The steamed mussels added needed flavour to the subtle sauce of white wine and butter while the Burnbrae 2012 Rose was an interesting wine match.

Char-grilled scotch fillet with potato & horseradish dauphinoise,
roasted truss cherry tomato & red wine jus
It was steak and the Burnbrae 2011 Shiraz Viognier for my main meal, with the wine's big fruitiness pairing well with the tender, full-flavoured medium-rare scotch fillet, doused with rich red wine jus and less interesting vegetable sides.

Warm bread & Pepe Saya butter pudding with vanilla ice cream
Remnants of the sweet Burnbrae Rose matched nicely with desserts: an artfully neat bread and Pepe Saya butter pudding that had great flavours but a little on the dry side, helped along with vanilla ice cream sitting on a gingery biscuit crumble trail.

Apple crumble cheesecake with apple jelly
I hoed into my individual portion jelly-like apple crumble cheesecake, topped with an ingenious apple jelly and biscuit crumble on both the top and bottom.

Basking in the autumn sun after lunch, Burnbrae (with my 'raffle girl' assistance) also drew a prize for a stay at the winery’s colonial-style cottage; five minutes out of Mudgee township and  five kilometres along Hill End Road.

Unfortunately, I didn't draw my own name out of there but it seems I've drawn the autumn/winter festival spirit out of me.

This Saturday 25 May's Mudgee wine lunch at Ripples Sydney Wharf, as part of Pyrmont Festival, features produce from Pastabilities and wines from Robert Stein. More details here.

Food, booze and shoes attended the Burnbrae Wines lunch as a guest, with thanks to RF Media.

Ripples Sydney Wharf on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ocean Room: Fall into the autumn tasting menu

On the brink of winter months in Sydney, an elegant 12-course autumn tasting menu at Circular Quay's Japanese fine diner, Ocean Room, is a perfect way to celebrate the very probable end of stocking-less legs and beanie-less heads.

Seated near the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, the view never gets old, even for a local - there's something romantically patriotic about dining on glistening Sydney harbour with the Opera House in full view.

Ocean Room martini from Ocean Room, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay
In addition to head chef Raita Noda's autumn tasting menu, Ocean Room has recently installed a new bar menu chock-full of cocktails featuring Japanese ingredients and modern twists on classics. And if you needed more encouragement, they offer 2-for-1 cocktail specials from 6pm to 7pm nightly.

I started with the Ocean Room martini (technically a vesper) featuring gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc and three condiments in the form of house-made spherified liquid-filled balls.

The cocktail itself wasn't a face-slappingly strong rendition, but went down well with the sweet yuzu lemon and pink grapefruit spheres while the Sicilian green olive sphere seemed a little diluted and artificial in flavour.

Kaki - freshly shucked Sydney rock oyster, Guinness, myoga, Yamazaki silk
It was a delight to start the meal with beautiful specimens of freshly-shucked Sydney rock oysters, of which I could have easily eaten a dozen on their lonesome.

However, Ocean Room’s additions and garnishes made it a genuinely special starter, fancied-up with a Guinness stout dressing, myoga pickled young ginger and a gold-flecked ‘Yamazaki silk’ jelly sheet, subtly flavoured with, presumably, Japanese Yamazaki whisky.

Ochazuke - cold-drip dashi & premium gyokuro green tea, Koshihikari rice crust, flame seared latchet, umeboshi sorbet, wasabi dust
As part of the 12 courses I was treated to my first ever taste of ochazuke, which is quite the traditional Japanese dish of rice with green tea or dashi stock poured over the top; like a deconstructed congee.

Ocean Room’s modern, chilled version featured crisp, puffed Koshihikari rice (the best quality rice for sushi making) rather than the steamed/boiled variety, with a combination of cold-drip dashi stock and premium gyokuro green tea poured at the table.

Toppings for the dish included just-seared pieces of fresh latchet, a sorbet of salty umeboshi pickled plum and shallot thins, while the two-part iced vessel was rimmed with a green wasabi dust that added bite.

In all, I think ochazuke is a dish that needs getting used to: the cold temperature of the dish, the liquid and various textures, and the slight bitterness to the green tea were all very new and surprising to my palate.

Maguro - Yellow fin tuna, Sicilian green olive & buffalo mozzarella drops, crystallised yuzu, soy pearls, tomato chips
Spherified ingredients made another appearance in the maguro tuna dish where the green olive sphere was spot on in flavour, as too the buffalo mozzarella one.

The spheres were more of an amusing diversion from the main game of the tuna which was served diced like a tartare with an array of condiments to add as you pleased, along with thin wheels of dehydrated tomato 'chips' acting as a cracker for the tuna.

Shinjo - house-made croquette, tiger prawn & calamari, yuba angel hair
Warm dishes started with the excellently executed and unusually pretty Shinjo croquette of prawn and calamari. In a frilly costume of yuba tofu skin strips, the croquette was deep fried to a golden flaking brown to contrast with the bouncy-textured seafood balls.

With such a memorable appearance and texture complementing the seafood flavours, this was easily one of my favourite dishes of the tasting menu.

Onsen - autumn vegetable collection, yaki-onigiri, black shichimi,
house made anchovy & garlic bath
I adored the concept of the Onsen dish which translates from Japanese as 'hot spring'. A selection of vegetables and a miniature yaki onigiri grilled rice ball were laid around a tealight candle-heated oil bath of anchovy and garlic, ready for a warm dip.

Basically an Italian bagna cauda, the fresh and crisp vegetables were an absolute delight and the hands-on manner of eating mixed up the tasting menu with an element of fun.

Sashimi - daily recommendation, seasonal sashimi selection
We played tabletop Tetris to fit the long individual sashimi platters onto the round group table, with each variety of raw fish looking supremely fresh and enticing.

Firm hairtail came in a bamboo container, served diced with shallots and ginger, while bar cod sashimi with slivers of shiso leaf was a first for me.

And then there was chu-toro medium fatty tuna (although I'm sure we were all hoping for otoro), black kingfish with minced garlic and dainty shallots, and Tasmanian ocean trout with pearls of roe.

Shabu2 - wagyu beef, grilled tofu, seasonal mixed vegetables,
dashi consomme, lime chilli soy
Shabu-shabu is a sure winter winner of thinly sliced wagyu beef, cooked lightly in the hot dashi consommé it's served in.

This was comfort in a bowl with exceptional flavours in the broth flavouring the delicate grilled tofu and an array of seasonal vegetables; while the lime chilli soy sauce ably lifted the flavours from the rich, tender wagyu beef slices.

Miso cod - signature grilled sweet miso cod fillet, ginger risotto, orange miso
It seems every modern Japanese eatery can’t help but do their own versions of miso cod; a dish made famous at the Nobu chain of high-end Japanese restaurants.

Also a signature at Ocean Room, the small cod fillet was perfectly coloured and flavoured with a sweet miso paste and then char grilled to a firmly flaking texture with the caramelised surfaces being the ultimate highlight.

The ginger-scented risotto was a gorgeously appropriate accompaniment; bulking up a light but luxurious dish, while the squiggles of orange miso sauce seemed somewhat superfluous with the perfectly cooked fish.

Butabara - simmered pork belly, melting tofu, yuzu chilli ponzu
A cellophane-wrapped ‘gift’ arrived as the next course, served with a test tube of yuzu chilli ponzu sauce. The clear package was cut open at the table to reveal a fragrant, soupy pork belly dish with a block of silken tofu, mushrooms, carrot and cabbage in a creamy, white broth.

It was impossible to stop after the first mouthful: the full-flavoured tonkotsu-like pork bone broth and fatty pork belly were perfect for wintry weather while the tofu, vegetables and tangy ponzu sauce lightened the load of porkiness.

Sansui - wagyu flat iron steak, Tasmanian pepper jus, quinoa crusted king prawn, Americaine cream, agedashi taro potato
I had reached exploding point at this tenth course; probably one of the heavier ones too featuring a luxe Japanese take on surf and turf. I was drawn to the large quinoa crusted king prawn, deep fried to a seductively golden hue although the quinoa grains were a little hard rather than crunchy.

The wagyu flank steak was a bit more of a challenge to a (over)full stomach. With a bit of chew, the flank was full-flavoured with buttery wagyu richness paired with a unique taro potato, shaped and deep fried like a potato gem.

Edo-mae sushi - three authentic Tokyo style nigiri sushi, chef’s daily recommendation
The savoury courses ended with sushi, which is typically meant to fill up the stomach at the end - a task completed on me a few courses ago.

Ocean Room do a petite Edo-Mae style nigiri sushi which I learnt about on a previous visit. The rice plays an important part in the delicate sushi while the daily fish selection included tuna, salmon and imperador – the latter of which I would describe as a sweeter, firmer white fish than kingfish.

Amaguri - Amaguri chestnut mont blanc, green tea angel cake, spiced ice cream, chestnut puree, cognac persimmon
While the entire degustation was undeniably seasonal, dessert was autumn on a plate. A mont blanc featuring my favourite chestnuts - very much in season in Sydney's autumn - sat alongside a wedge of brightly-hued persimmon lightly soaked in cognac.

It was a subtle and not-too-sweet pairing with a Japanese touch in the green tea angel cake enclosed within the nutty threads of the mont blanc.

Twelve exquisite courses (with that winning view) for $120 is serious value at this fine end of town. Chef Noda's autumn tasting menu has redefined the idea that Japanese cuisine isn't warming, comforting, cool-weather food - and it's one that will probably have diners falling over themselves to try in the cooler months.

Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Ocean Room, with thanks to Wasamedia.

Ocean Room on Urbanspoon

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


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