Maybe it’s conditioning from the days from being a cash-strapped Uni student, but I’ve always associated Thai food with $6.50 express lunches in Newtown, surrounded by other flip-flop wearing people, inhaling hugemongous plates of wok fried noodles and rice before hurrying on their way. Because that’s how it’s done.
Problem is? When you feel like dressing up for dinner with friends, quick and dirty Thai may not be the best option for the occasion. Enter Spice I Am: in swanky Darlinghurst, no less!
Khao Kreab Pak Mor, $15.50
Steamed mini rice paper parcels on green coral lettuce, filled with chive and garlic with soy and vinegar sauce.
Sai Krok Isaan, $13.50
Traditional, fragrant Isaan sausage made from pork, garlic, coriander, pepper and cooked rice.
Bour Tod, $15.50
Phuket style fritter of green prawns on crispy betel leaf with chilli sauce, crushed roasted cashew nuts and coriander.
Fried Rice with Crab Meat, $22
Fried rice with egg, crab meat and spring onion.
Nam Khao Tod, $22
Crispy rice salad with Thai pork sausages, chilli powder, ground peanuts, coriander, eschallot, spring onion and mint leaves.
Pad Prik King Crispy Pork Belly, $29.50
Stir fried crispy pork belly wok tossed with red curry paste, green beans, chilli and sliced kaffir lime leaves.
Khao Neaw Dum, $11.50
Warm black sticky rice with Thai smoked coconut cream and pandan coconut gelato.
BTS (Better Than Sex), $17
Toasted brioche served with pandan coconut gelato, topped with Thai caramel sauce and roasted black and white sesame seed.
There are times when the payoff for a spike in “fanciness” can often mean a drop in…authenticity of the food. Character can get stripped away in the potential sterilisation of the experience, and well, it’s become a bit of a norm now.
Well I’m happy to report that here in Darlinghurst, Chef Sujet has done a great job of keeping the quality of the food while elevating the experience to cater for the people who want a wine list, polished wooden tables and dim lights. Like, you know. Adults. XD
The entrées were visually stunning, especially the Bour Tod, $15.50, which consisted of a carefully balanced stack of battered crispy betel leaves and prawn, drizzled with a sweet chilli sauce and scattered with crunchy roasted cashews. It was moreish, and satisfyingly shattered with every bite.
The Khao Kreab Pak Mor, $15.50, was a more simple concept of rice noodles, chives and garlic chips, but no less delicious, especially when soaked in the salty/tangy soy and vinegar dressing that came on the side. Sure, it was less parcel and more…mixture, but this comforting dish is more than able to transcend a loose description.
On the mains front, they kept up the standard with our Fried Rice with Crab Meat, $22, Nam Khao Tod, $22, and Pad Prik King Crispy Pork Belly, $29.50.
The fried rice was subtle in flavour, but was well peppered with chunks of tender crab meat, and provided a great backdrop for the flavourful Pad Prik King Crispy Pork Belly – pieces of tender pork belly capped with crunchy crackling and wok fried with red curry paste, green beans and kaffir lime leaves. Rich, and lightly spicy with a mellow heat, making it an excellent choice for those chilly winter evenings. By the way, it was also rich enough that what looks like a small plate actually feeds more people than you’d assume. Double score!
To cut it, we had the Nam Khao Tod, $22 – a salad of crispy rice, with pieces of Thai pork sausages, spiced with chilli powder, and topped with ground peanuts, coriander, eschallot, spring onion and mint leaves. The slivers of eschallots and fresh mint kept it light, and the fried crispy rice served the dual purpose of providing heft and texture to the dish. Coupled with the lettuce leaves, it was like a summery, Thai version of the popular Sang Choy Bao. Very satisfying, and on the cards to replace my go-to Thai salad favourites – Yum Woon Sen and Som Tum.
To satiate our sweet tooth (teeth?), we ordered the Khao Neaw Dum, $11.50, and the BTS (Better Than Sex), $17. So…saying that something is Better Than Sex is a tall tall claim, and I’m not sure that this particular dessert conquered this uphill battle. Two scoops of pandan and coconut gelato precariously balance on toast that is slowly absorbing the Thai caramel sauce (I’m guessing Palm sugar based), as we drank in the stunning stack. It delivered mostly on what it promised, except on a few points – there were icy pockets in the gelato (it happens, but was definitely noticed by my dining partner), and the toast, while deliciously buttery on the crust, was stale in the middle. And I’ve eaten enough burgers served on brioche to know that it is more than structurally able to hold up two scoops of gelato and still be fluffy in the middle.
Is it good? Yes. Better Than Sex? Well, I guess it would depend on your partner.
In comparison, the Khao Neaw Dum was much simpler and easier to understand. There was a nice balance between rice and cream, and wasn’t nearly as heavy as the black sticky rice pudding that is so commonly found at many Thai restaurants.
Spice I Am executed Thai favourites with an added refinement, but they really aren’t re-inventing the wheel here. In this case, it’s definitely more the efforts of the ensemble than the star – you’d be amazed at how the other elements of the restaurant affect the final recommendation.
It’s always a bit hard to comment on the service when I’m an invited guest, but what I can definitely tell you is that beyond the cheery smiles of the waitstaff, is a sharp knowledge of the cuisine and the ability to walk the tightrope of choosing just the right mix of dishes for the mood of the customer. My waiter, in particular, even excitedly shared his own favourites; his infectious passion for the food sparking my anticipation for what was to come.
A great balance of personal recommendation without judgement. Stellar.
Value for money:
If you were to look at the food alone, it would be difficult to justify the price. For example, the Pad Prik King Crispy Pork Belly carries a near-$30 price tag, and whilst it may be the best presented Pad Prik King Pork I’ve seen (it’s very hard to plate up meat in a thick paste. Trust me, I’ve tried) neither the deliciousness not the portion quite justified the asking price.
However, I think that it’s fairly reasonable for the Darlinghurst location and the trendy up-market decor. And not to mention the service! All the elements came together to present an experience, and a very pleasant and enjoyable one at that.
Would you look at the bill incredulously and say, “really? Only that much?!”? No. But you wouldn’t be clutching your pearls in horror at the final bill either, and that’s saying a lot.
Value for money: 0.5/1
When you’re facing a cuisine that has raised street food to a lifestyle, it can be a bit jarring to experiencing it in a finer setting. It was very nice, for sure, and brought forward an urge to at least wear closed shoes, but there was no discernible emotion that it inspired beyond a pleasant backdrop for good food.
There’s an argument to be made about the “street food” experience of the cheap and fast no-frills Thai food that we all know and love. But I think that it’s a cuisine that can be represented at all levels, from the comforting small family shops, to the mid-range chains, to this: a smart casual option if you want to up the game a little.
And hey, at least you know that the menu carries the same authentic kick of the Surry Hills Spice I Am. Just with a touch of polish, because we all like a bit of shine don’t we? 😉
Bonus points: 1/1