Mention Spice I Am and most people remember that hole in the wall, constantly packed (and still very popular) Thai food destination that opened in Surry Hills back in 2004. How many times have we queued there waiting for a table and a chance to sample Chef Sujet Saenkham’s ‘real’ Thai food ?
Sujet was one of the pioneer Thai Chefs that first brought authentic Thai food, and particularly street food, into Sydney. Coming from humble beginnings in a remote village in the Ratachaburi province of Central Thailand, Sujet, from a young age, learnt to cook from his Laotian mother and grandparents. However, it wasn’t until some years later, that Sujet first opened his award winning Surry Hills outlet. An upmarket Darlinghurst restaurant was next, followed by Sujet’s much lauded North East Thai (Issan) street food offering at ‘House’. His newest eatery is Spice I Am Balmain.
Whilst a repeat customer of the tightly packed Surry Hills diner, I’d not tried the more refined Darlinghurst restaurant. I seemed to recall some early food press suggesting they’d somewhat forgotten their roots, had gone all fancy. However, post a menu revamp (greater variety, a few more innovative dishes and some price reductions ie. all dishes $29 or less) I’ve been invited to come along and sample the new offering.
Arriving at Spice I Am Darlinghurst on a week night, there’s a casual elegance in the spacious restaurant. There are no patrons milling out the front hoping to snare a table (aka Surry Hills) and with the subtle signage outside you do need to pay attention or you’ll drive past the restaurant.
Inside there’s a very stylish bar with a huge array of drinks to choose from. They mix some nice Asian inspired cocktails, but only of an evening. The restaurant also has a small, but globally represented wine list and a selection of beers and spirits.
Towards the back of the restaurant there’s a secluded private dining room, opposite the kitchen. There’s a family enjoying a cosy dinner in there. Looks like it could seat 14 or so diners.
Ducking my head into the kitchen, the Spice I Am chefs are busily plying their trade.
The frantic wok tossed food, the fragrant aromas wafting back remind me why I am here.. to sample some authentic Thai food. Perusing the menu the selection is vast: fresh Thai salads, flavoursome soups, rich curries, spicy stir fries. Fresh Thai herbs abound. It’s hard to narrow down to just a few dishes.. an excuse to come back I guess.
We open our meal with the Nua Daed Deaw (Sun dried, marinated beef strips, lightly fried and served with Jim-Jaew dipping sauce).
Some friends had remarked about this fiery dish (and the spicy food generally) after an Issan food outing at Sujet’s ‘House’ restaurant. The tender, chewy beef strips with a drizzle of the chilli dipping sauce offer some serious heat. A nice match for an icy cold Singha beer.
Whenever I see Thai ‘meang khum’ style betel leaf dishes on a menu it’s a must try, little taste and texture sensations wrapped in those peppery leaves. However, Sujet offers up a different style of betel leaf dish with his Bour Tod (Phuket Style fritter of green prawns on a crispy betel leaf with chilli sauce, crushed, roasted cashew nuts, and coriander).
A surprising dish. The betel leaves, battered in a red curry paste blend with raw prawns atop, are crispy fried. Sprinkled with roasted peanuts and some sweet chilli it’s a tasty, textured little aperitif.
The dish looks familiar to me, I’m not sure why ? Later I realise I’d collected (or hoarded as my wife might suggest) the recipe and a photo of this unusual dish from Sujet’s “What I Cook When…” article in the SMH’s Sydney Magazine. I’ll have to dust it off and give it a kitchen workout.
The Yum Hua Plee (Shredded banana flower salad with king prawns, shredded chicken breast, roasted coconut, shallots, chilli and nam prik pao dressing) is fresh, crunchy. The banana blossom shreds and lightly dusted fried prawns are accompanied by the robustly flavoured dressing (with its roasted chillies and fermented shrimp paste).
We turn to the Specials Menu to order the Roast Duck Massaman Curry (Tender pieces of roast duck in thick, mild, coconut curry with eschallot, potatoes and peanuts). I find it hard to ignore a rich coconut creamy Massaman curry on a menu. Having originally learnt to prepare Massaman from a homecook in the backstreets of Bangkok, I know it’s a complex, multi-spiced dish and a good way to judge a chef’s metal.
The Spice I Am team present an authentic curry offering, vibrant, nicely spiced with crunchy peanuts, the duck adding an extra richness.
Accompanying it, we have the equally rich Pad Prik Pao (Stir fried crispy pork belly wok tossed with Spice I am chilli jam, cherry tomatoes, green beans, chilli and kaffir lime leaves).
Crunchy twice cooked pork with shallots, cherry tomatoes and a sweetish chilli jam.. thoroughly moreish and it tastes as good at it looks.
These strongly flavoured dishes are matched with Fried Rice with Crab Meat (Fried Rice with egg, crab meat and spring onion).
I thought the Crab rice dish would be a bit richer, but with a squeeze of lime and matched with the rich gravies of the duck and pork dishes it works well enough. Some steamed Jasmine Rice would be an equally good accompaniment.
Having savoured the hot, sweet, sour, spicy Thai flavours, have we left room for some Asian dessert sweetness ? Probably not, but some intriguing, provocative sounding desserts pique my interest.
I’m encouraged to try the BTS – Better Than Sex (Toasted brioche served with pandan gelato, topped with Thai caramel sauce and roasted black and white sesame seed).
The impressively presented dish is full of obvious sweetness, however the hero of the dish is the creamy Pandan Gelato. Pandan, made from the leaves of the Screw Pine palm, has a unique, hard to describe flavour. Quite aromatic, florally, some say it has nutty, citrus, even grassy overtones. Our selected dessert wine, the 2007 Grande Maison Monbazillac (South West France) is a good accompaniment, its honey and peach overtones complementing the exotic dessert. We also grab some more traditional dessert fare in the Cup C (Warm baked soft chocolate cake served with vanilla gelato).
We’re all dined out. What a great array a tasty, flavoursome Thai food. The other enjoyable aspect of the evening is the marvellous Thai wait staff. The service has been ‘traditional’, softly spoken, attentive, respectful. Very Thai.
Having enjoyed the dinner ‘taster’, I’m eager to try a few more dishes, and duck back into Spice I Am Darlinghurst a few weeks later for a Sunday family lunch. The atmosphere is different, the glass windows at the front of the restaurant are drawn back. It’s relaxed, bright and there’s a nice breeze drifting into the restaurant.
We order a varied selection of dishes starting with the Mini Curry Puffs.
We enjoy these crunchy little spiced morsels with a drizzle of sweet chilli. A winner with my ‘curry puff’ obsessed 11 year old.
Whilst tempted by the spiciness of a traditional Tom Yum Goong (Spicy and Sour Prawn Soup), we instead opt for the gentler Tom Kha Gai (Mild chicken soup with galangal, lime juice, mushroom, Thai herbs and coconut milk).
Whilst there’s a mild spiciness to the dish, and the chicken and oyster mushrooms are tender, it’s the complex flavour that wins us over (the intertwining of the galangal, lime, coconut milk).
The heat levels kick up with the Chuchee Prawn Curry (Thick coconut red curry with kaffir lime leaves).
It’s intense, spicy, creamy. The aromatic kaffir lime leaves give a distinct kick to the dish.
I’d only ordered the Pad Thai (Chicken, Stir fried rice noodle with egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanut, garlic chives and tofu) when other requested dish was unavailable. It was a random, spur of the moment decision.
However, it turns out to be an inspired selection as we eat one of the best Pad Thai’s we’ve eaten for some time. Light, moist, not too sweet, a touch of sour and lots of textures (beansprouts, crushed nuts etc).
To finish off we head back to the Special Menu, ordering the spectacularly presented Pu Nim Yum Ma Muang (Deep fried soft shell crab with green mango salad, garlic, chilli, eschallot, lemongrass, coriander and cashew nut).
Rearing on the plate, almost alive, the deep fried crab sits atop the green mango salad and crunchy cashews. Pulling this ‘artwork’ apart, it’s crunchy coating, sweet crabmeat matched with the traditional sweet, sour, salty, spicy green mango salad is a fitting final dish.
That’s two visits to Spice I Am Darlinghurst, two very satisfied results. I’ve added it into my little black restaurant book. I also admonish myself for not yet trying Sujet’s Issan street food at ‘House’. Must get there soon.
The restaurant visit reminds me that we have some very talented Thai chefs here in Sydney, Sujet right at the top of the tree. He’s a traditionalist, remembering his family and where he came from, but he also looks forward. His regular visits to Thailand refreshing his knowledge, sourcing fresh Thai ingredients, looking for inspiration.. look for the results on his evolving menu.
I should also mention that Chef Sujet Saenkham is now imparting some of his Thai home cooking skills to patrons at his new monthly cooking classes. Held at the Darlinghurst restaurant, the classes have proved popular, booked at several months in advance. For $95.00 you get the class, a recipe kit, lunch of the three dishes you cook and glass of house wine.
The menu for the next available class (Sunday, 10th March 2013) includes:
- Red Curry Paste
- Tom Yum Gai – Spicy and sour chicken soup, flavoured with lemongrass, lime juice and mushroom
- Ho Mok Pla – Steamed fish fillet curry wrapped in banana leaf
- Pad Cashew Nut Gai – Stir fried chicken with cashew nuts, shallots, onions, and chilli jam.
Sounds good to me, must try it out. If you’d like to book in for a class, you can send your contact details to firstname.lastname@example.org or call +61 2 9555 8689 for more information.
A final comment along the “imparting of knowledge” theme.. I hear Sujet is working on his first cookbook. If the Thai recipes and glorious food photography that Sujet and team recently presented in Australian GoodFood Magazine (November 2012 issue if you missed it) are anything to go by, it will be a compulsory acquisition for the cookbook collection. I’ll be looking for it on the shelves during 2013.
Spice I Am Darlinghurst
296-300 Victoria St, Darlinghurst Australia
+61 2 9332 2445