Birthday lunch at Sumalee Thai and oysters for dinner

So, I had a rather big birthday last Wednesday. Mr T was working all day but I had decided to take the day off (I really couldn’t spend SUCH a big birthday in the office), so what to do with myself? Obviously the answer was ‘eat!’, so I invited a few girlfriends to join me for lunch at Sumalee Thai at the Bank Hotel in Newtown. My thinking was that it was quite close to home (a bus-ride away from Marrickville), laid-back in atmosphere, outdoors (in a sunken courtyard at the back of the pub) and, plus, it’s Thai food (my favourite) and it’s delicious! I’ve been there numerous times before and it’s one of my fave Thai eateries in Sydney (along with Spice I am and Let’s Eat Thai). The menu features all the usual favourites and a few extras, plus there’s always a specials board with several more options. The prices (which might appear a little high) are deceptive because the portion sizes are huge and one serving is easily enough to fill two people. This makes it a great place for sharing a few dishes amongst a group since you end up with more than a tiny spoonful of each thing.

I arrive first and order a bottle of bubbles to get the party started! Once everyone is present we order food. Chicken satay skewers (which unfortunately I forget to photograph) are tender pieces of breast meat coated generously in a very moreish creamy, nutty, sweet, slightly spicy sauce, with a perfectly dressed cucumber salad on the side. Red curry with barramundi fillets and king prawns (the go-to dish here, as far as I’m concerned) doesn’t disappoint with beautifully cooked pieces of fish in a creamy orange bath of thick, fishy, coconuty sauce, topped with three huge prawns and sprigs of fragrant Thai basil.

Red Thai curry with barramundi fillets and king prawns

Red Thai curry with barramundi fillets and king prawns

We go for another fish dish, fried this time: pan-fried salmon steaks swimming in jammy, garlicy, spicy tamarind sauce – like a fancier version of sweet chili sauce. It’s divine.

Pan-fried salmon with tamarind sauce

Pan-fried salmon with tamarind sauce

Our final dish is a green curry of soft, white tofu cubes and mixed vegetables, milder than the red curry but no less flavoursome. The tofu almost has a dairy quality and the vegetables are perfectly al dente.

Green Thai curry with tofu and mixed vegetables

Green Thai curry with tofu and mixed vegetables

My other favourite dish here (which is usually on the specials board) is their pork spare ribs with sweet curry paste: an enormous bowl of meaty bones slathered in a sweet, spicy paste the consistency of treecle tart filling, topped with deep fried crispy basil leaves. Bowl of those and a couple of beers – job done!

It’s the perfect balance of flavours in the cooking that makes Sumalee more sophisticated than the myriad of Thai restaurants on King Street, no one flavour overshadowing the others but all melding beautifully to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Well, I feel far greater (in size!) than the sum of my parts after all that and we don’t even finish it all. Apart from rice there’s a lonesome fillet of barra left, still in quite a lot of that delectable sauce. I’m tempted to ask for a doggy bag, loathe to let it go to waste, but I refrain.

By evening I’m still full but I’ve bought oysters, smoked salmon and brie for an evening picnic with Mr T. The weather is cool and quite blowy so we camp indoors for our picnic, trying to make Downton Abbey season 3 play on the computer since our DVD player appears to be kaput. Eventually, by about 8.30pm, I feel that I might be able to squeeze in an oyster or three, ably assisted by a couple of glasses more bubbles! I’ve got a dozen and they’re not going to be as good tomorrow so I manage to work my way slowly through them, savouring the smell of the sea and the taste of the plump, creamy bivalves in their briny juices. Or is that the tears wrung out of me by the emotional drama of Downton Abbey? I’m told there’s plenty more of that to come in this season. Can I fashion that into an excuse for more oysters?

Sumalee Thai at the Bank Hotel
324 King Street, Newtown
Visited 2 January 2013

Spice I Am, Surry Hills

I have eaten at this favourite Thai restaurant so many times I thought it was about time I blogged about it. It’s become our default option every time we go to Belvoir St Theatre which is a brisk 10 minute walk further up Elizabeth Street. Everything we have eaten here is so fantastically full of flavour – and we try to sample new things every time – that we never tire of it.

Small, low-key, bustling and spilling out of its open frontage onto the street, this place at 90 Wentworth Avenue is the original of what is now a stable of four Thai eateries watched over by co-owner and Head Chef Sujet Saenkham. There’s also House (literally around the corner) which specialises in cuisine from Isaan in North Eastern Thailand, packing quite a punch with predominantly salty, sour and chili flavours; a much larger and fancier Spice I Am in Darlinghurst; and the newest member of the family, Spice I Am Balmain.

As is usual on approach to the Surry Hills joint, there’s a queue of people waiting for a table. The friendly, efficient, T-shirt-clad Thai girls who staff the restaurant will add your name to the list and take a phone number in case you want to go and have a drink nearby. While you’re at it, pick up a bottle of wine or some beers (there’s a bottlo at Triple Ace Bar on the opposite corner) as the restaurant is BYO only. Fortunately we’re early enough (6.15pm!) that we don’t need to wait too long.

This time we go for yum woon saen, a mung bean vermicelli salad with minced pork, cuttlefish, prawns, dried shrimp and peanuts. The key flavours are lime juice, fish sauce and lots of chilli (as could be said of many Thai dishes!) but it’s so much more than that, and the textures of slippery noodles, nuggets of meat and seafood, and crunchy peanuts are just fabulous.

Mung bean vermicelli salad with pork, prawns, dried shrimp and peanuts

Mung bean vermicelli salad with pork, cuttlefish, prawns, dried shrimp and peanuts, Spice I Am

We also get the deep-fried whole fish topped with tamarind sauce which is so yummy that we pick the bones clean and scoop up every morsel of the sweet-sour, fruity, jammy sauce.

Whole deep fried fish with tamarind sauce

Whole deep fried fish with tamarind sauce, Spice I Am

On previous trips here we’ve eaten the red duck curry with lychees and pineapple; pad prik king with crispy pork belly; crispy pork belly stir fried with Chinese brocoli, chilli and oyster sauce (yes, we really like pork belly!); green papaya salad with dried shrimp, peanuts and chilli; and the chu chee curry which is the most decadent combination of deep-fried protein in a rich, creamy sauce infused with kaffir lime leaves.

There are very few places we’ve tasted Thai as good as this, even in Thailand. And you’ll likely come away with change from $50 for two. According to their website, even Thai travellers to Sydney say you can’t get Thai food as authentic as this even in Bangkok anymore. So, if you love Thai food and you haven’t yet been to Spice I Am… well, what the heck are you waiting for?!

Spice I Am
90 Wentworth Avenue, Surry Hills
Visited 28 August 2012

Cider with Maggie at Laurie Lee’s local

Following the wonderful wedding of a very dear friend in the Lake District I travel next to Gloucestershire to see my cousin’s wife. Having read my blog, Maggie wants to give me a typical Cotswold experience to write about, so after picking me up yesterday from Stroud railway station she takes me for half a cider at Laurie Lee’s local pub, The Woolpack, immortalised in his autobiography Cider With Rosie. Right on a narrow winding road in luscious countryside, The Woolpack is a little slice of very well-preserved history dating back to the early 1640s. We sip our cider in the adjoining beer garden and then wander up to the Holy Trinity Church opposite for a look at Laurie Lee’s grave with its simple headstone surrounded by giant daisies: Laurie Lee 1914 – 1997 / He lies in the valley he loved.

The Woolpack, Stroud

The Woolpack, Slad

Back at Maggie’s in her fabulous farmhouse-style kitchen we sip champers and catch up on all the goss while she makes dinner – a yummy Loyd Grossman Thai green curry with onion, green pepper (capsicum for my Aussie readers), carrot, green beans, bamboo shoots and gorgeous big juicy prawns.

Thai green prawn curry, chez Maggie

Thai green prawn curry, chez Maggie

In honour of Wimbledon starting this week there’s strawberries and cream for pudding, and we cosy up by the fire with Amber, their beautiful golden lab, and fall asleep to rubbish on the telly.

Strawberries and cream

Strawberries and cream, chez Maggie

Next morning, after tea, toast and Frank Cooper’s Oxford marmalade (the best marmalade ever) for breakfast, Tom, my strapping godson, appears having arrived home late last night from a holiday with school friends. Before Maggie and I leave to take me to the train station there’s the obligatory annual photograph of Tom and I together to demonstrate how tall he is; at six foot three inches he stands more than a head above midget Aunty Caroline. I must remember to wear my highest high heels next time I see him!

Toast and Oxford maramalde

Toast and Oxford marmalade, chez Maggie

The Woolpack
Slad, Gloucestershire
Visited 25 June 2012

Let’s Eat Thai, Marrickville

Given the gloom and the rain we had on Tuesday, we realise that eating near the water is not going to be the glorious experience we’d envisaged. We therefore opt instead to take our English house-guest, Mark (Mr T’s first cousin once removed), to our favourite local – Let’s Eat Thai on Illawarra Road in Marrickville. This place serves up some of the best Thai food we’ve eaten in Sydney and it’s incredibly reasonably priced – we never seem to be able to spend more than about $25 per head. Its heritage is assured – the chefs here are veterans of Spice I Am in Surry Hills, our other favourite Thai restaurant in Sydney!

When we first discovered this place, the odd one out in an otherwise Vietnamese-dominated restaurant scene, we became instantly addicted to the pad prik king with crispy pork, and have to order it every time we come here. And this occasion is no exception. The pile of chunky pork cubes are decadently fatty and slathered in the most delicious sweet, sticky curry paste, and topped with finely sliced kaffir lime leaves and red chilli.

Pad prik king with crispy pork, Let's Eat Thai

At Mark’s request we order fried rice, which we normally wouldn’t bother with, but it makes a nice change, filled generously with pieces of chicken and crowned with chunky slices of cucumber and lime wedges to squeeze over. We also choose a chu chee curry which has a thicker sauce than the usual green and red curries, and is deliciously creamy and tasty. We add to that my perennial favourite, a green papaya salad (or ‘tom sum’), crunchy, sour and chilli hot with little nuggets of dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, cheery tomatoes and raw snake beans.

Green papaya salad

Green papaya salad, Let's Eat Thai

Other favourite dishes we’ve ordered on previous visits to Let’s Eat Thai include crispy fish salad, a potent concoction of crunchy fried anchovies, red onion, chilli, shallots, mint and coriander. This full-on flavour punch is not for the faint of palate, but we love it. It seems to fit in the northern Thai category of dish which is typically very salty and sour. Expect to work up a sweat! The other is whole deep-fried snapper with mango salad. Underneath the huge pile of fresh, colourful salad, the fish is beautifully pre-portioned into crispy parcels of goodness – so there’s no messaging about with bones!

Snapper with mango salad

Whole deep-fried snapper with mango salad, Let's Eat Thai

Let’s Eat Thai
353 Illawarra Road, Marrickville
Last visited 17 April 2012