Mai Ake gets back to basics
FOR 15 years, Gunny Daengdej ran the very successful Mai Ake Thai restaurant in North Hobart, one of the early eateries that helped popularise the vibrant spiciness of Thai food in the area.
Six months ago, he sold it and took on the lease of the Old Blue Skies premises on the waterfront with the intention, he says, of moving the food beyond curry puffs, satays and spring rolls to delivering a more sophisticated and authentic Thai dining experience in Hobart.
Sadly, it hasn’t worked out that way and, for Gunny and his chef, David Phodee, who Gunny brought here from working with TV’s Luke Nguyen at Sydney’s Red Lantern, it’s been a very long and frustrating six months.
“Curry puffs and spring rolls are all people want,” he says.
“Customers who ate massaman curry for 15 years with me at North Hobart, come here and still only want to order Massaman curry.”
“On one occasion, David prepared a dozen crayfish for a classic Thai salad at dinner and didn’t sell one. The same with a beautiful dish of blue eye in tamarind sauce. It didn’t sell, so we’ve taken it off.”
“This is a large space, I’ve got to fill it and I’ve got to pay the rent.”
So, a couple of months ago, curry puffs, spring rolls, fried rice with pineapple and Massaman curry plus other staples such as vegetarian Tom Yum, something you’d never see in Thailand according to Gunny, went onto the main menu with what he calls the “more authentic” dishes now featured as specials.
It was a neat solution to giving people what they wanted without compromising too much and, he says, business is picking up.
Leaving aside questions of authenticity and just how much we expect our ethnic eateries to compromise in both their cooking and pricing to meet our tastes, we chose at a recent lunch to try a few of the menu’s specials – an eggplant and tofu salad and the blue eye in tamarind sauce – that he said he couldn’t sell – as well as a beef salad and a stir fry duck from the main menu.
The first thing I’d mention is that the menu’s dry, matter- of- fact description of many of the dishes doesn’t do a lot to help sell them or to juice up the taste buds. Or do the dishes themselves justice. The menu’s “Grilled eggplant, tofu, mixed salad in Thai dressing” was a deliciously balanced and spiced combination,
accompanied on the side by a wonderfully pungent sauce composed of pounded toasted rice, pla raa, lemon grass [ I think] and plenty of chilli.
It was a new sauce for me and the most interesting part of the dish and yet the menu didn’t mention it.
Much the same could be said of the stir fry duck with “garlic, chilli, zucchini, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, capsicum and fresh basil.”
Not much Thai yumminess in that shoppinglist description.
But the duck was tender and the dish itself nicely spicy, salty and very enjoyable. And, while the Thai beef salad fell well short of what we’ve come to expect from comparable places around town, the mild and tantalisingly spiced tamarind sauce with the blue eye made that the most satisfying dish of the lunch. So it’s good news business is picking up. By spicing up the menu descriptions and some of the dishes a little more and doing something about the lack of Asian- Thai décor and atmosphere, the restaurant might yet come to approach the popular success of its Mai Ake original.
Meanwhile, the Tasmanian and international wine list is a good one and well- priced, the service very pleasant and the views of the harbour unbeatable. Soups and entrees $ 15-$ 18; noodles and fried rices $ 25-$ 29; curries and stir frys $ 26-$ 32; Chef’s specials to $ 47; 21 wines by the glass $ 7.50-$ 10.50.