Know your onions

Spice Al­ley fills a gap, but some of its dishes are stranger than oth­ers

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - RESTAURANT - Kim Knight

Taro cus­tard with fried shal­lots and co­conut cream is an ac­quired taste that I have failed to ac­quire.

I am not alone. I re­ally wanted to em­brace the sweet-savoury pro­file of khanom mo kaeng ($10). I re­ally wanted my guest’s first night sans child or hus­band in two years to be spe­cial.

The next day, she emailed me po­litely: “It was so nice to get out and eat onion pud­ding like a nor­mal per­son.” I wish I’d or­dered the green rice fried ice­cream. If Asian desserts oc­ca­sion­ally con­found, noth­ing else on this menu will shock. Con­sider Spice Al­ley the culi­nary equiv­a­lent of a Solid Gold Hits CD (with more larb gai and less Lionel Ritchie).

It’s on SkyCity’s third floor. Man­age­ment like to call this be­he­moth an “en­ter­tain­ment com­plex” but you may also recog­nise it as a casino — take the lift, not the es­ca­la­tors, if you want to avoid the pokie ma­chines.

In­side, it’s all lanterns and lac­quer, batik cush­ions and bird cages. Asia, made ubiq­ui­tous. You could eas­ily draw com­par­isons with an up­mar­ket food hall, but then a re­ally en­thu­si­as­tic wait­per­son might hand you a re­ally de­li­cious cock­tail ($16). Also, there is no cab­bage soup.

Head chef Pan­thep Sae Sue has done 15 years in the ser­vice of SkyCity’s mul­ti­ple kitchens and restau­rants, and it must be nice to fi­nally call a cor­ner of it his own. One point worth not­ing — on the night we vis­ited, there was no beef on the menu. I guess if you want cow, you go across the road to The Grill.

We kicked off with con­fit duck rice pa­per rolls ($14 for three). I got so dis­tracted by that c-word. “Con­fit” sets you up for some­thing lus­cious and luxe; these were, sim­ply, tasty.

Mean­while, ap­prox­i­mately seven tonnes of food had been de­liv­ered to our ta­ble. I had over-or­dered and ev­ery­thing I had over-or­dered had ar­rived at once.

Choose your sticky pork rib ($14) care­fully. Mine was meaty and ta­marind-tangy, but I had care­fully scoped the plate. The po­lite guest who doesn’t get out much was (al­most lit­er­ally) left gnaw­ing bones.

A Sri Lankan lamb shank curry ($38) was great. Redo­lent with cin­na­mon and just spicy enough, the meat fell apart and that rich gravy en­cour­aged lib­eral use of two flaky roti. Also rec­om­mended, though ab­so­lutely un­nec­es­sary given how much else we had to get through, are the wok-fried greens with bam­boo — ex­cel­lent $8 value.

Some­thing had to give, and it was the “dragon wings” ($15). A large plate of salmon fins came with hefty over­hangs of fatty, crispy belly. I love this fishy crackle, but my com­pan­ions pref­ered the onion pud­ding they couldn’t eat.

Yes, there was even more. Re­cently ed­u­cated in the way of the Viet­namese rice pancake (thanks

MKR!) I care­fully cut the chicken-stuffed omelette into strips which I then packed in­side fresh let­tuce leaves. I think this pil­lowy-crunchy combo could be a gus­ta­tory rev­e­la­tion and next time, my plan is to get it into my mouth in one piece.

There will, I am sure, be a next time be­cause Spice Al­ley is fill­ing a mar­ket gap.

It’s a large, cen­trally lo­cated restau­rant with ta­ble ser­vice, rea­son­able prices and tasty food that ar­rives fast enough to en­sure you can eat, drink and still have time to nip to the bath­room be­fore the cur­tain goes up at The Civic et al. I wouldn’t come here as the main event, but as a pre­lude to a night out, it’s a very de­cent con­tender.

“Thank you for invit­ing me,” emailed my po­lite guest. “Or should I say ‘thanks shal­lot?’

It was be­com­ing rapidly ap­par­ent that she needed to get out more.

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