Weekend Herald - Canvas
SAME BUT EVEN BETTER
Discovering a cream bun with a vital difference
When I became a journalist, every story was new and shiny. It took exactly a year to realise that in newspapers what goes around comes around — and goes around again.
The first spring lamb. The price of school uniforms. How much rain there was this winter compared to last winter. Sure, a reporter can change the world but in the beginning, your editor mostly just wants you to come up with synonyms for the one you wrote about last year.
Restaurant reviewing is not like this. Pork belly might be the groundhog hog, but most weeks I get to expand my palate and my horizon. Most weeks.
When the cab pulled up outside Newmarket’s Khao San Project, I realised I had been there before. It’s last incarnation was Tao. Interesting dumplings, interesting wall art. The latter (at least on my visit) was unchanged, however the Asian-fusion menu has given way to something more definitively Thai. I don’t know what happened to Tao, but here’s hoping Khao San survives, because it’s lovely.
My household has actually been eating this food for a while, courtesy of its takeaway arm in Symonds St. The Newmarket restaurant is a sitdown affair, with cocktails, wine and — this is where it gets seriously interesting — dessert.
The Bangkok sandwich ($12) is described as a fresh baguette with vanilla icecream and coconut sticky rice. Four words for the disbelievers: cream bun but better. Squidgy, super-fresh white bread packed with sweet cold carbs and dairy. Cult classic. You read it here first.
We did, actually, start with pork. Scotch fillet skewers ($12 for four) provided excellent respite from the usual blistered belly. Enough fat to carry flavour but not so much that we felt guilty ordering the deep-fried squid tentacles ($14). Everything here comes with piles of fresh greens, with bonus points to the kitchen for resisting the trend to drown everything in an ubiquitous dressing labelled “Asian”.
That point of difference really comes into its own on the large plates. Lime and chilli salmon ($26) tastes of all of this plus lemongrass, while the spicy clams — “tuatua this evening”, said our waitperson, indicating a commitment to daily sourcing — are saturated in Thai basil, which I adore for its weirdly addictive aniseed-meets-camphor flavour ($30).
We shared a beef brisket penang curry ($30). The menu said “wagyu”. I’d argue this adds little except price to a cut that’s going to be slow-cooked into submission anyway, but it was appropriately meaty and gelatinous. James loved it, I found the coconut overpowering.
The best coconut at Khao San comes with the Mama Thai rice custard ($12) — aka a substantial wodge of boarding school-thick ground black rice, topped with incredibly moreish salty and sweet coconut shavings. “It’s my mother-in-law’s recipe,” said our waitperson and I loved it even more. Food
is family, right? But, also, I can’t remember the last time I was served fresh coconut on anything outside a high-end, fine-dining degustation.
At Khao San, the delight is in these unexpected details. The market fish of the day, for example, was mullet. I’m no seafood snob (give me kahawai and trevally over snapper anytime) but that was a bait fish too far for me. Big mistake. The table next to us devoured a fragrant, steaming, fresh herb-laden fish that was probably only slightly tainted by the waft of our FOMO. There was a big bowl of beefy “boat” noodles, and a dish of steamed mussels. I wanted them all. Some things are worth doing twice, and booking a seat at a Khao San table might be one of them.