Nu, Sydney restaurant review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Chris Chen
This restaurant has closed.
Read the name. Now read it again: Nu's. Can this really be a Thai restaurant that doesn't have a pun on the words Thai or Siam in its name? Maybe opening on the site vacated by an establishment called Thai Tanic (that one could have been thought out better, in hindsight) is sacrifice enough for the vengeful bad-pun-name gods - who knows. I can tell you that the Nu in question is a who rather than a throwback to the oh-so 80s alternative spelling of 'new'. The who is a he: Virat Suandokmai, Nu to his mates. If 'Nu's Thai' rattles a few coconuts upstairs for you, it's probably because Suandokmai was the chef and owner of a restaurant of the same name on Gouger Street in Adelaide (it's still there, trading successfully under new management) that was one of the city's most acclaimed dining spots in the early noughties.
I know this because I read some of the framed clippings about Mr Suandokmai's exploits that decorate parts of his restaurant's dining space (it's that sort of place). I now also know that he hails from Ayutthaya, just north of Bangkok, where he ventures each year to replenish his inspiration, and I've learned that he is a former champion of South Australian kickboxing. I promise this last piece of knowledge will not fetter me in my critical frankness. Probably.
I turn you over to my esteemed colleague, Tony Love, this magazine's Adelaide editor, for more back-story. "Nu was the most exciting thing to happen to Adelaide's Asian food scene in the past decade," says Love. "He was considered highly creative, original, gifted and gorgeous by all those who thought about such things, and his departure from Adelaide was mourned for years. True! And can we have him back now?" Perhaps not just yet. Nu's might not raise the bar for Thai food in Sydney, but it certainly presents a different, interesting and thoughtfully executed take on the canon. Best of all, it does this in one of the parts of the city crying out for more good restaurant dining.
Drawing on dusty memories of a fleeting visit I paid to Thai Tanic many years ago, I don't think the Nu crew has done an enormous amount to the room - it's still the same airy corner building. It's still very loud mostly because it's full, the tables are reasonably close together and the chefs like to yell a lot in the kitchen while they work. Perhaps mounting those vanity clippings on egg cartons would help.
The menu seems attractively contained. Two soups - a broth with prawns, chilli, lime and lemongrass and a coconut chicken number with 'Thai gourd', galangal and chilli - 10 sharing-size main courses and a short list of very appealing sides. Then the waiter points out the whiteboard menu of 12 or so more dishes and hands us the tapas menu. Alarm bells. I'd been fighting them since I saw that the Massaman lamb shanks came with 'Asian mash' - two words which verge on being critic-code for 'scary international hotel-style fusion'. Chef Suandokmai had an interlude cooking in Bali between Adelaide and Sydney gigs - did he go the resort route because it suited his style or did resort cooking leave an impression of its own? Those tapas, the first volley from the kitchen, confirm some concerns and allay others. Vegetarian rice-paper rolls are small, speckled with light and dark sesame seeds and arrive in a glass with a micro-posy of pea shoots, bean sprouts and enoki mushrooms. With their cashew nut hoisin sauce, they're probably not going to win you over from the meat, but they're not criminal. Crisp prawn pancakes with tamarillo chilli sauce present in much the same way - the sauce is in the glass this time, but the posy remains the same - and remind me of nothing so much as the sort of thing you'd order poolside from a resort bar menu in the tropics.
It's the mieng kham that save the day. Better known as betel leaves, the Jatz of Gen X, they're done here two ways: the quite tasty prawn, caramelised coconut and peanut topping, and the vastly more interesting crisp pork belly with son-in-law quail egg. Son-in-law eggs are a Malaysian dish of deep-fried hard-boiled eggs with a tamarind sauce. It's not unheard of to see them on Thai menus, but using quail's eggs and making them the topping for a pop-in-the-mouth betel leaf is a flash of brilliance on Nu's part. The rest of the menu follows this scattered pattern. It's not a minefield, exactly - none of the dishes fails outright - but the gap between the ones that really work and those that merely pass the time is broad.
The tizzy presentation of many of the dishes doesn't help, and it's hard not to wonder why they don't just whittle the menu down by two thirds and stick to the good stuff. The crisp pork hock with chilli and almond salad will be familiar to anyone who knows the very similar caramelised chilli hock dish at Longrain, and Nu's could really benefit from upping the intensity several notches. At Longrain, too, the richness of the dish is relieved by the essential addition of a bowl of chilli vinegar, something the Nu's dish doesn't have, but it's still a winner.
Then there's the hoy tod, an interesting Thai dish somewhere between an omelette and an eggy pancake, packed with mussel meat, shreds of chilli and bean sprouts and a ring of piquant chilli sauce encircling it on the plate that delivers contrast. The other must-order is what's described on the menu as a green curry with fillet of flathead boudin blanc. That phrasing makes it sound more exotic than it is. A fluffy bound-and-poached piece of minced fish, the boudin is not dissimilar to what other Asian restaurants call fish balls, albeit much silkier, and it pairs elegantly with the green curry sauce (again, it could be hotter) and the bitter pop of pea eggplants.
Desserts are, well, a bit weird. I'm not moved to order the lemongrass-infused chocolate tart with pineapple and ginger sorbet for $16, and the chilli crème brûlée doesn't satisfy either the chilli urge nor the brûlée crispness test. The 'Thai petit fours' are only for the terminally curious, but I can tell you that at least one item is decorated with a smiley face. Steer a safe course with the sliced mango with perfumed sweet sticky rice. Conservative? Yes. Smiley faces? No.
The wine list and service I'd class in step with the rest of Blues Point Road - better than average, without being memorable. My feeling is that if Nu's opted for a cleaner approach to presentation, upped the flavours and clipped the menu, they'd do a much greater job rectifying Sydney's north-south imbalance. The fusion experiments? Why muck around with that jabberwocky stuff, I wonder, when there is so very much food in the authentic Thai playbook never seen on these shores? It's not like we've plumbed Thai cuisine's depths here to the extent that there's call for Asian mash. And with luck, we never will. Keep fighting the good fight, I say, Nu. Anyone striking a blow for non-silly Thai restaurant names is all right in my book.
178 Blues Point Rd, McMahons Point, NSW, (02) 9954 1780.
Licensed and BYO (except Fri-Sat).
Lunch Tue-Fri noon-3pm; dinner Tue-Sun 6pm-10pm.
Major cards accepted.
Prices Entrees $9-$14; mains $26-$38; dessert $10-$16.
Vegetarian One entrée, five dishes offered as vegetarian mains, plus specials.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A new voice in upmarket Thai.
Minus Too much focus on presentation over purity?