Spice I Am, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Anson Smart

The first time that you tried the jungle curry and found yourself blinded by sweat. The way the cool, refreshing impression of the som tum, the true-to-Thailand take on the classic green papaya salad, quickly turned to cruel, burning agony. The am-I-having-a-stroke-or-not moment when the roasted chilli in the salad of crisp fried rice, pork sausages, peanuts and red eschalot started to kick in. Such is the stuff that memories of Spice I Am are built on.

When it opened in 2004 it wasn't listed in the White Pages. The city's would-be bloggers were too busy looking for cupcakes to notice it and the few farangs who managed to find the place - tucked away as it was between a backpackers' hostel, with which it shared toilets, and a telescope shop on CO2-rich Wentworth Avenue - kept their mouths shut. Eventually a few broke the code of silence, of course (I'm looking at you, Matthew Evans, when I say this), and word got out: the best Thai place in town, maybe even the country, was a little hole-in-the-wall in the arse-end of Surry Hills, with no bookings, no wine list, and nothing over $20.

Today most of the Thai diners who used to pack the place have moved on, pushed out by queues of people addicted to the Spice's undeniable bang-for-buck. Safe to say it's no longer offering a loyalty card, but the food is still reliably excellent, if not quite so fiery. With limited space and seemingly unlimited numbers of potential diners, a second restaurant has been in the offing for some time. The Surry Hills site that was on the cards folded, but now, on Victoria Street in Darlo, opposite the Tropicana, comes Spice I Am - The Restaurant.

This has been an opening highly anticipated by the city's foodists. Rather than being a simple satellite outpost, this is, as 'The Restaurant' (as opposed to 'the shoe shop') implies, a step up into fancier territory. What we've got is both more, and in some ways less, than the original.

There are no clear links to the old restaurant in the way the room is put together. In fact, with its dark timber and exposed brick, a huge vase of tropical foliage and expanses of gleaming black tile, it looks more like a Longrain-inspired extension of Campbell Street's Chat Thai. Rows of vast urns yawn behind a bar dispensing fruity cocktails. Gone is the all-Thai crew in orange T-shirts; the more multinational floor team here sport a ruffle-necked variant on what Jerry Seinfeld would call a puffy shirt. It's not as loud as Longrain - but then, what is? The mercifully non-communal tables aren't so wide as to require shouting but they're tightly packed, so noise is an issue. The opportunity to reserve tables is one of the biggest improvements (though you'll need to book well ahead for weekends), and the addition of a thoughtful wine list will please anyone finding the selection at Wentworth Avenue's Bar Ace a bit wanting.

The hoy ob might well be the pick of the entrées. A bowl of juicy black Boston Bay mussels with sweet basil and a chunky potpourri of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime and a serious whack of chilli, it pairs more upmarket ingredients than you'd see at the original with more careful cooking. There are betel leaves here, too, but not the wrap of the kind served at Longrain and the like: the menu mentions a fritter of school prawns, but you get a leaf deep-fried crisp with a single prawn adhering to it. More interesting than amazing.

There's nothing wrong with the little dumplings of deep-fried prawn and chicken. They're sauced with tamarind and dry chilli. Arrayed on rectangular plates in rows of shot glasses (and alongside other dishes served on ceramic soup spoons), they recall the look of 1990s catering. Something less tricked-up would better honour the food.

The sweet and faithful rendition of banana flower salad is rich with roasted coconut, shallot and coriander and is topped with a prawn. It's a big king prawn, and yes, banana flower itself ain't cheap, but $36 for one prawn seems a little steep. Meanwhile, the flavours of the green curry of beef fillet pop in the mouth; the bitterness of the pea and apple eggplants cutting the richness of the sauce. Using fillet in a slow-cooked dish strikes me as an odd choice. Is it to make it seem more upmarket? As you'd expect, you put a fork to it and it becomes a mass of fibres; I wonder if shin or any of the other cuts usually used for braising would provide the gelatinous goodness you'd expect in such a dish. I wonder, too, at just how much a part the coconut cream plays in the tom yum curry of duck, but the generous helping of slices of roast breast meat along with shimeji mushrooms can't be faulted.

I'd love to see a bit more on the menu in keeping with the interesting dishes that made Spice Mark I stand out from the pack. There's nothing quite up there with the kanom jeen (dishes made with fermented rice vermicelli) or the nam khao tod (the stroke-inducingly-hot dish mentioned earlier, with crunchy fried rice, shredded pork sausages and roast chilli). Some of the better dishes are those that have migrated across directly. The hoi tod, for instance, somewhere between a pancake and an omelette, made with mussels and studded with sprouts and coriander, is better here, cooked with more care. The som tum, in all its chilli-soaked green papaya glory, is as good an example as you'll see, and is still hot enough to induce silence at the table.

The most successful newcomers are the lon (or loun) and the blue-eye with green mango salad. The blue-eye is part of an array of dishes that justifies the prices with top-dollar proteins. Pan-fried with grace, it finds good company in the texture and flavours of the toasted coconut, green mango and lemongrass notes of the salad. The lon, a relish-like dish, is probably the most interesting item on the menu, something you're likely to encounter in precious few Thai restaurants in Australia. At the Spice, it's a small bowl of pork cooked down with prawns and fermented bean paste in coconut cream. There's intricately carved cucumber and carrot to the side, and a few Chinese cabbage leaves for dipping.

The original Spice I Am is the restaurant I've eaten at more than any other in the past five years. I know the menu intimately and have tried every dish, so my own hopes for Spice I Am - The Restaurant were high. The addition of a wine list and desserts is pleasing, and  the opportunity to book and pay with cards will please many. At the $30-plus-per-main level, though, the value looks a little wobbly next to the professionalism and smarts of other restaurants such as Longrain, Spice Temple and Oy, especially when the serves here don't, alas, err on the side of generosity.

It's definitely a solid new entry to the modern Asian genre, and worth your time and consideration. I have every reason to think it's going to be a success, but the title of Australia's most interesting Thai restaurant, for now, remains on Wentworth Avenue. Shake it up a bit, fellas. Show us how good we know you can be.

Spice I Am - The Restaurant

296-300 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, NSW,(02) 9332 2445. Cards AE MC V.
Open Lunch Thu-Sun noon-3pm; dinner daily 6pm-10.30pm.
Price Entrées $14-$16; mains $28-$36; desserts $10-$16.
Noise Considerable at dinner.
Vegetarian Two mains.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Great modern Asian food.
Minus Tamer than the original.

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