Thursday, 27 February 2014

Red Opium, East Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Thai food will always conjure up memories of my childhood. Being young migrants, my parents didn't have a lot of money during the lean years of the late 80s/early 90s, and it wasn't until around the mid-90s that we were affluent enough to afford the pleasure of going out for a proper restaurant meal. During that time Sala Thai in Fremantle became a firm family favourite for birthdays and other special occasions. Thai cuisine left a strong impression on my palate from that young age; its ability to balance sourness, sweetness and heat in the one dish is still a pleasure to this day, and David Thompson's two cookbooks are regular sources of inspiration in our kitchen at home. Alissa and I have returned to Sala Thai a few times, however are always on the look out for new places to try. When we heard of Red Opium's concept of 'Thai-inspired tapas', it immediately made our ever-growing restaurant wishlist. 

Located in East Perth in what used to be a basement karaoke bar, Red Opium really lives up to its name. Drawing inspiration from 1940s opium dens, the design aesthetic is executed wonderfully, with liberal swathes of red and an Asian fusion theme that is at once iconic and yet on-trend and modern. 

Alissa particularly liked the paintings that graced the walls and their depiction of individuals of ambiguous gender - suggestive of Thai kathoey/ladyboys.

I had been wanting to try the Khantoke Dinner Set ($50) which requires 4 or more diners, making this an excellent occasion to catch up with good friends. Joining Alissa and I were Hayley and Dugan. Hayley and I used to be part of Spatula, an art collective that interrogated and challenged contemporary food production before the four of us in the group decided to focus on other projects. Dugan was something of a silent fifth member, and his skills as a welder were instrumental in helping us build our most famous, final work - a three wheel macadamia-nut crushing tricycle that became an on road cooking show (seriously).

The Khantoke Dinner Set includes three of Red Opium's tapas-sized items, a soup course and four mains to share. Yin and Yang Dips were the first to arrive - one being creamy prawn and coconut, the other mince pork and tomato. The arrangement of papadum-like crackers on one side of the dish and pork scratchings on the other seemed to suggest dip-specific pairings and Dugan's experiment with the prawn dip on the pork scratchings proved to be 'interesting' but not necessarily complimentary. Within their pairings however, these dips were very good indeed. The creamy prawn and coconut dip reminded me somewhat of a very fishy congee, which worked well with the crackers.

Being a pork fanatic, the mince pork dip was probably the more immediately likeable of the two options, and the idea of using pork scratchings instead of crackers was inspired. This was a fairly simple dish that didn't necessarily blow our minds but did at least set Red Opium off to a good start.

A plate of Assorted Spring Rolls served with a Thai dipping sauce was the next small plate to arrive. As it turned out, there were two or three different types of fillings to these spring rolls, of which I tried two. My first sample was the fairly conventional vegetarian spring roll common to Asian restaurants of all descriptions. Most Asian restaurants tend to be a bit lazy when it comes to spring rolls, opting for frozen factory produced mass productions that end up underwhelming. These definitely tasted like they were made in-house, and the resulting freshness meant this was a cut above the average. The other I tried was a meat spring roll filled with a red curry mince pork. This was even better than the vegetarian spring roll, reminding me of thin casing samosas - but all the more delicious for the red curry inside.

The dipping sauce itself was excellent, having that lovely balance of sweet, salty and sour you'd expect. Not wanting to waste what was left in the bowl, Hayley decided to drink the rest.

The Son in Law Eggs were the last of the small share plates to arrive, and continued the quality standard of the previous dish. Twice cooked with a nice crispiness and sweet due to the tamarind, this was a fairly simple and traditional dish done well.

Acting as an intermission between the tapas-sized share plates and the large main plates, the Tom Yum Goong was amongst the best I've had. There is a complexity of flavour to Tom Yum soup that in perfect balance results in a dish greater than the sum of its parts, and Red Opium achieved this with their version. The Tom Yum came in mild, hot and extra hot options, and I could feel the tingling burn of the extra hot and coughed as it made its heat apparent.

The mains appeared on the table in quick succession. First to arrive, the Som Tum salad with Soft Shell Crab was announced as a 'coleslaw' by the waitress - a reasonable analogy for this classic green papaya salad. The balance sweet/sour balance of the dressing was excellent, with the papaya providing a nice, fresh crunch. Also providing crunch were the crispy soft shell crabs. These were not exactly necessary given the sheer amount of other food, but were a welcome addition.

F-Duck seems to be Red Opium's signature dish. Their version of the famous Duck and Lychee Red Curry, The duck comes as slices of roasted breast with a whole drumstick. These were juicy, meaty and well seasoned pieces of duck that were thankfully not overly fatty. The red curry may look a bit stingy but actually was about the right amount for the four of us. Having already tasted the red curry in the spring rolls we knew that it would taste authentic, however what was interesting was how the curry was smoother and more refined than what I would usually expect from red curry. It reminded me of the refined curries of Dum Pukht, and the inclusion of baby carrot and some brussel sprouts made it look like a classical French dish. This is definitely a must-try dish.

I don't eat beef very often and don't order it unless its part of a tasting menu, so it was a surprise for me to find the Masaman Beef Curry to be the dish of the night. As with the F-Duck, the curry was smooth and refined in comparison to other Masaman curries I've eaten, and its nuttiness was addictively good. Most impressive was how melt-in-your mouth soft and flavoursome the beef was, so much so Alissa originally thought it was lamb. This was quality beef cooked perfectly; just touching the beef with a fork was enough to cut off a piece to eat.

Arriving a little while after we'd already been enjoying the other dishes, we had completely forgotten about the Cod of the Day. We were already beginning to feel really full by that point, however it was great to try yet another fantastic dish. Tasting the fish and its tangy, sweet sauce took me back to the '90s when we used to order a similar fish dish from Sala Thai. As its one of their more expensive dishes and since we're generally there with smaller groups, I have not ordered the fish in at least over a decade so it was a lovely nostalgic trip tasting this sauce again.

We were really full by the end of the meal, and ended up leaving a potato and some of the Som Tum salad behind. Seeing that I had been taking photos and guessing that I was a blogger, the staff seemed concerned that we had not eaten everything and asked if there was something wrong. We reassured them we were just extremely full and that we really enjoyed the meal. After paying, Hayley opened a belated birthday present Alissa and I had bought her in Singapore - some Royce' chocolate.

Hayley kindly shared the chocolate with us - a nice, small dessert to cap off a satisfying meal.

The Verdict: Excellent
For $50 each the Khantoke menu was excellent value, giving us a good taste of what they have to offer and left us so full we couldn't even eat it all. Red Opium's small share plate and mains concept combined with its hip design aesthetic is a real winner and would be a strong recommendation for one of the best Thai restaurants in Perth. We'll have to give Nahm Thai a go next, but we'd definitely come back for more. I've gotta know what a Deconstructed Green Curry is all about...

Red Opium on Urbanspoon

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