A few weeks ago, a few friends send me an invite to join their new dining group. Called 'The Occasional Dinner Surprise', the groups mission statement is simple:
The tiny Thai joint at the end of your street that's a bit dingy, but makes a bangin papaya salad. That weird place that serves up delicious plump pierogi, but you think the chef might be on parole. And the crazy Korean cafe round the back of the ugly squash courts, doling out wicked kimchi. That's what this is all about. We want to set ourselves a challenge, and try out the hidden suburban dining gems of Perth.
1. It has to be on a back street somewhere, away from the main strips of Northbridge, Leederville, Subiaco, Vic Park, Freo etc.
2. No trendy newcomers. Only hardy perennials that have been doing their thing for years.
3. Bonus points for ugly exteriors.
4. Bargain prices = happy.
A noble goal, and one that is close to my heart. As much as Alissa and I do enjoy trying out some of Perth's best and most beloved restaurants, there is something lovely about the Occasional Surprise of discovering one of Perth's best kept secrets buried deep in the suburbs. I mean, within a 10 minute radius of where Alissa and I live in Bateman (hardly the culinary epicentre of Perth), we've discovered one of our favourite ramen joints in Perth, the deliciousness of Hawaiian/Japanese Fusion food in quite possibly the ugliest restaurant in Applecross, a seriously good noodle house in the middle of no where and - before their move to Nedlands - the incredibly difficult to book restaurant Marumo (sadly, pre-blog days). I was immediately excited by the idea of the group, and although Alissa already had plans for the evening, I decided to partake in the group's inaugural dinner at Galangal Thai without her.
Buried deep within the suburbs of East Victoria Park, we arrived to find a restaurant that looked a lot better than the Google Maps image and the remote location suggested, with bright (but not garish) modern-looking signage, a fairly recent paint job, neat garden beds of rosemary, and a stylish interior with white tablecloths, nice cutlery and a good but unobtrusive soundtrack featuring everything from Norah Jones to Guru (and maybe even some Little Dragon if I heard correctly). A lot of effort had obviously gone into turning a bad location and a tired old suburban restaurant space into something altogether more happening. Based on their Facebook page only going back to 2012, I question how much Galangal can be called a 'hardy perennial' as per the group's rules, but with an appearance that suggested we'd stumbled upon a well cut and polished diamond in the rough, we were very interested to see whether the food would match the fit out.
For the meal, my dining companions included Ben and Anita (who previously joined Alissa and I at The Merrywell early last month),...
... as well as our other friends Alex, Greg and James (not pictured). Ben and Greg are the masterminds behind the Occasional Dinner Surprise, and undoubtedly will make return appearances as they organise more dinners at hidden suburban gems.
Anita had to rush off to another engagement so ordered a plate of the Vegetarian Pad Thai, with leftovers sampled by the rest of the table. This was really good Pad Thai - not exactly amazing, but made to the sort of benchmark standard you'd hope every Thai restaurant should accomplish, yet so many often fail. A distinct 'breath of the wok' smokiness permeated the dish, suggesting this was cooked with a proper high heat/heavy wok combination. This also resulted in vegetables that were nice and crisp, and the long unbroken strands of noodles showed the chef's careful hands - a nice contrast to the broken mess of lesser Pad Thai.
Ben had his heart set on two of their salads, with the Green Papaya Salad arriving first. This was Greg's favourite dish of the evening, and we all really enjoyed the fact Galangal did not hold back at all with the really hot chilli kick of this dish. By itself the heat might have been a little over the top, but the chilli was well balanced out by the acidity of the lime and the sweetness of the palm sugar in the dressing. With the nice crunch and juiciness of the grated strands of papaya, this was a refreshing and light dish that I would definitely recommend as a good starter.
The other salad was the Thai Beef Salad, consisting of scotch fillet marinated and served in thin strips and with a similarly well balanced high heat dressing to the Papaya Salad. Ben really liked this dish but the response from the rest of the table was more lukewarm. I'll admit to not being mad about beef since its not particularly tender when cooked well done, and I felt that the beef in this dish would have been more tender had they gone even thinner. When they say thinly spliced I kind of want it to be as thin as the beef used in steamboat, or like the layers used to construct the Joshu Beef dish Alissa and I ate at Iggy's in Singapore. That said, it wasn't a bad dish by any means; we just felt that there was some room for improvement.
Pan-Fried Tiger Prawns with Homemade Thai Chili Paste, Snake Bean and Kaffir Lime was the first of our mains. Greg is not a fan of crustaceans, however the rest of us were unanimous in our praise for this dish. Everything about it was spot on - the prawns were cooked perfectly and the flavours in the Thai Chili Paste were nicely balanced with the flavour of tamarind contrasting nicely against the heat. These accomplished broad strokes were supported by a lot of finer details like the very thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves and the addition of fried shallots on top. The dish was so good that Ben called it as his dish of the night, and Alex half-jokingly quipped; 'I would have smashed the whole plate if you all hadn't been here... I'm actually disappointed that I had you company tonight for that dish!'
Stir Fried Sweet and Sour Sauce with Tofu, Pineapple and Cucumber followed. This dish had mixed responses from the group, and I felt both sides made a good case for its strengths and weaknesses. Greg really liked this dish - so much so that he actually wanted to finish on its sweet and sour flavour and pineapple hit. Greg felt that the intensity of flavours helped elevate the tofu - something he said he often finds to be underwhelming with a bit of a nothing taste. Ben on the other hand found the sauces 'a bit too Chinese restauranty', and this ruined it for him. Alex, James and I were in the middle on this, and we all felt that the tofu and the sauce were quite good, but that the unsubtle chunks of pineapple were probably a bit too much in an otherwise tasty and balanced dish.
Greg and I agreed that the Roast Duck Red Curry with Lychee and Cherry Tomatoes was a must. Considering this is one of my favourite Thai dishes, I was a little disappointed with Galangal's version. Discussing the meal afterwards, the analogy I made was that it was like looking at something without glasses; the form was largely there and 'correct', but it lacked the detail of a dish in full focus. The curry needed just a little bit more acidity to give it some sharpness of flavour and balance out the heavy sweet sauce. Additionally, the duck skin could have been crispier and the lychees tasted like they could have been cooked down or steeped in the curry a bit more, as they had something of a canned flavour about them. For a suburban local this was quite a good effort - but comparing it against something like Red Opium's F-Duck, it was not quite in the same league.
One of Greg's unwritten rules for the Occasional Dinner Surprise was that someone has to order 'The Special'. Galangal did not have a special on hand, however the waitress went to ask the chef if there was something special he could put together. The result was a Sweet and Sour Barramundi and Prawn dish that was one of the highlights of the evening. We felt that the sweet and sour sauce in this dish was more balanced than the Tofu, with a pleasing acidity and mintiness. The Barramundi and Prawns were cooked beautifully, and I could easily have gone for this by myself if I had come by myself. Considering that this was something the chef whipped up at the spur of the moment, it was truly commendable and could easily have been part of their regular menu.
The Verdict: Excellent
Galangal was certainly something of a dinner surprise, with a much nicer fit out than one would expect from a suburban local, and while there were a few dishes that underperformed, there was definitely some culinary skill on show here. Best of all, the restaurant was very much the total package, with friendly and attentive staff, a nice soundtrack and an impressive attention to detail. Alex was particularly impressed by the filtered water served in polished glasses and some nice glassware for the wine; small details, but not unimportant when it comes to leaving a good impression. Galangal may not be my favourite Thai restaurant in Perth, but its certainly well priced and a strong enough performer to have built up a following in spite of its odd location; East Victoria Park residents are lucky to have this hidden gem to call their own.