This is the story of how I learnt not to ask for food that’s ‘Thai Spicy’. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; here’s how it all started:
A week or so ago, I found an email in my inbox asking me if I like Thai food, and whether or not I would like to try the rendition served up at Ayatana. I’ve always complained about the complete dearth of Thai food – that’s to say, spicy, sweet, sour and hot – in Melbourne, so I eagerly accepted.
We made our way down to Ayatana, and it turned out to be a beautiful place to be on a Thursday night. It’s elegantly compact, and very intimate with candles flickering on each table. Tony, the enthusiastic owner from Thailand, was keen on showing us his own take on traditional Thai flavours.
|Betel Leaf with Crispy Prawn, Peanuts, Ginger, Mint, Lime, Roasted Coconut, Red Onion, Caramelised Tamarind Sauce ($8, 2pcs)|
We began our meal with a starter of Betel Leaf with Crispy Prawn, Peanuts, Ginger, Mint, Lime, Roasted Coconut, Red Onion, Caramelised Tamarind Sauce ($8, 2pcs). The golden prawn sat in a mixture of herbs and a puddle of tamarind sauce, and was devilishly flavoursome. The sweetness of the crustacean was hidden by the thick batter, but the mix of flavours was incredibly bright, with the syrupy sourness of the tamarind, and heat from the ginger really standing out.
|Sweet Crunchy Roasted Tamarind Rice ($12)|
|Sweet Crunchy Roasted Tamarind Rice ($12)|
The Sweet Crunchy Roasted Tamarind Rice ($12) sat there in the entrees, looking all inconspicuous, but it turned out to be one of the most delightful things I’ve eaten all year. Crunchy is a great thing but it’s even better when a dish manages to bring together the variants of that moreish texture with crumbly peanuts, brittle noodles, crispy sprouts, and the earth-shatteringly crunchy roasted rice. Add in a sharp dressing and fresh herbs, and you have what’s possibly the most addictive salad in the world.
|Caramelised Crispy Pork Belly ($14.9, 4 pcs)|
We also shared an entree-sized serving of Caramelised Crispy Pork Belly ($14.9, 4pcs). The bite-sized pieces of pork had a very crisp exterior, but the pork could have been more tender. Luckily the sauce was sticky and tangy, and generously flavoured with the aromas of ginger and lemongrass.
|Hot, Sweet and Sour Crispy Barramundi Fillets ($21.9)|
The entrees were super generous, so we vetoed having rice alongside our mains. Instead we munched down on a plate of Hot, Sweet and Sour Crispy Barramundi Fillets ($21.9), pan fried until it’s just a bit caramelised. It tasted of the tropics thanks to the juicy pieces of pineapple and coconut, and the fish was top notch – flaky and moist.
|Spicy Green Papaya Salad ($14.9)|
Up to this point in the meal, I’d had some great examples of sweet, sour and hot that I’ve yet to come across in Melbourne. That just leaves one thing – spicy. So when I gave my order for Spicy Green Papaya Salad ($14.9), I asked for it to be made spicy – Thai spicy. A little bit later, an innocuous tangle of vegetables came out, looking cool and refreshing. Upon closer inspection however, it was completely infested with bird’s eye chilli, aka Thai chilli. And the first mouthful was cool and refreshing, the slippery strands of the sour fruit simply but flavourfully seasoned with palm sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce. Then the chillies hit. Hard. I shoved mouthful after mouthful of the salad between my lips, savouring the fieriness even as my eyes watered and my nose ran. The staff eventually took pity on me and provided me a with glass of ice cubes, which was the only thing that managed to douse the flames. Everyone involved had a good laugh (especially Chris), aside from me. That’ll learn me to order ‘very spicy’ from a Thai man.
|Black Sticky Rice Pudding ($10.9)|
‘It’s not spicy!’ joked the waitress as she brought out our dessert – Black Sticky Rice Pudding ($10.9). After the last hour and a half of indulgence, this was the perfectly sized sweet cap to our meal. The chewy grains of black sticky rice, egg custard, and shredded coconut came together to form the ultimate comfort dessert. It was as warm, nutty and soothing as a peanut in a rug.
We had a really good time at Ayatana. It’s the perfect place to visit if you’ve been hankering for that authentic burst of Thai flavours, be it in the form of a slow-cooked Massaman curry, tangy roasted duck breast with a hint of sweetness, or a papaya salad spicy enough to bestow the power of fire-breath. It’s surprisingly slick for such a small space, and unexpectedly romantic too. In short, it’s great.
Rating: 14.5/20 – and my tongue was never the same.