Monday, July 27, 2015

Chat Thai, Sydney

Update Review, May 2015 Visit

If you didn't read my original Chat Thai post, I suggest you start there, and then return to this update, since I'm skipping the background on Chat Thai this time around.  See "Original Review, January/February 2015 visit" below.

On my recent visit to Sydney, I only managed to swing by Chat Thai once for dessert!  This was a big contrast to my previous trip, where I managed to visit a couple times each week.  Mostly this was due to the fact that I was there a much shorter time, but, also, the magic of Chat Thai desserts had finally worn off.  I was still fascinated by them of course, but, as I made my way down the list of crazy options, they were less and less delicious.
khao dtom nahm woon. $6.10.
"Steamed triangles of pandan infused glutinous rice, herbal jelly and jackfruit in syrup with rice."

Well, this was yet another Chat Thai dish that totally confused me.

First, I expected the foundation to be sticky rice.  Since it said pandan infused, I thought it might be perhaps green.  I also expected it to come in, well, triangles.  I most certainly wasn't expecting a soup based dessert!

Once I dug in, I did indeed discover two triangles of sticky rice, hiding under all the other components.  The rice triangles looked like regular white rice to me, and I didn't taste any pandan.  The rice triangles weren't particularly interesting, besides that they were, well, triangles.

Following along the description is herbal jelly, which I think was the black cubes.  These had a nice texture, very, uh, jelly like, but not a ton of flavor.

The final element listed in the description is jackfruit.  I think the orange flesh pieces were the jackfruit, which I did actually like quite a bit.

My favorite items however were the white cubes, and I honestly have no idea what they were.  Sweet, but not as sweet as a lychee, so perhaps it was longan?  I really have no idea.

The syrup was really sweet.  Ojan described it perfectly when he said it was like the syrup that comes in the little containers of canned fruit.  Kinda sickly sweet.

And ... that was it.  Where was the promised "with rice" anyway?

Overall, this was fascinating in that it was all new items , but, I didn't actually like it very much.  I extracted the jackfruit and the white cubes, but, the jelly, the glutinous rice triangles, and the sweet syrup just weren't for me.  One of my least favorite desserts from Chat Thai.

Original Review, January/February 2015 Visits

You've heard me mention this several times already, but I recently went on a trip to Sydney.  This was my forth visit to Sydney, totaling almost 6 months, so, I've sorta learned the ropes by now.  And the one thing I've really learned: don't bother with fine dining, and focus instead on the cuisine Sydney does best.  Thai food ranks highly on that list, which is particularly great, as I've still yet to find thai cuisine in San Francisco that I really like.

Chat Thai is a small chain in Sydney, with a main location in thai town, a full sit down location inside the Westfield mall, and a small quick casual version in the Galeries.  They also have locations in Manly and Randwick.  Chat Thai is a rather cute success story, family run, started in 1989.  They are a Sydney institution with staying power.  25 years in the restaurant industry is no joke, and all locations are well rated.

Chat Thai was on my radar from the start of this trip, as I had somehow never visited on previous trips, and I knew it was supposed to be amazing.  I made up for it this trip, visiting the main thai town location once for a full meal, once to pick up dessert, and stopping by the Westfield location more times than I can count.

Why?  Well, uh, they have an insane dessert menu.  You know me and dessert, and, in particular, I love to explore new and unique desserts.  Chat Thai offers that in spades.  The dessert menu at the thai town location has no fewer than 32 options!  The Westfield food court one has a more reasonable 11 options, and I was determined to try almost every single one.  Plus, as I mentioned, I stayed a the Westin and the Sheraton on the Park, so I was always only a block or two away.

Takeaway Desserts @ Westfield Location

My first visit was prompted by a very unsatisfying meal in the Westfield food court at Din Tai Fung.  The food court has some great options, like Snag Stand with its incredible fries and B├ęcasse bakery, but as you read in my review, Din Tai Fung was not a great option.  I was grumpy, and wanted something tasty, and remembered the Chat Thai location upstairs, not actually part of the food court.
Dessert Station at Westfield.
The Westfield location features an open dessert kitchen right in front.  I loved watching the preparation here.  Past this area is the full restaurant, with sit down table service.  Quite literally on every visit there was a long line of folks waiting to be seated.  I guess having a full service dining option, particularly one open late, is valued in the mall.  I can't comment on that though, as I never dined in.

I choose to always get my food as takeaway, which was very easy, a register to order takeaway is located right at the front.  I wasn't alone, the takeaway business seemed nearly as bustling as the table service.  Since I was always ordering only desserts, they were ready in just a couple minutes, super fast and efficient.  They made my habit far too easy.

As I mentioned, the Westfield location had the more modest dessert menu featuring 11 choices, which totally overwhelmed me on the first visit.  I honestly wanted them all, and watching the dessert kitchen prep made it even harder.  Everything looked, and sounded, amazing.  Luckily, I was staying nearby, and just made it a point to stop in for more dessert nearly every night.  Uh, I did it for you.  For "research".
Khao Nieaw Daam Bieak. $6.90.
 "A sweet and slightly salty black sticky rice and coconut cream pudding with taro and young coconut flesh"

As I mentioned, I was totally overwhelmed with choices.  I wasn't familiar with most of the desserts, besides simple mango and sticky rice, but I knew that I loved all the ingredients listed.  For my first adventure, I finally just picked one that included a bunch of components I knew I liked: black sticky rice.  Coconut cream.  Taro.  Young coconut.  I had no idea what I was ordering really .... "sweet and slightly salty"?  That sounded good.  And I obviously love puddings.

It was, hands down, the strangest dessert I've ever consumed.  Certainly the strangest food I consumed on this trip, or even in recent memory.  I was fascinated by it.  And I think I really did enjoy it.  But a spoonful of this was like a treasure hunt.  So unexpected!

To start, yes, there was black sticky rice.  It had a tiny bit of chew to it and was what I expected, although, I can't say I've ever had sticky rice inside a pudding before, normally it is served as a little mound.  On top was a layer of coconut cream that was, well, as promised, sweet and salty.  I love the mix of sweet and salty in desserts, a la salted caramel or fleur de sel on my chocolate, but this was certainly a bit odd.  Not bad, but odd.  The fascinating flavor combination kept me going back for more and more.

But that is far from all.  Inside the rice ... now that is where things got interesting.
Beans? Young Coconut Flesh?
First, there were shiny brown oval shapes that looked a lot like beans, but they didn't taste like beans, and beans weren't included in the description.  I think these must have been the young coconut flesh?
Young Coconut Flesh?
But then there were also some thin strips that seemed more likely to be the coconut.  I honestly don't know what these were.

I don't have a photo, but there were also cubes of taro, a bit softer than the other two shapes I've described so far.  I love taro, so this was a hit.
Corn?!!
And then ... there was an unmistakable taste of corn.  After a few bites, I was certain.  Yes, there was corn in here, although the description certainly didn't mention corn!

My suspicions were confirmed when I looked at the Haymarket location menu, where there is a dish called saaku bieak, "a sweet and slightly salty sago and coconut cream pudding with taro, corn and strips of fresh young coconut flesh".  This sounded very similar to my dish, except with sago instead of rice, and obviously, the addition of corn.  They seemed to have combined these dishes?

So yes, sweet and salty, rice and cream, taro, coconut, unidentified fruits, and corn.  So.  Strange.

I think I really liked it.  There were many textures at play: chewy rice, soft taro, firm young coconut, firmer corn, creamy coconut milk.  There were many flavors, some sweet, some salty.  Every moment I was eating this was a surprise.  That alone was worth something!

Update Review, 2016: I order this again, and, having my expectations set better, I enjoyed it even more.  It wasn't insanely sweet like many Thai desserts due to the salt, and I really did love all the textures at play.  I'd certainly get it again.
Lodt Chong Nahm Kati. $7.
"Pandan and palm sugar noodles, black glutinous rice, and taro in coconut milk with ice."

After the success of my first dessert at Chat Thai, I returned again, this time with Ojan.  I told him I'd try basically anything on the menu, and let him pick.  I have no idea why he went for this one, as it didn't sound like something he'd like, but then again, neither of us had any clue what to expect.  How do noodles, rice, milk, and ice go together?  I think he was just curious about the pandan.

I'll admit, I think we were both very surprised by what was handed over.

The top layer was shaved ice.  The base was coconut milk.  But just like the previous dish, it is what lay inside that was the most interesting ...
Pandan Noodles.
This time, what I discovered inside did indeed match the description.  One corner held the same black sticky rice that I had in the previous dessert, which I again enjoyed.  Another had cubes of taro, not too mushy, but for some reason I didn't really like them in here.  And I love taro, and liked it in the previous dessert.

The majority of the container was filled with the green pandan noodles, all clumped together.  They were soft, and had an interesting flavor, which I guess was pandan.  I know pandan mostly as a color, not a distinct flavor.

Just like the previous dessert, I found this fascinating.  I liked the sweet soupy coconut milk..  I liked the sticky rice.  I almost liked the pandan noodles.  But the ice ... I really wasn't into that.  If it was a hot summer day I could see it being very refreshing, but sitting inside a mall food court, it wasn't quite what I wanted.

Overall, I'm glad I tried it, but it isn't something I'd get again.

The $7 price was fine.
Tup Tim Grob. $8.
"Tapioca coated water chestnuts in an aromatic syrup with fresh coconut milk and young coconut flesh."

Another day, another adventure trying a dessert at Chat Thai!  This time, I almost went for the mango and sticky rice, but I wanted to be more adventurous.  I certainly had never had a "tapioca coated water chestnut", so that sounded interesting.  Plus, a soup-like item sounded very comforting and fit my mood well.

Like most of the other desserts from Chat Thai, there were components inside that were not listed on the menu.  In this case, I believe it was a few slices of jackfruit.  I don't know jackfruit well enough to say for sure, but since other items on the menu include jackfruit, I'm going to make a reasonable guess.  There weren't many, but I enjoyed the fruit, a bit firm, and pleasantly sweet.  I wished there were more.

But everything else ... I didn't care for.  The young coconut flesh wasn't very tasty.  And the tapioca coated water chestnuts ... quite strange.  I mean, I expected strange, and ate quite a few of them hoping they would grow on me, but they didn't.  There was something nice about having a crispy crunchy thing in the middle of a soft ball, and I like water chestnuts, but this just didn't quite work.

The sweet coconut milk syrup was tasty, although a bit sweet to just eat on its own, not that that stopped me.  I eagerly drank up all the syrup.

This was my least favorite dessert, but, I'm still glad I tried it.

Dinner @ Thai Town Location

I also visited the main location in thai town with Ojan for dinner once, and swung by several other times to just grab more desserts.

The thai town restaurant has long lines, at all times of day, which, I remembered when we got there, is exactly why I hadn't ever actually visited on previous trips to Sydney.

They have a fairly efficient system in place though.  A paper sign up sheet is located at the front, with numbers next to each slot, that you rip off once you've added your name.  Number in hand, you join the massive crowds on the sidewalk, and wait.   I used this time to browse the extensive menu, and plan what we were going to order.  I mentioned that the dessert menu had 32 items, but that is a drop in the bucket compared with the main menu, with about 20 appetizers, 12 salads, and 50 main dishes, ranging from curries, to stir fries, to noodles, to rice.  Just reading through the menu was time consuming, let alone deciding what to order.
Dessert Kitchen.
Even once I'd poured over the menu, I didn't mind the continued wait for a table, as I was enthralled watching the dessert kitchen, located at the front of the restaurant, in full view of the sidewalk.  It was a full sized kitchen, with two cooks, working constantly to pump out assorted desserts.  The dessert menu has nearly 40 items, and it is obvious that they are all ordered frequently.  I saw many people swing through just to pick up desserts to go, just like I had done at the Westfield location.
Interior.
The restaurant is actually fairly small inside.  It is two stories, but neither story has many tables.   In  the far back is the main kitchen, before that is a drink station, and, as I mentioned in front is a dedicated dessert kitchen.

The whole place is just constantly busy.

Service was not the most attentive, but it got the job done.  It really was just too crowded and bustling for them to care much about you, but they did deliver dishes hot and fresh immediately when they were ready, and took our order promptly.
Dtum Taardt (small). $13.90.
"Family style som dtum with condiments."

After several days in a row of really heavy food, and fried food that day at lunch, I just wanted something light, and papaya salad sounded perfect.  The menu had 6 varieties of classic papaya salad on it, including a sweeter version with peanuts and dried shrimp, a sweet one with pickled crab, a spicy one with pickled crab, and even one with fermented fish.  We had settled on one from the main menu, but when we were seated, a specials menu was presented, that had an additional, really fun looking papaya salad on it.  At last minute, I decided we should get that instead, even though I had no idea what the "condiments" would be, or what "family style" really meant.  At some level, I still don't.  I have no idea if this is an authentic dish or serving style.

The salad came in two sizes, large or small.  The small said it served 1-2 people, the large ($24.90), 2 - 4 people.  Since there were only 2 of us, and we were planning to get other things, we ordered the small.  I thought a mistake had been made when this platter arrived.  This serves 1-2 people?  Who are these people?  Perhaps 2 people could finish this if they ordered nothing else, but a single person certainly couldn't hope to put a dent in it.

Anyway.  Once we got over our shock, and wondered how on earth we'd finish this salad, our appetizer, our noodle dish, and planned dessert, we dug in.

In the center was the basic som dtum, with shredded green papaya, green beans, cherry tomatoes, peanuts, dried shrimp, and chili.

Around the edges were the "condiments", and this is where things got interesting.  Some I could identify, like bean sprouts, hard boiled egg, rice noodles, raw green cabbage, and blanched choy sum.  Then there was something pickled, or perhaps fermented?  And a meat substance, perhaps sausage? And strips of ... chicken? Tofu?  I honestly had no idea.  And roasted peanuts, which seemed like overkill since the salad in the middle already had plentiful peanuts.  And finally, some kind of chips.  Shrimp chips?

Anyway, yes, it was fun to try all the components and mix them together, but neither Ojan nor I really cared for it.  The base papaya salad was fine, but not particularly interesting in any way, other than the fact that I hated the tiny dried shrimps.

As for the mix-ins, some made sense to me, and the cabbage and bean sprouts were fresh and crisp enough.  The blanched choy sum was really plain on its own, but added an interesting juicy component to the salad.  I know some versions of papaya salad have noodles, so I understand how the rice noodles might be good to some people, but I didn't really want them in my salad.

The hard boiled egg just seemed strange.  You couldn't "mix" it in, as it was served in halves.  It was fine, but just an egg.  I really didn't like the yellowish pickled thing I couldn't identify, the taste was too strong for me.  I described it as fermented, but Ojan thought it was just pickled.  Neither of us had any clue what it actually was though.

The mystery meats were the real strange bits.  I think the redder one was a fresh pork sausage?  It was kinda fleshy and not very cooked.  We both decided it must be ground meat of some sort, although it clearly had other things mixed in.  The other looked like firm tofu at first, but I think it might have been a chicken loaf?  The chips we weren't ever able to identify, I thought I tasted something a bit fishy.

Anyway, interesting? Sure. Overwhelming, definitely.  A good value, as a regular papaya salad is $13, and this ridiculous platter was $13.90.  But not a winner, and I certainly wouldn't get it again.
Fresh Spring Rolls. $11.
"Fresh spring rolls of smoked fish sausages, chicken and crab with caramelised tamarind relish."

Next to arrive was our starter, fresh spring rolls.  These weren't quite what we were expecting either.

The wrapper of the rolls I didn't really like, it was a bit tough.  I dislike chicken, so I obviously didn't like that, but, I didn't expect to like the chicken.  They also had tofu, which I don't like, and wasn't listed on the menu.  If the menu had included both chicken and tofu, I probably would have selected something else.  The crab I was looking forward to, but it turned out to be crab stick, a disappointment for sure.  The only thing I quasi-liked was the fish sausage, but mostly only in comparison to everything else that I actively disliked.

On top of the slices of the roll was a bunch of omelet, which I also didn't want and wasn't listed on the menu.  The rolls were drenched in the tamarind sauce, which just didn't taste good.

Ojan had about one bite of this and stopped.  He didn't like it, and he knew we had way too much food still coming.  I tried more than Ojan as I was trying to see if I could pick out some bits that I'd enjoy, but failed.  I guess just not our thing?  Although honestly, if we knew it had chicken, tofu, crab stick, and omelet, we certainly wouldn't have ordered it.

$11 price was fine for yet another giant serving.  At this point, our table was full, and so were we, and we still had a noodle dish yet to arrive.  Whoops.
Thau gai noodles. $13.
"Stir fried flat rice noodles with chicken, eggs, and shallots served with sweet chili sauce."

Ojan really wanted a noodle dish, and planed to order classic pad thai.  And then, that specials menu that led us to the crazy papaya salad had a noodle dish too.  It sounded like something he'd really like, since I know he likes sweet chili sauce, and who doesn't like shallots?

So again, even though we thought we knew what we were ordering in advance, we changed our order once seated.  And ... it was another case where we were led astray.

First, we didn't quite understand the sweet chili sauce on the side, we thought the noodles would be stir fried with it.  It turns out to be good that they weren't, because the sauce was seriously spicy.  I didn't detect any "sweet" in the "sweet chili", and it was far too spicy for Ojan.

Unfortunately, that meant that he didn't use any, and the dish was quite bland without it.  Not Chat Thai's fault, as it is clearly intended to be mixed with noodles.  The noodles seemed hand cut, as they were completely inconsistent in their widths.  They were decently cooked, but I always prefer to have some crispy bits.  Delivered hot and fresh to our table, once we let them know that we were done with the other dishes.  We were a bit confused why the noodles were taking so long to arrive, when everything else had come so quickly.  The staff was being nice, trying to wait for us to finish the mound of salad and rolls still in front of us, before piling more on us.  Again, whoops.

Anyway, again, I don't know if this is an authentic dish.  Maybe I just don't like "real" thai cuisine?  The sauce on the side seemed strange.  The dish reminded me a bit of a cross between pad se ew, with the thick noodles, and pad thai, with the egg and chicken, but lacked the sauce from either dish, and lacked the add-ins like chinese broccoli from pad se ew or peanuts from pad thai, so it was just fairly boring.  I felt bad for leading Ojan astray and suggesting this.

$13 price was fine for a large portion of fresh noodles, but we wouldn't get this again.
Sticky Rice Durian. $8.
"Sticky rice steamed with sweet coconut cream and palm sugar accompanied with a durian custard and pieces of fresh durian."

And of course, the reason I love Chat Thai: Dessert!  It didn't matter that we were stuffed, and had tons of food leftover.  We didn't really like any of the savory dishes, and the dessert menu at this location is insane, with nearly 40 items on the dinner menu, plus some available only at lunch or late night.

I decided to take this opportunity to finally try durian.  I've known of durian for years, but it hasn't really been served anywhere I've been.  The durian dessert is only on the menu at the thai town location, so I knew I couldn't just pick it up easily at the closer Westfield location.  It was now or never.

I didn't quite know what to expect, besides something that many people consider foul, both in taste and smell.  I somewhat expected it to be served like classic mango with sticky rice, with a pile of sticky rice, coconut cream drizzled over, and sliced durian alongside, so I was a little surprised when a big bowl of soupy sauce arrived.

But I didn't smell anything horrible, so I dug in.

The verdict?  Well, durian is unique.  I'll say that.  I dove right in, creating a big bite with sticky rice, a large chunk of durian, and some sauce.  At first I thought it was fine.  And then the funk hit me.  Was it rotten? Sewage?  Such a strange taste.  Undeterred, I tried again, and this time, I took only a bite of fresh durian, no sauce, no rice to mask it.  I wanted to understand the durian itself better.

The texture is so strange.  Somewhat slimy.  A bit stringy.  So strange.  But it is the taste that I just don't really have words for.  It wasn't the worst thing I'd ever tasted, and I did keep trying bites of it, but I certainly have no desire to seek out durian ever again.

As for the rest of the dish, I really liked the sticky rice, and the sweet sauce of coconut cream and palm sugar.  I actually finished every single morsel of the rice, and every drop of the sauce, even though that meant getting some durian accidentally several times.  I'm just a sucker for sticky rice and sweet sauces.

I'm really glad I tried this, but I have no intention of getting it again.  Rotten-dirty-sewage-feet is just not a taste a I enjoy!
Bua Loy Kai Warn.  $5.50.
"Silky little dumplings of taro, japanese pumpkin and pandan jus, in sweet warm coconut broth with/without a poached egg."

A few days later, I was walking by in the evening, and decided I needed to pop in.  One of the most interesting sounding desserts was only available at the thai town location, and only during dinner service.  It must be something special, right?

It was a rainy night, and I was rather grumpy.  A comforting dessert was exactly what I needed.  And as I've said, I love taro and sweet sauces, and I'm fascinated by pandan.  This sounded promising.  I had no idea why I'd want a poached egg in it though, and opted for the version without.

The dessert came warm, indeed a warm comforting soup, perfect for the rainy evening.  But ... it took the cake as my least favorite dessert from Chat Thai.

The coconut broth was just overwhelmingly sweet.  I loved it in other dishes, when there was more to cut the sweetness, namely, sticky rice.  Here, there just wasn't much else, and spoonfuls of the broth really were too much on their own, even for me.
Taro, pumpkin, and pandan dumplings.
Inside the very sweet broth were little colorful dumplings.  The color was lovely, and they were soft, but they were all equally flavorless.  I wanted to taste the taro, the pumpkin, the pandan.  I tasted nothing, besides the overwhelming sweet soup of course.

There were also slices of young coconut mixed in with the dumplings.

This was the first dessert from Chat Thai that I didn't bother finish, and, we all know I'm a dessert finisher to the core.  I just couldn't find anything to like in here.
Candied Taro Chips.  $5.40.
I also grabbed a bag of taro chips near the register, since, well, taro.  I figured they'd make a great snack for later on.  I didn't realize they were candied until I went to eat one.  I was very shocked to say the least.

Even though they were candied, I expected some saltiness, but there was none.  If they were salty, I think they could have been really successful, a slightly sweet, slightly salty combination.  But instead, they were just sweet, sugar crusted chips.  Strange.  I ate a bunch, but I didn't particularly care for them, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get other friends to finish the rest.

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