Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sailor's Thai Canteen, Sydney

On my very first trip to Sydney, years ago, someone recommended Sailor's Thai.  It was the first actual good thai food I had ever had in my life.  I fell in love with the place, and have made a point of eating there at least once every time I visit Sydney.

Sailor's Thai is located in the Rocks, not quite as deep into touristville as Circular Quay, but certainly not in the "real" thai areas of Sydney.  On this visit, we did also spend a lot more time in the Haymarket area, and checked out the more authentic Sydney institutions of Home Thai and Chat Thai too.  I still prefer Sailor's Thai.
Long Communal Table.
Sailor's Thai is actually two different facilities.  The main Sailor's Thai restaurant is a formal, fairly pricy, affair, located downstairs, where we went a few night's later.  There, booking are essential.  But we usually opt for the Canteen, the casual part, located at street level, walk-ins only.  The entire restaurant consists of one long communal metal table.  There is also a tiny, and I mean tiny, balcony that has exactly two tables, each for two people only.  Once, we got one of those tables, and it was quite a treat.

On this visit, we were a large group of 7, and were worried about being able to get space for all of us together, so we arrived on the earlier side.  We were in luck, as we were the first to be seated for the night.  Private dining!

The table was already set with plates and napkins.  Everything is served as it is ready, family-style.  I appreciate this, thai food is the best fresh out of the wok.  Forks and spoons are located in metal boxes on the table that you help yourself to.  This is indicative of the level of service to expect, fairly nonexistent, but, this is the casual restaurant.
Kitchen.
The kitchen runs along the entire length of the room, open, but with a high divider so it is hard to see into.  You can see the chefs, but don't really get a sense of what they are doing.

Service was what I'd call typical Australian ... fairly lacking.  It took FOREVER to get someone's attention enough to bring us the bill.  And even longer to pay once we had it.  The service wasn't very friendly either, nor efficient, as I watched dishes dying in the pass without being brought to tables, even though the server wasn't doing anything.  A stark contrast to Home Thai , where the servers literally never stopped moving!

That said, I still like Sailor's Thai more than anywhere else in Sydney.  Home Thai and Chat Thai are probably more authentic, and are certainly located in the real thai area rather than the Rocks but ... I just liked the food far more at Sailor's Thai.  Of course, Sailor's Thai, even the Canteen, is far more expensive, with main dishes running $25-30 (and downstairs starters are $25-30, with mains going up to $48!  This is pricy for thai for sure).

One criticism however is the lack of desserts.  You know me and desserts, they are an essential component to a good meal for me.  The only item on the dessert menu at the Canteen is coconut ice cream.  In fact, the entire menu is fairly limited: only 3 appetizers, 9 mains, and a single side.

I looked forward to trying the full restaurant, as the cuisine is far more varied, and, they actually have a dessert menu.
Crown 490. $20.
"Aperol, manzanilla, pink grapefruit and lime."

Like the rest of the menu, the cocktail list didn't have much selection, only 4 drinks, and I went for the one that seemed most likely to be refreshing with some spicier food.

The Crown 490 was a decent drink, well balanced, not too sweet as I was hoping, with a nice bitterness from the grapefruit.  Fairly refreshing.  Not remarkable, but it went well with my meal.

Unfortunately, the person making the drinks was much, much slower than the kitchen.  We received all our food before the drinks came, and, since the food was hot, we didn't wait to eat for the drinks.  A bit unfortunate, as I would have appreciated the pairing, and, actually, would have appreciated settling in a bit with drinks before the onslaught of food.  But I can't be upset at the kitchen for being fast!

$20 for a cocktail at a casual canteen seems high to me, but I haven't really found cocktails under $20 anywhere in Sydney.
Poh Pia Sod. $12.
"Fresh spring rolls of pork sausage and cucumber with a tamarind and peanut sauce."

We began with one of the three choices for a starter, the spring rolls.

They arrived within what seemed like only two minutes of ordering.  I guess, we were the only table there, but it was still ridiculously fast.

The spring rolls were topped with crab, which strangely wasn't listed in the menu description.  I saw this as a bonus, since I love crab, but if I didn't eat crab, or was allergic, it was certainly an odd, major component to omit.  The crab came in large chunks, and looked great, except it turned out to be really fishy and I didn't like it at all, and pushed it aside.  Is that just how Australian crab is?  Or was it not fresh?  I'm not sure.

The spring roll wrapper was the same style that we've seen elsewhere, but this time, it was much better than other places, and I liked it the best of all the spring rolls we had on this trip.

Inside was chunks of pork sausage, tofu, cucumber, bean sprouts, and large pieces of sharp green onion.  I appreciated how fresh and crisp the vegetables were.  I thought the filling gave the rolls a pleasant crunch as I bit in, and appreciated the slight chew from the sausage and the sharpness of the green onion, as it contrasted nicely with the slightly sweet sauce.

The peanut and tamarind sauce was also better than the other tamarind sauces we had on this visit, like the tamarind sauce I really didn't like at Chat Thai.  This was a bit sweet, but balanced, and it went well with the roll.

So, besides the fishy crab, this was nicely done, and I'd get it again, and it blew away the version from Chat Thai, that had all the same ingredients, but just really paled in comparison.  My third favorite dish of the night, but Ojan's least favorite.
Som Dtam. $24.
"Green papaya salad with peanuts, dried shrimp, spicy & sour dressing, sweet pork."

Moments later, the papaya salad appeared.  The papaya salad is considered a main dish, not a starter, for good reason.  It is massive, and comes with a large serving of pork and a scoop of rice!

It is also the reason we always go to Sailor's Thai.  Papaya salad is just papaya salad but ... this comes with candied pork!  So really, we come to Sailor's Thai for the candied pork.

The papaya salad contained the standard shredded green mango, green beans, cherry tomatoes, and tiny shrimp.  It was fresh, light, and nicely dressed.  The dressing was spicy and sour, with a bit of fishiness to it, but in a good way that added depth.

The salad was a tiny bit spicy, but not much, I would have probably liked even more spice.  Again, much better than the papaya salad we had at Chat Thai .  The salad is served on top of a huge wedge of cabbage, which Ojan always eats after the salad is gone, and of course, he did the same this time too.  I followed suit, and I must say, it is really satisfying munching on the crispy cabbage, the perfect palette cleanser.

On the side was also a scoop of rice, I'm not really sure why.  They always serve it this way, and it always seems strange to me.  But I also just don't like rice, even where appropriate.

And ... the crispy sweet pork, the reason we got the dish.  It was good, crispy and chewy, like beef jerky, and nicely sweet, but it didn't quite live up to my memory, or, as you'll soon read about, another candied pork dish we got this night.

Overall, it was the best papaya salad I had in Sydney, but only my 4th pick of the night.

$24 is a high price for a papaya salad though, even one with all these goodies.
Pad Thai. $17.
"Stir fried rice noodles, peanuts, egg, bean curd, bean sprouts and dried baby shrimp".

There is only one noodle dish on the Canteen menu: Pad Thai, available with dried baby shrimp, or vegetarian.  We got one of each.

The pad thai was ... well, pad thai.  It wasn't much different from pad thai you'd get anywhere else, noodles, crisp bean sprouts on top, lime wedge to squeeze over.  I thought it was overall too sweet.

It was my 6th pick of the night, and one other diner's least favorite.
Moo Grab Wan. $26.
"Crispy pork belly in a sticky sweet and sour sauce."

Next, pork belly.  I didn't really expect to care for this.  Now, I have had some great pork belly at Alexander's before, but in general, pork belly tends to be slimy, fatty, and underwhelming.

It turns out, Sailor's Thai just does really good candied pork dishes!

It was crunchy and crispy, yet moist, far more moist than the more jerky-like candied pork in the papaya salad.  It was chewy, but in a good way.  And the sauce ... mmm, sticky sweet candy sauce!  There wasn't much else to this dish, but, I'm not sure what I would have wanted in addition.  Just delicious pork belly is really all you need.  Veggies would have just seemed strange here.

Of all our dishes, this was hands down my favorite, and the favorite of one other diner, but interestingly, it was the least favorite of two others (including Emil, who obviously hated the sweet sauce).
Geng Keaw Warn Nue. $29.
"Green curry of slow cooked wagyu beef, served with roti."

Now, moving on to curry.  I'm never a big fan of green curry, and this was no exception.  The sauce also seemed really oily.

The beef however was really nicely cooked, tender, and pulled apart easily with a fork.  I don't generally go for stew meat, but for this style of meat, it was really quite good and the quality was evident.  The flavor of the beef itself was good.

Amusingly, this was the only dish Emil liked all evening.  The curry itself was my 5th favorite of the night, a very distant 5th to the papaya salad, spring rolls, and pork belly, and the least favorite of one other diner.

But, it came with roti.

OMG, the roti.  It looked so unassuming on the side.  It looked flat and oily.  I don't even like bread.  Yes, it was all of these things.  But it was also hot and fresh, and I loved the flavor, even though it was oily.  It was delicious on its own, but even more delicious when used to soak up all the remaining sweet sticky sauce from the pork belly dish.  OMG.

I devoured my share of the roti, and the roti no one else claimed (the fools!  They didn't even try it!).  After it was all gone, one other diner who loved it decided to attempt to order just a side of roti, because he liked it that much too.  It wasn't listed on the menu as a standalone item, but the staff hesitantly obliged this request, and soon, much more roti was had.

So while the curry was one of my least favorites, that roti totally made up for it.  It was my favorite aspect of the entire meal.  I'd go back for roti (and pork belly sauce) alone!

$29 was pricy for the portion of curry, but I guess it was quality wagyu.
Gang Panang Moo. $24.
"Panang curry of pork tenderloin with lime leaves and peanuts."

And finally, after we had received, and finished, almost all our food, the group decided to add one more item to our order.  Since no dish took more than about 6 minutes to arrive, it wasn't really a problem to order more.  Plus, my fellow roti loving friend was now able to order his side of roti too.

I was stuffed and didn't try this, choosing to finish with something I knew I liked, but everyone raved about how great it was.  In particular, the pork was thin slices of pork, not what they were expecting at all.  Ok, I did try the sauce, but it was really too rich and oily for me, particularly at this point in the meal.

My least favorite dish, but the top pick for 3 diners.
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