Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Banquet @ Longrain, Sydney

When I'm in Sydney, one of the cuisines I tend to graviate towards is thai. It was Sydney where I really discovered how good thai food could be (and, where I subsequently was ruined for thai food in San Francisco!).  These days, I generally stick with the casual establishments in thai town, like Chat Thai or Home Thai, or the always classic Sailor's Thai (and canteen) in the Rocks.

But several years ago, when I was living in Sydney, I frequented Longrain, in Surry Hills.  Longrain is an entirely different type of restaurant, more upscale, far more trendy, with a vibrant bar scene in the front.  We weren't ever really into the scene of it all, but, it was on the way home from work, so Ojan and I would often stop by just to grab a bite in the bar area.  We went a few times for regular meals too, where everyone is seated at a massive large communal table, and all dishes are made to share.  Like I said, trendy.

I recall it being pretty good back then, but it was before I wrote a blog or took notes, so I didn't recall much besides the fact that their signature item is the betel leafs.  On my recent visit (February 2016), I had the opportunity to join a large group of co-workers in the private froom for a Banquet meal, so I gladly accepted, even though it was my first night in town and I was crazy jetlagged.

I'm glad I joined, as it was a good experience, particularly for large group dining.  The cocktails were creative and tasty, the food was good, the dessert was swoon-worthy, and the service was shockingly on top of things, for group dining and for Sydney, not exactly known for great service.

The Setting

Semi-Private Room.
Our group was 19 members, and we had the semi-private room on the backside of the restaurant.  I say semi-private because it was behind a divider, but not actually noise isolated from the main room.

The decor was similar to the main restaurant, with a long wooden table, wooden floors, and wood on the walls.

Our server was friendly and attentive, and did an impressive job handling our large group.  Food came out hot and fresh.

Drinks

Drink Menu.
The drink menu had the expected beer, wine, and cider offerings, plus a slew of fairly creative cocktails.  I appreciated the names of the cocktails, and Ojan appreciated that many of them were available virgin, as indicated by stars on the menu.
 Surly Temple. $17.
"Don Julio Blanco Tequila, lemongrass, kaffir lime, house made grenadine, ginger beer, lime."

I went for the Surly Temple, mostly because I wanted something different, and tequila sometimes hits the spot for me, particularly when I'm traveling (I can't explain this, I blame it on my trip to Tokyo ...)

The Surly Temple was a pretty drink, a lovely pink color, with a giant stick of lemongrass sticking out, and garnished with a kaffir lime leaf.

It was a refreshing, balanced drink, not too sweet, not too strong on the tequila.  I quite enjoyed it.
Longroni. $19.
"Lime leaf, holy basil & lemongrass infused Tangueray Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, chilli bitters."

After watching Emil drink "Longronis" all night next to me, I finally ordered one myself.  I wanted a not-sweet drink, and this is the one the server recommended.  Yes, I wanted a not-sweet drink.  It happens sometimes.

Like the Surly Temple, the Longroni also had a big stalk of lemongrass sticking out of it.  It was indeed not sweet, as requested, but perhaps a bit too bitter for me.  As in ...  crazy bitter.  I did like the lemongrass flavor in it though, surprisingly.

Food

Banquet Menu.
Because of our group size (19!), we were given the banquet menu, a fixed, family-style menu, for $65 per person.  The menu was:
  • Betel leaf, smoked river trout, peanut, green papaya, mint
  • Freshly shucked oysters
  • Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish
  • Red Jungle curry of grilled beef rump, wild ginger & holy basil OR crispy twice cooked duck with sweet tamarind sauce
  • Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar
  • Steamed Chinese broccoli, oyster sauce
  • Thai jasmine rice
  • Young coconut jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit
3 appetizers, 2 main dishes, 2 side dishes, and dessert, all for $65, really a good deal, particularly given their regular pricing.

One of the main courses had the choice between beef or duck, but that was a decision our host had to make in advance, for the entire group (he picked duck).  I appreciated that the banquet menu is composed of dishes available from their regular menu, rather than toned down versions for large group format.  The lineup was mostly their signature items too.

We did have one vegetarian, and he was given a vegetarian betel leaf instead of the trout one, salt & pepper silken tofu instead of the main duck/beef course, and a veggie curry instead of the pork.  Those came in individual, albeit quite large, portions.

The dishes were all served family style, with several of each dish placed on the table.  Dishes came one by one, with a new course arriving every 10 minutes or so, a good pace.
Freshly shucked oysters.
The first dish to arrive was oysters.  Since I don't really care for oysters, I skipped this one.

On the regular menu, these are $20 for 6.
Betel leaf, smoked river trout, peanut, green papaya, mint.
Next up, the famous betel leaf.  These are the item I remember from my visits to Longrain years ago.  You eat it by wrapping the leaf around the filling, like a taco.

On the regular menu, these are $6 each.  They also make a vegetarian version with pomelo, coconut, chilli, and mint.

The leaf itself was fresh and crisp.  On top were crispy bits (peanut?), that I also liked.  But, the smoked trout was really quite mushy.  The textures didn't do it for me at all, just way too mushy.  And the trout was a bit fishy as well.

This was disappointing, as I know it is one of their signature dishes, but it really didn't work for me this time.  My least favorite of the savory dishes.
Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish.
The first non-bite sized dish, but still an appetizer, to arrive was the filled eggnet, a cold dish, a salad of sorts.  This is the other dish I remembered from my visits years ago.  As you can see, it is a looker.

The outside is a cage made from egg, and inside is a filling of ground pork, chopped prawns, peanuts, bean spouts, crispy coconut, and tons of herbs.  On the side is the cucumber "relish", basically, just cucumber in a vinegar with red onions, to help cut the other flavors.

This is $34 on the regular menu.
Another view of the eggnet.
Here you can see into the eggnet.

I'll be honest, the first few bites of this were disappointing to me.  Emil turned to me and said, "I thought I remembered this being good?"  Clearly, I wasn't alone in feeling this way.

The eggnet itself isn't something I care for, since, well, egg.  And, there seemed to be way too many bean sprouts.  Most bites were almost entirely bean sprouts, plus some peanuts.  Where was everything else?  The sprouts were fresh and crisp, the peanuts added even more crunch, but, there was just not much flavor.

After finishing the portion I had originally served myself, I did not intend to have more of it.  But then ... much later, we still had a ton left, and I tried a little more.  And suddenly ... it was great.  The sprouts and herbs soaked up all the sauce, and it was suddenly crazy flavorful.  This was what I remembered from Longrain, wonderful flavors and texture combinations.

I kept nibbling on it the rest of the night, until my tablemates told me to just take the whole platter as my plate.  Ooops.

So, in the end, my favorite savory dish, although it started off really not great.
Thai jasmine rice.
I skipped the rice, but we were provided with several giant bowls.  We didn't even make a dent in the rice.
Crispy twice cooked duck with sweet tamarind sauce.
I didn't intend to try the duck, since I don't really care for duck, but, after everyone around me raved about it, I had to dig in.

And I must say, this was impressively well cooked.  The skin was crazy crispy, as were the greens that seemed to maybe be fried?  The sauce was sweet and tasty.

But, at the end of the day, it was still duck, which was a bit too gamey for me.  My second to last favorite savory dish.
Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar.
Speaking of insanely crispy, the caramelized pork hock was also super crispy on the outside, yet moist and melty inside.  The sauce for this was even better, sweet, yet balanced by vinegar.

Some others said that their pieces weren't great, but, I clearly lucked out, and my pieces were cooked perfectly.  I couldn't get over how perfectly crisp the exterior was.  My second favorite dish of the night.
Steamed Asian greens, oyster sauce.
Our token vegetable side dish was steamed Chinese broccoli and snow peas.  The greens were fine, crisp, not too overcooked, but the oyster sauce was very salty.  It was nice to have a vegetable, but this came long after the other items, I would have preferred to have it arrive earlier, perhaps alongside the first meat dish?  Unless that is more traditional Asian style to serve greens after the meal?
Young coconut jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit.
After that feast, we were all stuffed.  We had tons of savory food left over.  I think most people would have opted to skip dessert (myself included actually).  But, it was part of the banquet.

So, time for dessert.  I'm glad I mentioned my watermelon allergy to the server at the beginning of the meal, even though I didn't see any watermelon anywhere on the menu, because the dessert indeed had watermelon.

As I reached for one, the server came running around the corner to stop me, a separate one for me in hand.  She caught me just in time!
Young coconut jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit ... sans watermelon.
This dessert was ... incredible.  One bite in and I instantly regretted polishing off the eggnet dish.  I never expected this dessert to be so amazing, given the description.

So, what was it?  It was many, many things, but, at the core, a pudding of sorts, one of my favorite types of dessert.  But a pudding with a slew of elements, each bringing a different texture and flavor to it.

For one, you can't really see it in mine, but you can see in the earlier photo, there was black sticky rice.  The rice was awesome, nicely chewy, and added a great texture to contrast with the tapioca that was a bit softer.  There was a icy foam on top, I think pandan infused, adding a colder, fluffy element too.  And then thick slices of crispy coconut, and a sesame wafer, sticking out of the top, providing a lot of crunch.

Down with the sticky rice was chunks of pineapple in mine, plus watermelon in everyone else's.

I absolutely adored this, and polished it off even though I was quite full, and these were sizable portions.  We had two go entirely unclaimed, and many half-finished, since everyone was full, and honestly, if they didn't have watermelon in them, I'm sure I would have finished those too.  So many flavors, so many textures, really quite fantastic.  My only criticism is that it was a bit too sweet overall, the black sticky rice was the only non sweet element in the mix.  I'd get this again in a heartbeat.
Longrain Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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