Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Banquet @ Longrain, Sydney

When I'm in Sydney, one of the cuisines I tend to gravitate 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 room 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.  You can read all about that in my first review.

Fast forward a few months, December 2016, and I had a large group dinner to arrange with co-workers.  Longrain was an easy choice, and I was thrilled that the semi private room was available.  We had another fantastic group meal, which you can read all about, and I highly recommend this for anyone looking to do group dining in Sydney (our groups have been 15-20 people).

The Setting

Longrain is in Surry Hills, a little bit off the beaten path on a side street.
Semi-Private Room.
Our group the first time was 19 members, 15 the second, 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.

Original Review, February 2016

Our first meal was not arranged by me, but it was a large group of nearly 20.

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:

Starters:
  • Betel leaf, smoked river trout, peanut, green papaya, mint
  • Freshly shucked oysters
  • Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish
Mains:
  • 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
Sides:
  • Steamed Chinese broccoli, oyster sauce
  • Thai jasmine rice
Dessert:
  • 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.
Starter: 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.
Starter: 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.
Starter: 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.
Side: 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.
Main: 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.
Main: 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.
Side: 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?
Dessert: 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!
Dessert: 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.

Update Review, Dec 2016

This time, our group size was 15.  We again had the semi-private area, and again did a family-style banquet.

Our group had several dietary constraints, and Longrain handled them better than anywhere else I've ever seen, with custom dishes prepared when necessary.
Our Feast!
We had a wonderful feast.  And a feast it was!  

The banquet is a ridiculous amount of food, far more than any group can possibly finish, and it was amusing to watch people realize just how much more food was still coming, when we were halfway through and they were stuffed.  Those with dietary constraints seemed to receive full size portions of their custom dishes, in addition the regular banquet feast, which created even more abundance than normal.

The $65 per person price is ridiculously reasonable.

Overall, it was a good value, the food was incredibly flavorful, the cocktails were fun, and the dessert again fell in my top 10 desserts of all time.

Highly recommend.

Drinks

Our group started with a round of cocktails, given how fun the cocktail menu was.

I was looking forward to another Longroni like I had last time , but ... it was no longer on the menu.  I picked a backup drink, but still asked my server if it was possible to get a Longroni.  She said she wasn't sure if they had the chili bitters anymore, but assured me that if they did, she'd sent a Longroni my way.
Longroni.
"Lime leaf, holy basil & lemongrass infused Tangueray Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, chilli bitters."

And .... our server made it happen!

I enjoyed my Longroni as I did on my previous visit, but the lemongrass stalk in it was incredibly annoying.  I didn't comment on this in my last review, so maybe it somehow didn't bother me, but it drove me absolutely crazy this time, it kept hitting me in the face and made it hard to drink.  I quickly removed it.

Food

Since we were a large group, we were required to order the banquet menu, as I had on my previous visit.  As expected, it was a ridiculous feast, all served family style, with 3 starters, two main dishes, two side dishes, and dessert.
Banquet Menu.

Our menu was:

Starters:
  • Betel leaf, spanner crab, mango, chilli, mint.
  • Freshly shucked oysters, red chilli nahm jim.
  • Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish.
Mains:
  • Green Curry beef, Thai eggplant, baby corn, basil  OR Aromatic spiced yellow curry, pumpkin, cauliflower, sweet corn
  • Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar.
Sides:
  • Stir fried Asian greens, garlic, oyster sauce.
  • Thai jasmine rice.
Dessert
  • Black sticky rice, passionfruit jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit, sorbet. 
The curry main dish was the only dish where we had to make a choice: green curry beef or veggie yellow curry, and the decision was for the whole table.  I posed the question to the group, but it wasn't really necessary, all wanted beef.

The menu was nearly identical to my previous visit, the only changes being the curry dish (last time we had the choice of red jungle curry with beef or crispy duck), and the side dish of greens (this time Asian greens, last time Chinese broccoli and snow peas).
Starter: Freshly shucked oysters, red chilli nahm jim.
The first dish is always their signature oysters, one for each of us.  I skipped this as I had in the past, as, I'm just not into oysters.  Someone else in the group gladly scored an extra.

We had one diner who doesn't eat seafood, and he was given the vegetarian version of the betel leaf instead of an oyster.
Starter: Betel leaf, spanner crab, mango, chilli, mint.
The betel leaf is probably Longrain's most popular dish, although ... it changed!  For years, they always had a smoked trout version (and a vegetarian version), but on this visit, it had spanner crab instead.  I've visited Longrain many times over the past 6 years, and had never seen this before.  Very curious what inspired the change.

Anyway.  The members of my group who bothered look at the menu all asked me what a betel leaf was.  I told them to just wait and see, but explained that it was indeed a leaf.  I enjoyed watching everyone's faces when the dish was served, again, one each.  "Uh ... what do I do with this?" echoed up and down the table.  My answer was simple: "Pretend it is a taco".  That seemed to work, and my group quickly figured out that they could grab it, wrap it like a taco, and devour.

This version was the least successful Longrain betel leaf I've had.  The leaf itself was still crunchy and fresh, very refreshing.  And I liked the spice and kick from the slivers of chili.  But ... it was way too sweet.  The mango overpowered.  Maybe the smoked trout usually does a better job of balancing the sweet mango, and the delicate, slightly sweet, spanner crab couldn't do that?  Or maybe the kitchen just went too heavy on the mango?  For a dish they have made so many times it seems like they would have perfected this though.

I thought perhaps it was just mine that turned out unbalanced, but the moment I mentioned mine was overly sweet, others agreed.  This was sad, because, really, this item usually is a great start to the meal and showcases the flavor combinations their kitchen is capable of.

Still, 3 members of my party rated it the best dish of the night, but I imagine that is somewhat out of novelty.
Starter: Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish.
Next was the final cold starter, this one more substantial, the eggnet.  On my last visit, this was the dish of the meal for me, so I was seriously looking forward to it.  Plus, I was excited for everyone to see what this was, because, just like "What's a 'betel leaf'", "What's an 'eggnet'" was echoing up and down the table.

The answer of course, is this stunning dish.

The main component is a chilled salad with bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts, little prawns, pork, caramelised coconut, and more.  It is topped with the eggnet, yes, made of egg, and served with a side salad of a refreshing cucumber relish.

Sadly, I didn't love it quite as much this time.  The flavors just didn't pop.  The prawn was a bit too fishy.  I did like the refreshing herbal quality to the salad though, all the crunchy elements, and appreciated a light dish given the heavy pork belly coming up.

As with last time, this dish got much better near the base, where the flavors really soaked in.

This is the dish where the kitchen really impressed us with attention to our dietary needs.  We had one person with a peanut allergy, one no shellfish, and one no cilantro.  Those are all ingredients in the dish, so they each received a personalized version with their respective allergens/dietary preferences removed.  The individual portions were HUGE, and came plated just like the full size ones, with their own cucumber salad and eggnet.  Everyone at the table agreed that the "individual" salads would make more than a full entree sized meal for anyone normally, let alone as part of a banquet, and we still received 3-4 of the full size ones for the table too, so, uh, we had way too much of this.  Sadly, it wasn't something you could box up for later, since it depends on fresh crispiness.  I don't want to complain though, the kitchen really was ridiculously accommodating here.

This was the top choice for 2 of my group.
Side: Thai jasmine rice.
The main dishes were served with big bowls basic rice, which I didn't try.  We were provided tons of rice, far more than the group needed even if we were big rice eaters, but I think we all barely touched the rice, opting to fill up on the other dishes instead.
Main: Green Curry beef, Thai eggplant, baby corn, basil.
The first main was finally a new item for me, green curry beef.

The flavor of the green curry was great, although it was very rich.  It was pleasantly spicy and quite flavorful.  The beef itself however wasn't very good, it was very chewy, very fatty.  The flavorful curry made up for it though, and most people opted for rice only to lap up more of this sauce.

The most successful dish so far, with 4 diners ranking it their top.
Main: Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar.
The second main was caramelised pork hock, another dish I was looking forward to, as it was crazy crispy last time, and I loved the sauce.

This one lived up to my memories.  The pork was remarkably crispy on the outside, moist, perfectly melty fat inside.  Sooo bad for you, but oh so good.

The sauce was again a flavor powerhouse, sweet and spicy and sticky and fantastic.  On the side was fish sauce chilli vinegar, also a bit spicy, and quite tasty.

This was my favorite dish of the night, and the overall winner for the group too, racking in 6 votes for #1.
Side: Stir fried Asian greens, garlic, oyster sauce.

The mains were also served with a side of stir fried Asian greens.  Last time, I referred to these as "token vegetables".  I didn't give them a second bite then.  But this time?  Shockingly good.

The gai lan was perfectly prepared, crunchy, succulent, bitter in all the good ways.  I adored the oyster sauce, salty and ridiculously tasty.

Somehow, this dish, of simple stir fried Asian greens, something I'd never order or give a second glance, was my second favorite dish of the night.  I raved about it, but I couldn't really convince anyone else to try it.  Several bowls of it went untouched.  They missed out, I'm telling you.
Dessert: Black sticky rice, passionfruit jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit, sorbet.
And then ... dessert.  Oh, man.

Last time, I raved and raved about the dessert, lamenting that I had filled up on all the delicious savory food.  This time was no different, except that my entire group was in the same boat.  Everyone was stuffed after the banquet feast.  I did remember thinking, while taking "just one more piece" of the caramelized pork hock, "hey, self, remember how much you loved dessert last time?  Maybe stop?"  But ... the pork hock, and those damn asian greens, were just too good.  I was stuffed.  I couldn't stop.

And then dessert came.  As before, a special one was prepared for me because watermelon was part of the "seasonal fruit', and I'm allergic.

And as before, this was fantastic, although a slightly different version of the parfait than before.  I think this is a dish that evolves with the seasons.  It still had the same black sticky rice and tapioca in the bottom, but this time the young coconut jelly was replaced by passionfruit jelly, an overly sweet element, but I did like the seeds in there for some crunch.  The fresh fruit was kiwi rather than strawberry (and watermelon for everyone else), which I liked more, just because I have kiwi less often than strawberries in California.

There were two sorbets on top, the white one that I think was coconut, and another fluffy pink one that I couldn't quite identify.  The toasted coconut and sesame cookie on top may have looked a bit haphazard, but I still liked the crunch they added too, and that sesame cooke straw was really tasty even on its own.

So, overall, a fantastic dessert, with lots of fun textures and flavors.  Creamy, chewy, crunchy, yum!
Decaf Long Black.
To go with my dessert, I opted for a long black, decaf.  Well, I intended it to go with my dessert.  It was horrible, extremely bitter, leaving me with notes that simply said: "awful".  I couldn't take more than a few sips before just giving up.

The only real miss of the night.
Longrain Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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