These days, Sydney’s Thai restaurants are as plentiful as the bikini-clad women on its beaches in summer.
But then again, there are Thai restaurants in Sydney and there is Khao Pla. And likewise, there are Thai chefs in Sydney and there is Pla Rajoratanavichai (cover image above).
After stints at popular Sydney hotspots Miss G, Spice I Am and two-hatted Mr Wong, Rajoratanavichai is finally overseeing the fiery woks in his own kitchen at this small 40-seater in the heart of Chatswood.
“You have to check out this new Thai restaurant” my friend Thelonious aka Theo suggests.
“What’s good there?” I skeptically ask.
“Every damn thing is good” he boldly declares.
There is more than one way to find out because it’s the second time I’ve been here in two weeks. I was impressed the first time so tonight, six of us huddle into this small restaurant. Theo is the grand old daddy, this being his third occasion here in as many weeks. And there are three Khao Pla ‘virgins’ including Monk, the avid Thai-food lover among us.
It is a cool and pleasant Thursday evening and the atmosphere in Chatswood is pumping with late-night shoppers.
There is a no-booking policy (except for 6 or more people) and the constant long queue at the entrance of Khao Pla since it opened in late July is testament of its popularity.
Write your name down on the waiting list and take a number.
Thankfully there are six of us for our booking so we happily waltz into the restaurant ahead of a waiting queue.
Crisp and grassy with tropical fruit aromas, a 2013 Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc is a great companion for Thai food.
A little different from the average neighbourhood Thai with its done-to-death Buddha decor, the walls of Khao Pla are plastered with streetscapes and food markets of Bangkok with funky hip hop as background music.
On my first visit here last week, we had a pink pomelo salad, its sweet tangy taste so appetizing, this salad left me pining for more.
So two plates of this salad is definitely a good decision for the six of us.
A classic Thai salad, tiny pomelo pods are mixed with prawns sliced lengthwise to soak up lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, chilli flakes, crispy shrimp and hair-thin kaffir lime leaf.
This salad renders pink pomelo dead boring on its own.
Marinated chargrilled pork skewers or moo yang are tasty enough on their own let alone a spicy sour tamarind dipping sauce.
This kind of marinated meat proves the weekend Aussie BBQ can be as tasty or as bland and boring as you want it to be.
Most people think ‘spicy’ when Thai food is mentioned.
This cannot be further from the truth because elegant Thai flavours of lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, tamarind and coriander come together so beautifully in a classic tom yum goong.
Thai green curry can be mundane as every Thai restaurant in town plonks this dish on their menu. Mediocre ones are bastardized, watery and taste flat at best.
Khao Pla’s version rivals the best of any I have tasted in Sydney. Fresh kaffir lime leaves, ginger and red chilli shards, Thai basil, cherry eggplant and whole sprigs of green peppercorn make all the difference. The attitude of its rich coconuty sauce is restrained and that’s how it should be.
The best part of this green curry are those fresh and crunchy pea eggplants popping in your mouth. This is one dish that willingly draws me out from my minimal steamed rice diet.
Eating out in Sydney has morphed into a melting pot of casual dining haunts all over the city. The atmosphere in Khao Pla is no different.
A large wooden dining table takes centre stage and diners are indifferent to sharing this table with up to four different groups at any one time. So here’s a tip for Khao Pla first-timers – make a booking for ten people and you automatically go into the draw to score this table.
Turnover is quick because the service is friendly, efficient and comes with that trademark warm and endearing Thai hospitality.
Green papaya salad is mixed with grape tomatoes, crispy pork crackling, dried shrimp, crunchy roasted peanuts and baby eggplant. The spicy, sour tang of lime juice, fish sauce and chilli is addictive and mouth-watering.
The best thing about som tum is this – it is first and foremost a fresh salad, which can be eaten on its own. But this kind flavour bomb can also accompany steamed rice unlike many western-style salad.
There are two versions of Thai fried rice on the menu and I have tried both.
Khao pad cha ($15) is a southern Thai style fried rice that is yellow with turmeric, wild ginger, prawns, chilli, baby eggplant, kaffir lime and Thai basil. The combination of so many flavours didn’t quite agree with my tastebuds.
My recommendation is the khao pad because it is simple Thai fried rice executed well with heady wok aromas.
Crying tiger is thick strips of chargrilled wagyu sirloin with a spicy tangy tamarind dipping sauce.
This must be one of the tastiest $16 dishes in the whole of Sydney. The flavours are disco-dancing on my palate.
I am a big fan of pinot noir from Pemberton and the Great Southern wine growing region of Western Australia, my favourite being the unfiltered Salitage Pinot Noir.
When a wine is light rusty red in colour like a 2011 Picardy Pinot Noir, it is already preempting me about its character and complexity. I detect cinnamon oak aromas and the elegant Burgundian style of this wine is quite obvious. Flavours are earthy yet restrained, supported by jammy ripe fruit and spice.
This wine is a good ‘half way’ point between our sauvignon blanc and a full-blooded red, let alone a beautiful match with a kana moo krob.
Corkage for wine is $3 per person and quite well justified considering we are offered some of the best glassware for any casual restaurant in Sydney.
Kana moo krob is wok fried crispy pork belly with bird’s eye chilli and Chinese broccoli.
The amount of crispy, succulent pork belly in this dish is generous. Oyster sauce, fish sauce, rice wine, palm sugar and bold garlic slices make up a savoury sauce worthy for every mouthful. The crunchy Chinese broccoli might as well be a mere spectator.
A twice cooked pork ribs is sweet and sour from a tamarind and palm sugar marinade.
The ribs would have been lightly blanched, marinated and then grilled. They are succulent and falling off the bone.
The dessert menu is short with only three items.
But a savoury black sticky rice and jasmine tapioca laced with dark sugarcane sauce, jackfruit, almond jelly and a scoop of Thai milk tea ice cream might as well be the one and only dessert you ought to try.
A coconut sorbet comes with coconut flakes, jackfruit, palm candy and roasted peanuts. This is a refreshingly good dessert to cleanse the flavour explosion on our palates.
Thai food blurs the lines between appetizers, entrees and mains and its taste sensations are difficult to match for any food lover looking for bold, exciting flavours.
The arrival of Rajoratanavichai’s casual Thai eatery among the huge melting pot of restaurants in Chatwood is a brave move on his part. There are literally hundreds of cafes, restaurants and food courts with countless options to choose from. Khao Pla’s space may be small and difficult to get in. But once you score a table, service is snappy and prices are bloody honest. Most important of all, the food speaks for itself.
My only gripe about Khao Pla is the chips on the porcelain crockery which is more a hygiene than aesthetic issue. But if the food is anything to go by, chipped porcelain would be the least of your concerns.
So dear readers, which is your favourite Thai restaurant in Sydney and if so, what is your favourite dish?
370 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood
New South Wales
Tel: +61 2 9412 4978
Opening hours: Lunch & Dinner 7 days. Bookings minimum 6 people.