Swimmer crab curry
Locals know and love this city-quality Thai treasure in the suburbs. For them, any excuse to dine here is a good one.
Tonight, it’s that my long-time friend’s leg has been dysfunctional for some weeks. She’s desperate to get out somewhere comfortable and civilised, and Siam 1 means minimal travelling for her.
I hadn’t done any homework or given much thought to her chosen venue, so I wasn’t planning to write a review. But with instructions in the operation of a clever phone application I wished I’d known about sooner (her husband is in IT) and review-worthy food under my fork, I suddenly found myself taking notes.
Siam 1 was born four years ago – just before the Beijing Olympics – the younger sister of Little Thai Princess in Glen Iris, which closed a short time later. I suspect little has changed here since its early days in the strip of shops on Koornang Road in 2008, but the décor’s holding up and owner Wichit “Jimmy” Maneeboon’s food has retained its edge, and kept moving with the times too.
Maneeboon, the youngest of six children, grew up in Thailand’s north-east – the Isaan area, known for its hot, spicy food. He was the one called to his mother’s side when she needed help in the kitchen, so he learnt her ways and her respect for traditional methods and quality ingredients. He put them to good use at the Siam InterContinental Hotel Bangkok for four years while studying interior design at university and made his mark in the kitchen.
When he moved to Melbourne in 2002 and tasted the local Thai food, Maneeboon considered it wasn’t nearly spicy enough, so he opened Thai Princess in Malvern. He’s a loyal Carnegie citizen, so the eventual move to his own suburb was part of the plan.
Siam 1 offers a comprehensive list of traditional street cuisine, similar to the food Maneeboon’s mother taught him. Dishes can seem a little daunting at first study of their Thai names, but that each is explained and ingredients carefully listed has probably gone a long way to this local’s success.
From the “small and tasty” section, the duck-breast roll was a natural starting point – tender duck meat, finely sliced water chestnut, shiitake mushrooms and bright shredded carrot filled the carefully fried rice paper rolls. Their accompaniment, a sugar and vinegar syrup studded with crunchy chunks of peanut, cut through the fried casing and picked up the flavours of each ingredient.
The choice of a second fried dish was poor on my part (but I still hadn’t really intended to write about this restaurant). It was a dish of “moo krop” – crispy pork belly with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce enhanced by mint, red onion and fried shallots. I found the pork a little dry, without much flavour, and although the sauce was interesting, it wasn’t enough to save the dish.
Next, soft-shell crab (yum phoo nim thod) in a delicate, crisp rice-flour coating was tossed through a bright salad strewn with mint, coriander and green apple. Its sweet-chilli tamarind sauce dominated the more delicate flavours – but not unpleasantly.
A lamb shank tom kati (a slow-cooked single shank in a delicate coconut broth) showed the chef’s willingness to experiment with the flavours of his past and the ingredients popular in Melbourne’s winter. Substituting lamb for traditional beef worked well in the pale, creamy sauce fresh with lime, basil, coriander and spring onion and given depth with the pungency of bird’s-eye chilli.
Our next courses were a duck red curry and a turmeric-hued curry with tiger prawns and blue swimmer crab. The golden-hued seafood dish was given fabulous texture and subtle sweetness by the shredded crab meat and the addition of bamboo shoots and green beans, while the duck curry’s standouts were its just-firm eggplant and respectfully treated poultry.
Maneeboon accepts that Australians enjoy dessert and he’s deferred to the expertise of a well-known boutique manufacturer for ice-creams and sorbets. The dessert tasting plate is a treat not to be missed. It arrives on a long wooden board, tiny dishes of poached banana with palm-sugar syrup, a divine black sticky rice pudding, a dash of sorbet and a tangle of shredded succulent coconut.
If I went back to Siam 1, wearing my reviewer’s hat, I’d probably order differently – but now I’m the one looking for an excuse to return. I think I’ll just eat and enjoy and leave my trusty new phone app in my bag.
65 Koornang Road, Carnegie
Cuisine \ Thai
Chef & owner \ Wichit “Jimmy” Maneeboon
Prices \ Small dishes $10-$18; rice courses $18-$27; desserts $10-$12
Open \ Monday to Thursday, Sunday 5.30-10pm; Friday, Saturday 5.30-11pm; Thursday, Friday noon-3pm
Phone \ 9571 7334
The Verdict \ Put on your list
A glowing golden statue’s image is repeated in the painting behind it and masks evenly spaced along the wall, yet the Thai theme doesn’t feel overworked at this shopfront diner. Dark mushroom-toned walls and low lightshades create a cosseting ambience, while smooth polished floors and bare timber tables keep things informal.
Seating along coffee-coloured banquettes is snug enough that neighbours can be ignored or acknowledged – that’s up to you. Timber racks softly groaning with the weight of packing crates and bottles at the service counter hint at a passion for wine, and quality crockery and cutlery show equal respect for food.