Thai Me Upscale, Thai Me Downscale
Our first stop is a Thai canteen in Surry Hills with a name out of Dr. Seuss: Spice I Am. This tiny 20-seater has no proper chairs (only drum-shaped stools), no liquor license, not even a front wall: the dining room opens on to the sidewalk, which is daintily rimmed with potted heliconia. The Thai staff—most of them related—are warm and friendly. But they could staff the place with ogres and trolls and Spice I Am would still be the best Thai restaurant in town. Som tam (green-papaya salad), which lesser kitchens pass off as a dull and starchy garnish, is here returned to its proper, brilliant self. The strips of unripe papaya and long beans are snappy and bright, the lime juice and zest ring loud and clear, and the chiles are alarmingly fiery. Pla tod ka min is a deep-fried whiting, powerful with fish flavor and nuanced with turmeric, coriander, salt, pepper, and garlic. Spice I Am even serves the southern Thai specialty hoy tod, a savory crêpe filled with luscious briny mussels that I’ve never before found outside of Thailand. Michael and his friends stumbled upon Spice I Am by chance, back when few farang had heard of the place. After years under the radar, the secret’s out.
David Thompson is a white Australian who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on Thai cuisine; his encyclopedic, 697-page cookbook Thai Food is widely considered tops in the field. Thompson is now based in London, where his six-year-old Nahm was the first Thai restaurant ever to be awarded a Michelin star. But he rose to fame in Sydney at Sailors Thai, still going strong in the touristy Rocks district. The austere modern space is softened by lovely yellow, pink, and green silk wall coverings and vases of fragrant lilies. Our dinner includes several standouts from Thompson’s cookbook, which Michael has all but memorized. Back in New York he once made me the same braised beef ribs, with great success—yet these are a whole other thing. The grass-fed beef is richer than any I’ve tasted back home, and complemented by sharp, piquant notes of lime juice, coriander, and a sprinkling of shredded kaffir-lime leaf. A northern-Thai pork sausage dissolves on the tongue like foie gras, before giving way to the thrilling burn of ginger and chiles. Like Spice I Am, this is no-holds-barred Thai cooking, a medley of intense yet discrete flavors—from bitter to tangy, never too sweet—that play broader and deeper than what we’re accustomed to in the States. Each plate is a lush and colorful still-life that makes you wonder: Can I ever go back to pad thai?
Progressive Lunch in Chinatown: Duck, Duck, Goose
In a country where culinary borders exist only to be crossed, it’s perhaps not surprising that a Singapore-born, Sydney-bred Chinese woman could become a master of classical French cooking. Chui Lee Luk moved to Australia at the age of seven. As a teenager she won a copy of Waverley Root’s The Food of France in a drawing contest and read it front to back. Three decades later, Chui runs the kitchen at Claude’s, one of Sydney’s most acclaimed restaurants. But by day she finds her joy in the crowded alleyways and steam-filled dumpling joints of Chinatown. "My parents took me here every weekend back in the seventies, when Chinatown was just a single block," she recalls as we stroll past shops selling deer-antler extract and bull’s testicles. "At that time, Cantonese was the only option. Now it has just exploded, and there’s all sorts of regional cooking as well." Case in point: Chinese Noodle Restaurant, which specializes in the hearty, wintry dishes of the north. Owner Qan Xiao Tang was a concert violinist back home in Beijing; arriving in Sydney in 1991, he found no orchestra work, so he opened this restaurant.
Through the kitchen window you can watch Qan making his famous wheat noodles, unfurling and then beating out great long strands of dough. The noodles and braised dumplings—earthy, rich, filled with pork or spicy lamb—are the stars here, but there are also delectable fried calamari, a great jellyfish salad (remarkably crunchy, and far better than you’d expect, tossed with cabbage and julienned cucumbers), and a shredded-chicken salad that puts Wolfgang Puck’s version to shame.