For me the days of eating woeful neighbourhood Thai food are over. Some might call it a bold statement, but once you start eating some of the great Thai food that Melbourne has to offer, it is impossible to go back to boring spring rolls, peanut butter satay sauce and dishes lacking any balance of flavour (or any flavour at all!). Fortunately there are places like Ayatana which are changing that and serving plates of food with imagination and, more importantly, the necessary kick of flavour that Thai food needs.
Authentic or reinvented Thai cuisine is not new to Melbourne, with places like BangPop, Chin Chin and Gingerboy unafraid to serve the bold flavours of Thai street food; as well Easy Tiger and Longrain tackling a more refined take on Thai cuisine. Ayatana definitely sits in that second group, where they are looking to offer a contemporary take on Thai flavours and textures and move past the westernised, bland clichés that grace many of the Thai restaurants in Melbourne. I love BangPop and Chin Chin for not holding back with flavour, and Ayatana continues this trend with an effortless balance of sweet, sour, salty and heat in each dish, which leaves you wanting more. Where BangPop delivers an authentic fiery kick, Ayatana is a little more subtle with the heat, but I found their use of sourness mesmerising. It was not so much the lime, but the use of tamarind that made my taste buds leap with each mouthful.
Situated at the Windsor end of Chapel St, directly opposite The Woods of Windsor, the room looks designed for romantic dinners: black walls, candles and splashes of colour from the red bar and photographs of bustling Bangkok. The service is friendly and inviting, and it is the simple things, like holding doors open for guests, that make the difference. The wine list is concise and well-matched for the food with a strong selection of aromatic whites to marry with the flavours of Thailand and reds, like Pinot Noir, that match the spices and richness of dishes like the duck curry.
The menu opens with a single appetiser, a betel leaf dish, that sets the scene for the rest of the meal. This is a perfect mouthful, with the fresh betel leaf holding the filling of crispy prawn, hot from the kitchen, and the crunch of peanuts and roasted coconut giving it a wonderful play on texture. Ginger, mint and lime provide a kick of flavour, but it’s the caramelised tamarind sauce which gives it a wonderful mouthwatering quality.
We move into the entrees and choose from a long selection of dishes ranging from more traditional Thai to trend-influenced tacos and filled steamed buns (bao). Personally I avoided these fusion dishes, preferring to walk a more traditional Thai path, but from the reactions of other tables, they were certainly hitting the spot.
We started with a caramelised pork belly dish, with unctuous cubes of pork belly, cooked until meltingly delicious. The pork is served with a chilli jam, which edges towards being too sweet, but is snapped back into place by a squeeze of lime and the zest of mint and coriander. While I loved the pork belly, which is hard not to when it is cooked well, the tamarind rice salad was my favourite dish of the meal. This salad was a celebration of texture and balance, with crunch from cashews and crispy noodles; tang and freshness from crisp green apple and herbs; nuttiness from the toasted, almost puffed, rice; and a complex sauce of tamarind tartness.
With the quite generous portions we were starting to feel quite full, so we could not try all of the mains that sounded delicious (the lamb shank massaman curry, barramundi especially), so we went for the red curry. Perfect for the cold night outside, the red coconut curry sauce was rich and very well balanced, with a nice chilli warmth. I am always wary of dishes like this that use duck breast, as it is so easy for it to overcook and become chewy, but this had a nice meaty bite without being tough. The holy basil added a lovely floral note throughout the dish, with the pineapple and cherry tomatoes adding much needed sweetness and acidity to offset the richness of the coconut curry.
As I have often said, many Asian restaurants (well let’s face it, many restaurants full stop) do not execute desserts well, but Ayatana has honed in on delivering contemporary Thai-inspired desserts. The black sticky rice was another perfect cold weather dish, with sticky, but not cloying, rice topped with a rich egg custard and textures of coconut (raw, toasted). The custard and coconut was quite sweet, but the black rice had a slightly savoury note, so in the same mouthful they had a yin-yang harmony.
Ayatana fits a great niche in Melbourne’s Thai restaurants by plating up well-balanced, contemporary food, but in a relaxed, comforting and romantic setting. Part of the experience of BangPop and Chin Chin is the hustle and bustle of the room, reliving memories of Bangkok street food; but Ayatana’s concept is to offer a different, more intimate, experience. I already find myself yearning for that lovely sourness of tamarind, and the play on textures. My only tip would be, if you are unafraid of chilli heat, to ask them to kick it up a notch, as though the dishes are well-balanced, the heat might be lacking for those looking for a fiery dish.
(I should say that it was a dark night and a candle-lit room, and I did not want to interrupt the other diners’ experience with a camera flash, so the photos are not as illustrative of the food as they could be. For some MUCH better photographs, visit I’m So Hungree’s blog here: http://imsohungree.blogspot.com/2013/04/ayatana.html)
I dined courtesy of Ayatana, however my views are my own.