A DINING EXPERIENCE REVIEW
Type: Modern Thai Food: 8/10 Service: 8/10 Value for money: 8/10
- This humble little restaurant in the hustle and bustle of Church St is a fairly new addition to Richmond, run by two first-time restauranteurs. It’s a nice and relaxed atmosphere in comparison to the super trendy fusion restaurants popping up everywhere.
- If you can handle your spices, be sure to tell the staff. Their base recipes are tweaked to cater to a Western, less intense flavour palette but they are happy to kick it up a notch if you ask for “Thai flavours”.
- You don’t have to wait 45 minutes for a table, they do takeaway, the curries aren’t laced with salt, and you don’t have to scream at your dining companion to make yourself heard over loud music.
Richmond on a Saturday night in the middle of June is like navigating through wild traffic in Jakarta, battling crowds of j-walking pedestrians and struggling to comprehend why it is taking over an hour to get through Punt Rd.
For those of you who don’t live in Melbourne – this is footy season. Due to a lapse in judgement we stupidly decide to drive into Church Street to check out a new Thai restaurant. Never mind the traffic we have to endure to get to our destination – what really gets you is the parking. It’s as if the whole of Melbourne had a similar momentary lapse in judgement and decided to drive in as well. Even our secret parking spots are taken, and we drive around and around for at least half an hour before settling for a dodgy looking car park without any street lamps.
Luckily the car park isn’t far from the restaurant. Josh and I are surprised by how close it is to the train station, and we make a note to catch public transport in next time. Sabai is easy to miss from the outside – the restaurant front looks more like a cafe, and it’s a little dark. It resides where Mamame used to be, offering classically inspired Thai cuisine in a restaurant strip saturated by big name chains like Jimmy Grants, Fonda, and Meatball & Wine. Super out of place, but wonderfully refreshing.
We called up earlier to book for a party of two but we’re a little bit late due to the whole parking and driving and footy situation. Our host greets us happily nonetheless, without a smug smirk in sight… nor does he sport a hairdo that resembles a Pidgeot. I don’t know what it is about Melbourne, but all the trendy restaurants seem to hire front of house staff with ridiculous hair.
The place looks like a tiny cafe, but there’s also an upstairs space and it sounds like someone’s booked it out for a function. The noise isn’t bad and the entire place evokes a sense of calm and peacefulness. Music plays at a low volume in the background, the diners speak softly and aren’t rowdy, and there are only two staff working the floor – one mostly behind the bar counter. They gracefully float around the tables, efficiently topping up glasses and querying on how the diners are finding the meals. It is minimalist without the trendy blonde wooden furniture, staff all dressed in black, or airy high ceilings.
We’re seated close to the bar near the front, and the diners beside us have already started on some entrees that looks absolutely divine. The food looks well portioned and the scent wafting from their table makes our stomachs quite vocal.
Shasha’s tummy: “I think we should get extra roti, it looks good.”
Josh’s tummy: “Agree, but I also want coconut rice.”
Shasha’s tummy: “What are your thoughts on the salt and pepper squid? Her brain hates deep fried things but I don’t care what it thinks.”
If tummies could talk.
Our waiter comes back after allowing us to look over the menu and asks us if we would like to get started on drinks. Yes please. I order the Kuku pinot noir and Josh orders the James Squire. Sabai prides themselves with carefully selecting their beverage menu to pair well with their dishes. I instantly fall in love with the Kuku, despite having recently become bored with most Pinot Noirs. The Kuku is from New Zealand and has a strange smokiness to it which I like. Being a Pinot Noir, it is easy to drink and usually dangerous on the wallet – but I grin happily when I see that the price is surprisingly reasonable.
We order a few mains to share, with the aim of trying to get a flavour of the restaurant. Our first choice is based on a desire to find a dish in Melbourne that could beat Home Thai’s spicy pork belly dish in Sydney. Josh’s unhealthy obsession with that dish has led us to check every Thai restaurant offering a pork belly dish that sounds somewhat similar.
This dish differs slightly from Home Thai’s pork belly – in that it is not as crispy and salty. There is more sauce, and the smell is of fresh Kaffir Lime rather than of tamarind. I find that Sabai’s version is more balanced in terms of flavour, and the only thing that would make it a 10/10 is if the pork belly pieces come crunchier.
Our second dish is the duck red curry. Now apparently Sabai is most famous for their slow braised lamb shank Massaman curry and their yellow chicken curry, so I tried those two another time via Uber Eats (I can vouch that the Massaman curry is out of this world) – but this is hands down one of the best duck red curries I’ve had in Melbourne. It is quite spicy already without asking for additional flavour, so I assume that this is why it is not as popular as the other two dishes. For Josh the flavour king, and myself – raised by the Sumatran mother who literally eats lava for breakfast – this is what we like.
There is a rich, meaty, umami flavour in the sauce that isn’t drowned out by the creamy coconut milk. The heat from the chilli lingers on the tongue but doesn’t burn the lips. The duck meat is generous, and served on the bone. The red curry flavour is smokey, and there is just enough salt. One thing I find frustrating about modern Thai restaurants in Melbourne is that they tend to over compensate their dishes with salt when they tone down the flavour from the chillies. In my books, that’s a poor attempt at adapting classic flavours to a Western palette. I’m glad that Sabai stands their ground when it comes to classically spicy dishes.
Our third choice is recommended to us by our waiter, who claims that they have regular clients who come in to order this specific dish weekly. It sounds simple enough – cashew chicken stir fry – but the flavours are well balanced, despite being quite strong at the same time. There isn’t too much heat, saltiness, sourness or sweetness. Similar to their red duck curry, there is a deep umami flavour in the dish. It’s almost like the chef has a bottle of “essence of old-school street food” stashed away in the kitchen and has pour a generous tablespoon of it into the dish. That smokey, wok-cooked flavour lingers in your mouth as you bite into tender, juicy pieces of chicken.
There’s no room for dessert, so I’ll have to do a separate post on it next time. Or perhaps I’ll order some on Uber Eats. There’s just so much work you have to do when writing restaurant reviews. All this eating. It’s a massive responsibility.
Overall, we are ecstatic about this new addition to the Richmond restaurant scene/Melbourne’s Thai food scene. We both love Thai food and are a bit spoilt for choice whenever we are in Sydney, but have been slightly disappointed by the lack of variety at home. Sabai has received a number of praises and high rated reviews since their opening, and rightly so. They prices are a nice change to the current trend of restaurants charging $30 for Asian food that would cost you $5 to make.
I wish the crew all the best of luck with the restaurant and will be coming back very soon (and probably often) to tuck into another mouth watering meal.
Happy feasting, and do remember to mind your table manners!