“Sweetness weaves in and out of the heat in the form of kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, thai basil and pineapple – like the satisfying smell of rain dampening the air after a long hot Summer’s day.”
A DINING EXPERIENCE REVIEW
Type: Modern Thai Food: 7/10 Service: 7/10 Value for money: 7/10
- The menu is vegan and vegetarian friendly, though they couldn’t tell me much about the sourcing of the produce.
- Bookings are not essential, as you can only get a booking for tables before 6pm, and it is walk-in from then onwards.
- Must try: We got the “Feed Me Right Meow” menu which gave us 7 courses for only $55. A nice range of dishes that gives you a taste of what the restaurant has to offer, and very generous with the portions!
There is a lot of pink neon as you enter Rock Sugar, which sits on a stretch of Malvern Road home to some rather reputable eateries; such as Friends of Mine and Bistro Thierry. From outside in daylight, the restaurant seems quite tame and looks more like a sleepy cafe – but don’t let it’s exterior fool you. Tonight I arrive late for a 6pm booking and it is already bustling with patrons inside.
The front of house is a bubbly young waitress in denim overalls with a heavy American accent. Bathed in pink neon, seeing all the denim on the staff and being greeted by the intense perkiness of this woman – I almost feel like I’ve time travelled back to the 80’s. She’s not precious about my tardy arrival (unlike some of the other trendy restaurants around Melbourne) and because my dining partner is also late, she cheerfully puts me up at the bar for a drink whilst they prep our table.
Cocktails (or rather Rocktails as they call it on the menu) here are served in bubble tea/Boba containers – a novel idea, though I’m not too sure how environmentally friendly or sustainable this is. Hopefully the establishment recycles these containers, as you can imagine how many of them they would go through a day. I order a Coconut Strawberry Colada (featured in the photo above) to cool off, and chat to the bar tender in his colourful Hawaiian shirt before my friend Sengul arrives, looking sleek in all black and a fresh new haircut.
We both look a little out of place here. I don’t pretend to know much about fashion, but it seems that rock sugar is hosting a sea of carbon copy, ultra trendy 20 something year-olds tonight. A gaggle of women crowd around a large table wearing almost the exact same outfits: choker necklaces, crop tops with boyfriend jeans or flirty rompers. Rooty blonde locks and a deep suntan is another common denominator. It was almost comical in a weird, dystopian way. I suspect some famous Instagram model/celebrity checked in once upon a time. Is this what it was like back in the 80’s when everyone decided to wear shoulder pads and get perms done? Do things just start to seem like a good idea when more and more people decide to latch on to a certain trend?
Back to our table, Sengul and I are slightly overwhelmed by the menu – though not in a bad way. Everything just sounds delicious here, and like with all extensive menus it is hard to make a decision on where to start. We decide to get the “Feed Me Right Meow” banquet, which allows the chef to select 7 courses from the menu including dessert, for only $55 per person. Yes please. The starter to this South East Asian banquet is a smoked ocean trout betel leaf, with kaffir lime, chilli, shredded coconut and fish roe (featured in the photo above). There is a good balance of sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitterness from the betel leaf – something that is very important to get right in Thai cuisine.
To accompany the betel leaf wrap, we are also given some tamarind tofu rice crackers with a pomelo and chilli dressing. A great little side dish to add texture complexity to the starter, but Sengul and I both agree we probably wouldn’t get it again when dining a la carte as it is kind of like the equivalent of spending money on prawn crackers when you go to Asian restaurants (no offence to anyone who does this…but seriously why).
By the time we start eating, the restaurant is at full capacity, and there are patrons waiting for tables at the small bar behind us. Despite this, our dishes all arrive quite quickly and in a steady succession. Following our starters, we are presented with a few small sharing dishes, the first being a mouthwatering plate of fried chicken ribs with red nam jim, lemongrass, and chilli caramel (featured in the photo above). So tasty. You really can’t go wrong with fried chicken can you though? The chilli caramel is mild, but coats the crunchy, golden chicken ribs perfectly to keep them from going dry.
There are also Thai fish cakes! God these are good. Mum used to make them all the time back when we were young – they are fairly similar to the Indonesian variety. They are slightly spicy, and have a nice crisp, salty coating. Highly addictive. They are served with a side relish of prawn, kaffir lime, cucumber and green papaya relish to cut through the moreish flavours of the fish cakes.
When one of the main dishes arrives after our delicate little share platters, we get quite a fright. Showcasing an interesting way to present whole baby snapper on a plate, a waitress brings the dish to our table – attracting a lot of double takes from neighbouring diners. Even I am a little taken aback, and I’m used to nose to tail dining. There is just something deep-sea-monster-ish about the particular way the restaurant chooses to plate up the fish. Nevertheless, it is delicious and fresh. Great balance of flavours that do not overpower the natural flavour of the snapper, and an incredibly generous portion prepared just for the two of us. Perhaps it could do with more sauce – or less frying. I prefer my fish tender, like the way they do it back home in Indonesia. A wave of nostalgia hits me as we pick apart our sea monster. Suddenly I’m back in Bali, sitting on the beach and having a long and slow dinner of freshly caught Ikan Bakar under the stars. Sand caught in between my toes. The sound of crashing waves is the only thing to be heard for miles.
We are so full by this point, but a red duck leg curry soon arrives as we are dissecting the snapper. The scent is warm; like a gentle hug or a kiss on the forehead from a lover as you lie sleeping bathed in morning light. This warmth comes from the red chillies, galangal, cumin, and peppercorns. Sweetness weaves in and out of the heat in the form of kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, thai basil and pineapple – like the satisfying smell of rain dampening the air after a long hot Summer’s day. Again, the portion is a bit much for the two of us (given that we still have the snapper to tuck into) but we are not complaining. I love how the pineapple compliments the sweetness of the duck meat. We lap up the sauce with lots and lots of coconut rice.
Dreading dessert by this point, Sengul and I make the decision to quit halfway through the fish and the curry – but I start to feel guilty about the wasted food. They aren’t able to give us takeaways for the banquet items, which is slightly annoying. I know Chin Chin does this too and I don’t know why. I would love to have some leftovers stashed away in my fridge and that way the food won’t go to waste either. Does anyone know if this is some weird health regulation blocker that restaurants have to deal with?
Luckily, dessert isn’t too heavy. We are served large quenelles of coconut sorbet, with matcha, freeze dried raspberries, and gingerbread – a refreshing end to a well balanced banquet. A photo goes to Josh straight away, and I tease him about how he is missing out on one of his favourite dessert flavours. The man is nuts about coconuts.
Overall, the experience at Rock Sugar is relaxed, fresh and enjoyable. Whilst the food isn’t too authentic, the portions are decent. If you know me, you know how annoyed I get when restauranteurs think that “modernising” Asian food means skimping on half the flavour and serving teeny tiny amounts of it made “to share”. You definitely get enough food here. I recommend dining here for a casual night out, and definitely check out their cocktail menu.
Happy feasting, and do mind your table manners!