Despite its idyllic Southern Highlands location, Paste is not a story of pared-back paddock-to-plate dining. It's not the place where you'll find a menu listing hyper-local ingredients, or take a leisurely post-meal stroll through the kitchen garden. What you will find, however, is flavour – and bags of it.
Thai chef Bee Satongun and chef husband Jason Bailey (a Mittagong local) opened the Australian outpost of their Michelin-starred Paste Bangkok Thai restaurant (also in Luang Prabang, Laos) in mid 2020.
A challenging time for any restaurant owner, especially for those serving up a bold and unapologetic cuisine in a relatively sleepy town. But, with thanks to loyal locals and an influx of city folk booking country escapes, the restaurant has thrived.
The menu reads as a chronicle of Thai culinary history, each dish referencing a specific time and place. There's a selection of Paste's best hits, including snack-sized rice crackers topped with roasted duck, sawtooth coriander and a whisper of nutmeg; a sweet-salty watermelon and ground salmon salad; and smoked coconut noodles with palm sugar sabayon, plus a range of seasonal dishes that change every three to four months.
Flavours and techniques may come from centuries-old recipes, but the presentation is very much in the here and now. Betel leaves elegantly topped with plump oysters, pomelo and thin strands of makrut lime leaf are pretty and palatable, as are the tapioca dumplings, which are filled with smoked Snowy River trout and hand-rolled to spherical perfection.
The lighter dishes pack serious punch, but Satongun's true speciality is curry. A smoky southern crab curry sees opaque chunks of blue swimmer crab suspended in a thick and aromatic amber-hued sauce made from a complex paste that requires more than 15 ingredients, namely fresh turmeric and black pepper. Kangaroo Island sea asparagus is there for texture and relief.
An intense pork-neck stock forms the base of a slipper lobster and egg noodle dish, the gelatine working as a natural thickener. And although flavoured with dried shrimp, the silky broth doesn't overpower the slipper lobster's delicate meat.
When it comes to flavour and presentation, it's clear that this is not Satongun and Bailey's first rodeo, however the attention to detail front of house fails to match what's happening behind the scenes. The food alone is enough to warrant a road trip.