This restaurant has closed.
What's in a name? 'Rambutan' might leave something to be desired, but the food this Thai newcomer serves is so good that they could've called it Fermented Shrimp Head Paste (catchy, no?) and I'd still be there. Let's call it evidence of a further flowering of the Sydney Thai scene. Take the appearance of Chat Thai. This chain's outpost in the Galeries Victoria food hall in the city offers bains-marie filled with offal-authentic Thai eats and freshly pounded mango salads. Their newest branch, meanwhile, a narrow two-storey spot on Campbell Street opposite the Capitol Theatre, is probably the most polished-looking Thai-owned Thai restaurant in the country, and has been absolutely packed with Thais breakfast, lunch and dinner since opening a few months ago. I take the nearby Spice I Am as the benchmark for Thai food in Australia, and the new Chat Thai doesn't have that subtlety or attention to detail, but it's certainly good, certainly authentic and certainly a lot better looking. After years of farangs constructing glossily modern Asian restaurants, then slotting in Thai cooks almost as an afterthought here and overseas, it's nice to see the Jimmy Choo on the other foot, with Thai-driven interests yoking Western design smarts to their purpose and making full use of exposed brick and beams, polished floorboards and sans-serif type.
Rambutan sits somewhere in between. The kitchen is Thai-run in the sense that it's headed by Mai Busayarat, a chef from Chumphon province in Thailand's south. Busayarat has worked at Balmain's Tuk Tuk Real Thai, Mosman's Sala Thai and the more modern likes of Sydney's Jimmy Liks and China Doll. To the credit of owners Joe Natale and Milena Molena-Natale, they've given her her head. Not for Rambutan the surface-deep fishcakes-by-numbers of many modern Thai ventures, but rather a menu that walks the line between southern Thai authenticity and the expectations created by the gauzy curtains, clean lines and carefully dim lights. (Confidential to the owners: ditch the temple incense - it makes the place smell like a teenage girl's bedroom.) This is Oxford Street, of course - and the boozier part thereof, between Taylor Square and Hyde Park - and so Rambutan is half-bar, too, with plenty for the cocktail crowd.
Ground level is the main dining room and open kitchen, downstairs is the bar, though the line between the use of the two is blurred, with diners downing apple and wild nettle martinis over plates of lemongrass chicken and liver larb upstairs as readily as there are drinkers taking time out from their flaming ginger-and-lemon Piña Coladas for the green curry of grilled spatchcock with winter melon and pea eggplant or the tom kha mushroom hotpot with galangal. The salt-and-pepper squid, that bar snack barometer, is good, but not amazing (Longrain's is still the best in town) - the steamed pork, prawn and shiitake dumplings (China's siu mai by any other name) with plum sauce are better.
Upstairs the nattily dressed staff are either amiably on-it or benignly clueless. It's very much the Thai way to serve and eat the food as it's cooked, but the haphazard nature of the service here doesn't seem entirely planned. Attention to detail on things such as refills, cutlery and clearing plates is often remiss. The boys in the bar, on the other hand, are utterly charming in their enthusiasm. They've been trained by Marco Faraone, a regular contributor of cocktail wisdom to this magazine, and one of the best bartenders Sydney has seen. The drinks they're serving come from a list devised by Jason Crawley, a veteran of many good Australian and English bars. Flying in the face of a certain self-seriousness found in corners of the local cocktail scene, Crawley's list is all fun, from the Lob Loy ("what do you get when you cross a Scottish hero and a Thai ladyboy?" Scotch, sweet vermouth, maraschino syrup, bitters and Benedictine, apparently) and the Smoked Peach Samui Sazerac (Cognac, peach and Peychaud's bitters, vanilla sugar and Laphroaig whisky) to the tamer but no less pleasant likes of the Honey Soda Gin Gin (Plymouth, honey, lemon, soda, ginger beer) and the Lemongrass and Peach Sake Crusta.
As far as solids are concerned, let me advise that you not miss the wagyu beef. The menu says it's braised, but the cross-section of shin, about a half inch-thick, is so juicy and tender that it seems more like it's been poached. Sitting in a limpid broth accented with Vietnamese mint and black vinegar atop a handful of soft, wide, white, flat rice noodles, it has an almost pho-like clarity of flavour. A real surprise, and one worth re-examining in more detail. Probably not an ideal match for the Lob Loy.
The miangs I've seen at Rambutan - miangs being the pop-in-the-mouth betel-leaves topped with shallots and nuts and so forth popularised in Australia by Darley Street Thai and Longrain - haven't been showstoppers, but the smoked trout and grilled chilli eggplant number is certainly pleasant. Silken tofu, deep-fried crisp and served in a sesame tamari sauce is a nice twist on the usual salt-and-pepper arrangement, while the som tum, served with refreshing wedges of cucumber and apple, is made all the more interesting with the addition, on the side, of slices of richly spiced Thai-style pork sausages. The other must-have among the entrées is the quail. It's partially boned, infused with tea smoke and served with an insistent and moreish black pepper sauce and roast garlic.
Apart from the beef, the best main course is the pla nuang, a piece of blue-eye trevalla steamed to tenderness and served on a raft of sugar cane and lemongrass adrift in a clear soup flavoured with dill and turmeric. If those terms conjure a jangle of strong flavours and sweetness, let me paint you a picture instead of a dish of unusual subtlety and freshness, and one that does real favours to the fish that is its keystone. The stirfry of roast pumpkin with egg and garlic stems is a stodgy mess that only a vegetarian could like, and the crisp duck with sweet rambutan and tamarind sauce is even sweeter than the name suggests. Opt instead for the down-and-dirty flavours of the southern-style dry curry of lamb, all holy basil and green peppercorns. Or the pad prik king - a sticky braise of nicely rendered pork belly dotted with lime leaves and lengths of snake bean, cut beautifully by the accompanying dish of chilli-garnished rice vinegar.
Desserts are authentically unphotogenic - gloop being the key to their aesthetic. The duck egg custard, the selection of fairly ordinary ice-creams and sorbets - they're a far cry from the sublime likes of Sailors Thai's smoked coconut ice-cream. Not bad, but by no means essential. Perhaps you'd prefer a Hot Ginger Sake with Vanilla Espresso Martini Foam - more fitting, I feel, as a dessert than an aperitif.
"I have always found rambutans to have an insipid flavour as opposed to their spectacular appearance," writes David Thompson in Thai Food. The same certainly can't be said for this newest aspect of Sydney's diverse Thai restaurant scene, and we welcome it.