CHARM (v): to delight, to captivate.
(source: The Concise Oxford Dictionary)
But in Thai, “charm” is the word for “bowl” (the thing you eat out of, not what Mitchell Johnson does fora living).
As we ALL effing know, Valentine’s Day was yesterday. A day that you either really really love or you really really hate. Adam and I fall into the latter category. Both of us think it’s stupid, a waste of money and kinda pointless. To us, romance is all about spontaneity and being all lovey-dovey every day of the year, not just on February the 14th. If a guy (or girl) buys a gift for their partner on Valentine’s Day just BECAUSE it’s Valentine’s Day, he or she is doing it out of pressure and obligation and well, that’s not very romantic isn’t it? With this in mind, Adam and I have vowed not to give each other gifts for Valentine’s Day, especially since we buy random things for each other during the year anyway.
Having said that though, we couldn’t help but make dinner plans for the night. Now we all know that Valentine’s Day means “sucking money off gullible lovey dovey folk” to many Melbourne restaurateurs. To “celebrate” Valentine’s Day, they bring out a “special” menu with perhaps five or six different courses. And obviously, you can get those same five or six courses for half the price of the “special menu” on any other day BUT Valentine’s Day. While it would’ve been nice for us to eat at a hatted restaurant, Adam and I decided to steer away from them and go somewhere more low-key and less try-hardy. And that, my friend, is how we ended up driving down to Albert Park at around 7pm for dinner at Charm Thai Restaurant.
Charm, a funky-looking Thai restaurant, in bustling Victoria Ave was featured in a Stephen Downes’ review two weeks ago. The fact that Downes gave it a thumbs up (as did John Lethlean last year in The Age) and the fact that Charm was featured in Extra Food’s “Top 10 Thai Restaurants in Melbourne” article last year got me sold. Now a bit of a background: I’m not well-versed in Thai cuisine. In fact, I can literally say that I’ve been to a Thai restaurant less than 10 times in my 23 years of being on this planet. Yes, I know. It’s sad. Especially since Melbourne is full of Thai restaurants. The main reason that explains my inexperience with Thai restaurants is that mum never used to take us to those places when we were growing up. To her, Thai food is “just like Indonesian food but with less coconut milk, and more lemon grass.” And because mum cooks pretty food Indonesian food, obviously we rarely eat out at Indonesian restaurants. Not that there are any good Indo eateries in Melbourne anyway. As I started dining out with friends more often and less with family I started sussing out other cuisines, including Thai. But my experience with Thai food hasn’t been too fantastic. Yes, it tasted alright but I had to agree with my mum. Tasted a lot like what she cooked at home. Less coconut milk, more lemon grass. And a lot of it was horrible too. Too heavy with curry. Too sweet. Spices overload. Not enough balance. Bleh. I couldn’t help but wonder what Aussies saw in Thai food.
But then I went to Charm. And my perception of Thai food changed.
I was pleased to see no cliches such as Buddha statues, lotus napkins and blatant tranny wait staff (not that there’s anything wrong with trannies). The space, although small, was clean, colourful and very welcoming. Little floral motifs (which looked strangely similar to that of a well-known French brand whose monogrammed bags that I cannot stand) dotted a wooden panel that allowed light to shine through, making photo taking a little bit easier for me. Photos of Albert Park and surrounding Port Melbourne streetscapes taken by an amateur Thai photographer dotted one wall, creating a personal touch to the space. What prompted thumbs up from me, however, was the sounds of Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe singing “West End Girls” and “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” from the dining room’s audio system (I love my 80s pop, squeeee!). We were led to a table which was covered in white table cloth as well as two sheets of butcher’s paper a la yum cha style. Two oil pastels were also on the table so that patrons could doodle while waiting for their food.
We were both given two menus, both of which had a badge that said “eat” and “drink” respectively to denote the food menu and the wine list. Cute. Although Charm’s offerings were fairly predictable, one would not be stuck for choices as it is a pretty extensive menu apart from the dessert menu which probably only had about three choices. We initially decided to share two mains, one entree and one dessert to share but Adam was feeling rather hungry last night and so we decided to have two entrees.
After taking our orders, the waitress gave us our drinks (an iron-fisty Singha for me and a coke for Adam) and complementary coated peanuts. Not long after, our entrees arrived.
Tort man pla (Thai fish cakes, 7 for $11.50). These are something that you’d find in all Thai restaurants. But what differentiates Charm’s fish cakes to the ones that are served in other places is that Charm’s fish cakes are home made, which is unusual for many surburban Thai restaurants. They were made out of minced flathead fillets and blended with a red curry paste, finely chopped snake beans and shredded kaffir lime leaves. Accompanying them was a small dish of sweet and sour dip dotted with chopped cucumbers and crushed peanuts. The fish cakes were amazing, perfectly golden, light yet slightly rubbery and full of flavour. Tons better than the frozen stuff they serve at Poppy Thai (and I know theirs is frozen because Aaron and Poppy’s head chef went shopping for cooking ingredients once and she bought 10 billion boxes of frozen fish cakes for the restaurant).
Another dish that features prominently in Thai restaurants is the yum talay (or ta lai, as Charm’s menu puts it), a light and tangy seafood salad. I’ve seen it presented with seafood extender at other Thai places (quelle horreur!) but was glad to find nothing like that at Charm. For $13.90, I was startled to see such a small square plate with what looked like a handful of vegies but after a bit of probing, I saw soft and squidgey calamari knobs and succulent prawns amongst a tangled mass of celery, red onions, carrots, lettuce, coriander leaves and capsicum. A simple lime dressing made the dish very refreshing and clean.
We waited a bit for the mains to arrive which gave the waiters an opportunity to clear away our plates and for us to doodle on the paper. Yeah, I ain’t no Van Eyck but it HAS been seven years since VCE art classes. Sigh.
The restaurant’s description of moo prix pao (stir fried roasted chilli paste with pork $18) caused me to have a bit of a giggle but that didn’t stop me from ordering it. Indeed, there was a lot of sauce that came with the thin slices of pork – but good sauce it was. It was a sweet roasted chilli paste sauce that was intensified by dried shrimp powder and a bit of lime to give it a slight tang. Add some red capsicum, some onions, some bok choy and some mushrooms and you have a pretty damn good dish. Whenever I eat pork, I feel somewhat bloaty inside but surprisingly enough, this dish left me feeling light.
Our final main was something that was written on the specials board (also forgot to mention that the seafood salad was also another special). It was the pla pad prix thai($26) which consisted of lightly coated and fried barramundi pieces sauteed with bok choy, red peppers, spring onions and snow peas in a brown sauce made out of red curry paste, chicken stock and oyster sauce. The combination of Schihuan peppercorns and chilli flakes that fleckered this dish made it a little bit hot… but not too hot for me, who is slowly working on introducing chilli into her diet bit by bit (this is coming from a girl who never used to eat chilli at all which is pretty surprising given I am Indonesian). Again, this was another dish that was yummy although perhaps a little less salt would’ve made it a little bit nicer.
I couldn’t leave without trying one of their very few desserts and so we opted to share a serving of the ever-present black sticky rice with mango ($9). The Khalua ice cream with espresso sounded more exciting to me but I had to say no to that because I’m currently on a coffee ban for the rest of the month and I was keen to see right through it (sigh). Anyway, I liked that the sticky rice wasn’t overly sweet (other places usually put a crazy amount of sugar in it), and I liked that the rice was not too soggy (other places cook it like congee). I liked the fact that the mango, cut in half and into six pieces, tasted perfectly sweet and the fact that the roasted coconut shavings on top created an awesome textural contrast. But for some reason, I felt that the dessert was a bit of a let-down. Oh well. Can’t always win.
The bill came to $93, including drinks and two servings of white rice. Given that we ate a lot of food between the two of us, I’d say that it was fairly reasonable (and I was hoping that dinner would cost just under $100 anyway). With a great location (Port Melbourne beach was just down the road for a romantic stroll), great atmosphere and friendly staff who exuded more enthusiasm than Chow Yun Fat’s character in Anna and The King. Little touches such as the paper and oil pastels as well as the little elephant key rings they gave us (“to celebrate Valentine’s Day”) made the whole experience a little bit more personal and demonstrated a restaurant that cared about good service. Fobby dumpling restaurants, PLEASE TAKE NOTE! The food, although not terribly ambitious or exciting, was nevertheless very, very good for a suburban Thai restaurant. It gave me faith in Thai cuisine all over again and showed that by simply using fresh ingredients and not making dishes overly try-hardy and heavy, Melbourne Thai restaurants CAN produce decent food. While I’m sure there are probably a handful of better Thai restaurants in Melbourne, I could honestly say that last night I was charmed.