Restaurant Review: House of Chang
I share the attitude of expedient Thai Buddhists: what fault was it of mine that the fish I was about to consume just happened to be dead when the chef bought it?There's no missing the Thai newcomer on Jackson St, since House of Chang is writ large and loud on a Bollywood-style billboard out front.
Plus it's in the most vivid shade of mauve the colour associated by the middle class of 1960s New Zealand with butterflies on houses and the glittery shirts of bodgies.
But before we get too judgmental, let's step inside to view Petone's latest tourist attraction, which might alternatively be billed as The House of a Hundred Buddhas.
The walls are like you see in a temple, a-glitter with pierced gilded screening yet, as my architect guest David McGill pointed out, everything stops at the top of the wall, and the raftered ceiling reverts to the factory or warehouse it always was.
Never mind, instead of looking up, you might look down upon the intricacy of your carrot carvings, or along the row of real orchids in vases laid out upon the low partition beside your table.
Whether from a giant standing statue, a painting or the smallest model temple, be assured the benign gaze of the Buddha is upon your meal from at least 10 different angles.
Either end of the bar, statues of the Buddha's serpent guardian form a sort of spiritual in-house security force, keeping drinkers in line.
It's enough to nudge your conscience into showing compassion for all sentient beings by ordering vegetarian, for which a large vego section of the menu leaves no excuse.
But I share the attitude of expedient Thai Buddhists: what fault was it of mine that the fish I was about to consume just happened to be dead when the chef bought it?
First things first, however: we began our assessment with the first round eliminator, tom yum.
This version of tom yum goong was more a tom khar gai because it was made with coconut cream, but this is New Zealand not Thailand, so why indeed not?
Worldwide, there are any number of recipes for prawns with coconut cream so, not surprisingly, I found the prawns, mushrooms and tomato to be equally delicious in a creamy broth as in the clear classical one.
Slightly sweet, assertively flavoured and well scented with lemongrass, this broth had been seasoned with a goodly slosh of the fish sauce bottle.
David insisted upon the tom yum po tak, which turned out to be a slightly disappointing, clear, stripped-down version with mixed seafood, quite nice but relatively plain, which only goes to show what happens when diners stray from the path of pure tom yum.
I realise Thailand is well known for illicit substances but, really, what is the secret ingredient in the pad kra prow, promised by the menu to "make you a different person".
On closer inspection of the dish description, I didn't think a common-or-garden stir-fry of the flesh of one's choice was going to show the chefs up to their best, so we went instead to the section headed "The House Of Chang's Recommended (Mains)" for the deep-fried whole snapper in tamarind sauce.
Presented at the table on a long platter, largely but not completely boned out, it was most dramatic.
I got to start with the totally edible, deliciously crispy, deep-fried fin at the tail end of the beast, while David crunched and sucked away at the equally crisp head; the flesh between was as pearly and firm as could be.
An accompanying sweet-sour tamarind sauce was just perfect with our Brancott Estate Gewurztraminer: belting out classic aromas of rose and lychee, it was off-dry on the palate yet rendered seemingly less sweet by the food.
The House of Chang is part of a growing trend towards Thai restaurant chains in New Zealand , as represented in Wellington by Thai Chefs and A-Roy Thai Express in the central city, and by Thai Canium out in Miramar.
Already there are House of Chang Thai Restaurants in Albany, Whangaparoa and Whitianga, none of which might inspire much confidence in the new branch (with such a wide spread of properties, how are standards to be maintained?) except for one vital fact: Petone's manager is also a 50 per cent shareholder, which explains why he's so fully focused and hands-on.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Most Kiwis, including me, are always a sucker for a creamy Thai curry, particularly when it is billed as "Duck For King" and consists of roast duck in spicy coconut cream with tomatoes and our cool climate staples Aussie green beans and frozen peas. While the grapes seemed even more spuriously Thai, the chunks of fresh pineapple were totally classical and again, a great match for the Gewurz.
HOUSE OF CHANG THAI RESTAURANT
340 Jackson St, Petone
Phone: 566 5599
Open for lunch Mon-Sat 11.30am-2.30pm; dinner 7 nights from 5.30pm.
Price range of mains: $17.90-$25.90
Cost: $89 for two (excluding wine)
The Dominion Post