Restaurant review: PhuThai Esarn

PhuThai Esarn’s decor is colourful, service is caring and food is four-star.
PhuThai Esarn’s decor is colourful, service is caring and food is four-star.


35 Cambridge Tce
Ph: 801 5006
Fully licensed & BYO
Open: Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm, 5pm-late; Sat-Sun 5pm-late
Price range of mains: $14.50 to $27
Food: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Ambience: 3/5
Wine list: N/A
Cost: $71 for two
(excluding wine)

As the sign in the window of PhuThai Esarn says, "We used to locate at 21 Majoribanks Street."

So they did - and garnered a positive review from me, as I recall, for their tasty, low-priced cuisine, if not exactly for their chaotic decor.

PhuThai Esarn's spacious new premises, the former Thai Panom restaurant in Cambridge Tce, feels much the same, only with the gaudiness quadrupled.

To set the required tone, the walls are bright scarlet and strung with a mad necklace of multi-coloured fairground lights. Shoulder bags vie for space with woven cloth, artificial flowers and statues of temple dancers. A pyramid-shaped cushion sits atop a cabinet with yet more craft merchandise, this time for sale.

It's a bit like the Patpong night market, minus the go-go girls and the beer-bellied German tourists.

The table settings - bamboo place mats and brass Thai cutlery - are rigorously traditional, as is the blue and white crockery. Crucially, this was all clean, although when I scratched a trail with my thumbnail on the back of my chair, through a layer of greasy grime to the wood, I instantly felt the need to wash my hands.  

It takes courage to bill your restaurant "PhuThai Esarn Restaurant: Authentic North-Eastern Thai Cuisine", because of all Thai provincial cuisines, Isan's provides the greatest challenge.

With poor soil, floods, droughts and extreme temperatures, this northeast province has a hard time with agriculture, inspiring a degree of foraging for silkworms, frogs, lizards, snails, crickets, grasshoppers and red ants.

Then there's larb, a class of chicken, beef and pork salads, nowadays usually cooked but traditionally semi-pickled and eaten raw. A Thai friend talks about one particular Isan food stall in Bangkok. It apparently sells all sorts of marinated raw meat larbs, so utterly delicious that he is resigned beforehand to suffering the trots next day.

Unsurprisingly, the chicken larb at PhuThai Esarn is cooked in its marinade, and having had it likewise at other Thai restaurants around Wellington, my conclusion is that our  inherently soft-textured New Zealand chicken does not respond well to mincing and boiling, as it so easily toughens and dries out.

So with that Isan specialty out of contention, we were left with the som tum.

Authorities on Thai food agree this bruised vegetable salad originated in Isan as a lunch dish or snack.

Until now, Thai restaurants have substituted grated carrot for the green papaya of the original, which gives the firm texture, but not the flavour, being sweet rather than sour. Green papaya is now available and goes into the som tum at trendy mod-Asian places like MooChow Chow in Auckland and Dragonfly in Courtenay Place.

But when you compare prices - $20 at Dragonfly and $13.50 here - it wouldn't surprise me if PhuThai continued to use the much cheaper carrot, price-point surely being one reason this restaurant is so perennially popular.

As for the dressing, it hit exactly the right sweet-sour-salty-hot note, but it might have been nice to see some snake beans, or at least short lengths of ordinary round green beans. A beef salad attested to  the delights of brief cooking. It had an aromatic, sharp sweet-sour dressing and a generous sprig of fresh mint (though a little coriander, Vietnamese mint and basil would have made it perfect).

Paenang beef curry we ordered because neither my guest nor I enjoy incendiary levels of chilli.

The service was gentle, polite and caring. It was a busy Friday night, so a 20-minute wait between our tom yums and our shared mains was pretty good.

Finally, a modest $6 corkage meant I could take along a special bottle of 2012 Gladstone Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and marvel yet again how New Zealand has managed to morph this French grape variety into a wine so perfectly matched to the pungent roots, aromatic herbs and tropical fruits of Southeast Asia.


Tom yum

A fortnight ago I suggested you try the tom yum at Singapura. This week I'm opining that the tom yum at PhuThai is even better.  Here it's even more amazingly intense (you need to dilute it with rice) thanks to ticking every last ingredient on my checklist: chicken stock, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chilli, coriander leaf, lime juice, fish sauce, mushrooms and whole prawns.

The Dominion Post