On an opium-induced high, surrounded by the bright colours used to mask what was once a gloomy and drab underground lair, we anxiously waited for the next hit, as the attendants scurried across the floor to the becks and calls of the other patrons. I am, of course, speaking not of a night filled with the narcotic alkaloids of the opium poppy, but an inspired dinner at the Red Opium restaurant in East Perth.
Inconspicuous and marked with just a small sign above the door, Red Opium is located in the eastern parts of the city, right near the Perth Mint. This heavily Thai-inspired eatery is headed by chef Jak Sookasem, who draws from his cultural heritage to create what he calls “Thai-inspired tapas”, a medium through which his patrons can enjoy and share a not-quite-traditional Thai meal. The restaurant’s interior decor bears a resemblance to the opium dens that were prominent in Asia and other parts of the world during the 19th century, all of which are now a mere relic of the past. Thailand especially was a hotspot for those looking for the euphoric high that inhaling opiates gave, however the last of the legal dens was shut down some fifty or so years ago.
When I first walked into Red Opium, the first thing that struck me was the opulence of the interior decor. Adorned with bright red cloth, and embellished with stone and bronze ornaments, Red Opium has a very exotic feel. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that not everything is a refined as it first seems. The paint is scratched on every chair, and the floor and walls look untouched since whatever was here before. They are all scars left behind by the many thousands who have been in the past in search of Red Opium highs.
The menu is divided into a series of small plates and large plates, in addition to a range of soup, salad and side dishes. The waitress informed us that they were all suitable for sharing, so we decided to order some of the small dishes to start. The menu states that some of the small plates come with three servings, however they were happy to add a fourth serving to each to accommodate our table. The dishes came out one by one starting with the Red Opium Shooters, oysters in a sauce of chili and lime.
There was a clear, yet not overpowering, hint of fish sauce that added just right amount of saltiness. A great way to start the evening, and left me wanting another dose. Next was the fried whitebait, garnished with fresh chili, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.
After the white bait the waitress brought to the table a plate of chicken satay skewers, accompanied by glutinous rice cakes, a rich peanut sauce and a cucumber relish. Sharing each dish amongst four was a sure way to tease the taste buds, and left us craving more each time we finished a dish. Is this how opium users felt while intoxicating themselves with the potent drug?
The final of the small plates was the Mini Hor Moks, little banana leaf-wrapped parcels of fish, red curry and egg.
With the small plates finished, the waitress returned to the table and asked what we would like next. This time, we ordered three large plates, a salad, and a side dish of jasmine rice. She asked how spicy we would like each dish, with options including mild, hot and extra hot. Given that not everybody at the table had the same tolerance for chili, and that the Thai cuisine is notorious for its spice, we decided to opt for the hot option.
First to the table was the Masaman beef curry (yes, it is normally spelled with a double s, however the menu has it spelled with just one. A typo? Or maybe it is part of the unique twist that the restaurant wants to give to the dish). Although its origins are not clear, this style of curry normally includes chicken or beef, with added potatoes and peanuts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, CNNGo put Massaman curry at the top of a list of the fifty most delicious foods in the world in 2011.
This was made using beef cheek, which was incredibly tender. The curry was packed with flavour, and the meat literally fell apart. I’d say it lives up to its CNN hype. Next was the Pad Thai, which was equally as delicious, with the rice noodles cooked soft but still with a little bit of chewiness, just as they should be.
I am a lover of green curry, so I couldn’t overlook it. This one was different from any other that I had previously had…it was deconstructed. How avant-garde! I am not usually a big fan of deconstructed dishes–the reason a dish is normally constructed is because there is usually a synergy between the different elements. A lemon custard is nice. Pastry is great. But a lemon tart, which marries the two, is leaps and bounds above either of the two elements.
I have to say though, this dish was great. It certainly did not feel like I was eating a green curry, that’s for sure, but the new, deconstructed, dish was something different altogether. It was a lot more like a French-style dish of pan-fried fish with a velvety sauce, just flavoured with the spices of a green curry. Très bon!
The menu didn’t really say anything about desserts, so we weren’t even sure if Red Opium served them. When asked though, the waitress kindly informed us that we had the choice of mango ice cream with sticky rice, or a tasting plate for three. So, of course, the next question was “What is on the tasting plate?”, to which she responded by saying that it has three “surprises from the kitchen”. I was intrigued. We ordered one of each dessert.
The first morsel on the tasting plate was a chocolate brownie with cookies and cream ice cream. Although not at all Thai, it was decadent and my favourite thing on the plate. In the middle was something a little more Thai-inspired, in the form of coconut ice cream, which unfortunately was a bit underwhelming and could have done with a much more distinct coconut flavour. The final element was a banana leaf-wrapped jack fruit and sticky rice pairing. Jack fruit has a very distinct taste, and it was not an overly sweet dessert, but it was nice and I enjoyed it. Overall I think it was a bit of an unusual tasting plate combination, and I think the chocolate brownie would fare better as a standalone dish. As a complete dish, the mango ice cream with sticky rice was the clear winner for me.
In all, it was a great, very well-priced, restaurant experience. The waitress attending to our table was very friendly and happy to answer any questions. We did find at times that the service was a bit slow, and we were waiting for long periods of time between courses, however this was more than made up for with the great food and friendliness. Just as the juice of the opium poppy has people yearning always for more, Red Opium may become my East Perth weakness. I want to rush back, for another hit, before the withdrawal symptoms strike.