Let's face it. Jarern Chai is unlike any Asian grocery Sydney has seen. Plate glass windows. Subway tiles. Chic typography. It looks more like the layout of a modern Italian provedore. Say hello to the newest business venture by the folk behind Chat Thai, a chic place to pick up Thai groceries and elusive herbs, chillies and tropical fruits. Even better news. It comes with Boon Cafe, a small Isaan specialist restaurant that offers Single Origin coffee and Penny Four pastries. Food worlds just collided in a mash-up of gustatory bliss.
Oversized light fittings over the cafe counter
It's hard not to gush over the set-up here. There's plenty of natural light, splashes of colours and carefully arranged vases of fresh flowers throughout the space. You would never have guessed this was a hardware store only a few years back.
Boon Cafe seating
There's not a great deal of seating and even though Boon Cafe only opened a week ago, the place has already generated early buzz. Its striking facade brings in a constant stream of curious passersby. They've committed to serious hours here too. The cafe is open from 7am until midnight seven days a week.
Larb padt sandwich $12
Northern region stir fried spicy minced pork, grilled chicken liver, soft herb and pickled cabbage salad
The lunch menu promises to mix up Thai flavours in ways not seen before. That means offering up pork mince larb padt in a sandwich, a concept that seems ridiculous at first but makes perfect sense the more you think about it.
There's no compromise on the larb, a jumble of heavily seasoned pork mince jammed between two weighty slices of Brickfields sourdough bread slathered with organic Gympie cultured butter. A slew of pickles, cabbage, cucumber and carrot is pepped up with fresh mint and Thai basil leaves. It reminds me of a Thai version of banh mi.
Nahm prik makua $11
Northern region smoked eggplant relish, soft-boiled egg, soft herb and pickled cabbage salad
The nahm prik makua with smoked eggplant relish has a feisty kick of chilli. They use the same cabbage salad with herbs with the bonus of a soft-boiled egg. The lightly toasted sourdough requires a good set of choppers around the crust, but the sturdiness is exactly what you need to adequately house its party-going tenants.
If sandwiches aren't your style, you can opt for the rice bowl. There are seven types of sandwiches on the menu (available 11am-4pm) that include grilled chicken with roasted cashew butter and fried fermented pork and rice cakes.
Cold rice noodles with fried crab and prawn cake $18
They'e mixing things up with noodles too, serving fusilli with Thai pork sausages, spaghettini with crab and egg noodles with chicken mince and thousand year eggs. Cold rice noodles come with fried crab and prawn cake or fried fermented pork and rice cake.
Tossing the cold rice noodles with the salad
The crab and prawn cake is more delicate than it looks, a cloud of fluffy sweetness rolled in panko crumbs and deep-fried. There's a terrific zing from the Thai basil and mint in the noodle salad.
Pastries by Penny Fours and sourdough bread from Brickfields
Jarern Chai Asian Grocer
I'm used to squeezing my way through narrow aisles jam-packed with noodles, tea and treacherously stacked crockery but it's a bit of treat to wander through Jarern Chai, easily done pre- or post-meal.
Potatoes, onions, garlic and Thai pumpkins
Wooden crates lined with hessian are used to showcase some of the produce. There's an incredible range of products available, including fresh tumeric, pomelos and longans.
The grocery aisles include all kinds of kitchenware, including traditional metal tiffins, enamel cups and mesh strainers.
Fresh flowers at the entrance to the walk-in cooler
At the front of the shop you'll find a separate door to the walk-in cooler. It's a treasure trove of lucrative produce that includes everything from paradise pears to betel leaves to fresh bamboo shoots.
Yellow dragon fruit
Banana bells and banana leaves
Fresh bamboo shoots
View into the basement kitchen
At dinner time, the menu switches over to classic Isaan dishes broken up into grilled, soups & curries, warm salads, rice & noodles and som dtum.
Sai ouah pork, herb and chilli sausage $14
The sai ouah is mandatory. It's a pork sausage jacked up with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric. There's sweetness, sourness and a fair whack of heat and grilling the sausage gives a irresistible crunch to the skin.
Kor mhu yaang grilled pork jowl $12
with nahm jim jaew smoked chilli and tamarind relish
They do all kinds of grilled meats - chicken livers, chicken tails, pork intestines and crying tiger beef, but I couldn't get enough of the grilled pork jowl, tender and sweet with little nuggets of fat if you got lucky.
Cha dum yen sweet iced Thai red tea $5
and lychee cold drink $8
Drinks (available all day) aren't your run-of-the-mill offerings either. They make cold drinks that include yakult, lemongrass, lychee and Kakawa dark chocolate. Sweet iced Thai red tea is refreshing with a faint but welcome tannic bitterness.
Ma kahm housemade iced tamarind tisane $5
Each day they offer a different house-made iced tisane. I was hoping they'd have the blue butterfly pea today but settled with the iced tamarind, saved from bracing sourness with a deft balance of sugar.
You can order the full suite of espresso coffees plus Kakawa hot chocolate and loose leaf teas by Tea Craft.
Larpb bpedt spicy duck, toasted ground rice and soft herbs $16
The drinks come in handy as you plow your way through the rest of your dishes. Almost everything is spiked with chilli, including the larpb bpedt spicy duck salad, tumbled with red onion, coriander and crunchy smithereens of toasted ground rice.
Gaeng kanuhn $14
Spicy young jackfruit, pork short ribs, pumpkin, loufah gourd and herb curry
Chunks of young jackfruit are the ideal vehicle for soaking up a fiercely hot curry. It's a jackpot of everything wild and wonderful in here, including loufah gourd, lemon basil, wedges of sweet pumpkin and chunks of pork short ribs that still have plenty of meat.
The menu lists acacia fronds and tiliacoral leaves too. The jackfruit itself reminds me of a cooked artichoke. It doesn't have a strong taste in itself but the soft flesh takes on all the flavours from the soup.
Yum kai modt daeng $16
Spicy red ant eggs, eschalots, toasted ground rice and soft herbs
The spicy red ant egg salad is worth ordering too. They look more like rice puffs when the dish first appears but you'll soon notice each grain is an egg sac hosting a single ant inside. They're a little squishy in the mouth, the deflated sacs bursting a little with each bite. The strong dressing on the salad - heavy handed with fish sauce, garlic and chilli - make it hard to pick up their natural flavour. Maybe a faint metallic nuttiness?
Baby red ant
Occasionally you'll encounter an ant that's emerged from its egg. They're still quite soft and soggy. Red ant eggs are high in protein, calcium and iron.
Chilli sauce and fish sauce condiments
If the idea of red ant eggs freak you out, fear not. There's plenty of other non-ant options to keep you busy.
Now I just need to set the alarm clock so I can check out breakfast. Crab congee, steamed buns with Thai custard and toast with red tea custard... I'm coming for you soon.
Boon Cafe at Jarern Chai Asian Grocer
1/425 Pitt Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9281 2114
Open 7 days 7am - 12midnight
BYO $3 per person
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2/07/2015 01:12:00 am