When it comes to Asian restaurants, I have a few rules in order to effectively judge whether one is worth visiting. An oft-cited example is if most diners in there aren’t Asian, then run fast, run far. Another one would be if the menu doesn’t have a focus on a single country’s cuisine – if I see dandan noodles, beef pho and Pad Thai on the same page, I’m outta there faster than you can slurp your “char koay teow”.
But here’s the thing, and you’ve already guessed it – rules are made to be broken. Here’s to Mekong – a restaurant that’s about as iconoclastic as it gets with throwing specialisation out the window, and breaks mold with flair and aplomb.
Date Last Visited: 29/5/2016
Address: 16 Kensington St, Chippendale NSW 2008
Recommended Dish(es): squid ink dumplings, pork in betel leaf, grilled scallops, wagyu beef salad (if you can handle the spice), royal seafood amok, a duck at sunrise, morning glory (side dish), bangkok ice cream bowl
Before I continue, I will disclose that I visited Mekong twice, both times as invited by the restaurant. As such, the Usual Disclaimer applies in full force!
The Mekong river is special amongst waterways in Asia. Crossing through Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, the diverse cuisines of five countries are captured by the one stream, in some ways a lovely analogy of food tying us all together. It’s a literal culinary journey if one were able to sail up the river, but given we’re in Sydney, head chef Tiw Rankarin has decided to bring such an experience under one roof.
Before you start freaking out like I did, rest assured that the man has a pedigree – Mama’s Buoi, Sailor’s Thai and Rambutan to name a few. Having grown up on the Lao/Burmese border, the man knows how to cook crossover Asian. Sure, it would be a high bar to expect him to be a master of all trades, but then again, decide that for yourself after you’ve made a visit to Mekong.
The restaurant is actually split up into two sections. There’s Lower Mekong – a casual eatery that serves simpler, Vietnamese-based food such as hearty pho noodle soup and sugarcane prawns. Then there’s Upper Mekong, which is literally and figuratively a cut above – on the second floor, serving a more refined menu that’s more befitting of a full-service restaurant experience. Prices are also accordingly more expensive – but rest assured, you won’t be remortgaging your house for a meal here.
Upper Mekong also gets the nicer finish – design firm Giant Design has really gone all out with a modern Indochine vibe using fishnet lights, dark green walls reminiscent of banana leaf, and bamboo stalks to complete the look. Note: this post covers Upper Mekong only.
Now, there’s a lot of food to get through thanks to two visits, so without further ado, let’s set sail!
Before any orders are plated, diners will be treated to a snack of heirloom carrots w/pork floss & chilli jam. Slyly simple, these morsels punch far above their weight as a palate opener. The carrots themselves are excellent, as the level of crunch in a package this small is nothing to sneeze at. Crunch crunch – its loudness is reflective of its textural goodness. The pork floss and chilli jam add an umami & sweet kick respectively, which while slightly salty, is in a good place overall. It’s almost like eating carrots dusted in instant noodle seasoning – and that’s a very high compliment.
Pretty much any diner will have to order one of Mekong’s signatures – squid ink dumplings w/crab meat & prawn stuffing. Ostensibly a Thai dish in terms of the filling mixture, the dish gets a Vietnamese treatment with a chicken broth that’s made to resemble chicken pho broth.
The dumplings themselves are made from arrowroot/tapioca flour, while the stuffing is a Thai/Burmese-based prawn/crab mix. Taste-wise, it’s a slightly gelatinous squid ink skin that’s balanced off by a luke-warm filling that’s primarily the texture of fleshy crab. I liked the dumplings, but not as much as I would expect, due to the temperature of the filling. However, this is where the chicken broth comes in to save the day.
Seriously, that broth is the star of the show, to the point where I could almost ditch the dumplings, dump a basket of cooked noodles into the broth, and call it a day. Star anise, cinnamon, chicken bones and onion are cooked for half a day which, while not as long as beef pho soup, is still plenty of time to effuse a remarkably fragrant aroma that’s quite literally better than any clear chicken-based stock I’ve ever tasted.
No, seriously, I loved it so much that I
a) Drank the rest of what was within the teapot (according to the restaurant manager, I’m not alone in this!). And yes, I did this on both of my visits to Upper Mekong.
b) Visited Lower Mekong the following week to try their chicken pho to see if they use the same broth. Unfortunately, it’s not (but that pho is still pretty tasty!)
Yeah, I think I’ve proven my loyalty to that broth. Wait, we were talking about dumplings, right? *cough*
For those who just have to have as much variety as possible (I hear ya), look no further than the chef’s share plate. This consists of four dishes that can otherwise be ordered separately – but why do that when the spread you see above is as captivating as it is?
From left to right, we have
Little fish – crisp anchovies w/lime, lemongrass, chilli & peanuts ($5 for pictured quantity)
Coco & chick – central Burma street-style pancake w/chickpea, tomato, coconut strips & chilli chutney ($12 for 1)
Pig in a betel leaf blanket – Thai grilled pork neck wrapped in betel leaf w/house made tamarind sauce ($13 for 4)
Lady of the shallot – fresh grilled scallops in bacon oil w/coconut salad & shallot ($15 for 3)
As you can see, it’s pretty darn good value to get all that as a share plate.
If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the scallops. Juicy meat, cooked in bacon fat? That’s already half the battle won.
The scallops themselves are of excellent quality. Soft and plump, they’re minimally grilled to give off just a hint of char, while allowing the natural texture of the crustacean to shine. In terms of flavour, the bacon fat adds a bit of that oleaginous, porky feel that goes surprisingly well with the primarily nuoc cham-based flavour base. This sauce is thankfully light on the seasoning, which is a good move as it doesn’t overwhelm the scallop. Fresh, chewy and slightly sweet young coconut and a herby salad completes the dish.
Refreshingly Asian, this I could eat all day. What is cholesterol?
While it might be called “little“ fish, this small bowl packs one hell of an uppercut in flavour. A Thai style dish, the anchovies are deep fried, coated in brown sugar, then topped with a salt-reduced Thai-style dressing, roasted rice powder for a bit of extra texture, and then a herb salad with the inclusion of mini chopped bits of lime to finish.
The anchovies themselves are very, very crispy. Incredibly sweet & moreish, I could eat them forever if it weren’t for the fact that I would eventually die of sodium poisoning. Thankfully, the bitter, acidically citrus notes of the lime keep things from escalating too much, while the herbs provide the refreshment factor.
It’s a full-on dish, and I’ll be honest – it’s really, really salty. Best shared, with lots of lime ingested. It’s also a fair bit spicy for the chilli novice: you have been warned.
My second favourite dish on the chef’s plate is the pig in betel leaf. The pork neck is salt-cured for 6 months, which pretty much gave me full confidence that they would be flavourful AF when bitten into. The pork is ensconced in betel leaf, roasted to the point where it develops sweet burnt caramel characteristics, as well as a chewy, leathery texture that’s satisfying on which to chew.
Heck, who needs the tamarind sauce? These are parcels of excellence! That fatty, juicy pork neck, the intensity of the flavour and the sweet char of the betel leaf…it’s probably one of the best Asian entrees I’ve ever eaten. I got it on both visits, and I would continue to get it again and again. Go get some, tiger.
As for the coco & chick (no separate photo sorry), it was my least favourite dish of the chef’s plate. I like chickpeas, I like coconut, and I like peas. Heck, I also like pancakes. However, this dish didn’t do it for me as – I can’t believe I’m saying this – there wasn’t enough flavour here to get my tastebuds excited. The chilli jam is really only sweet, not very spicy at all, which made it rather flat as a result. The ingredients are good, but the flavours fell short. I’d give this one a skip.
Moving back to a higher note are the little prawns, another starter morsel of Vietnamese-style fried prawns paired with a chilli & lime mayo (not pictured). For something that, on the surface, seems so overdone in restaurants everywhere, Upper Mekong does it better than most. The prawns are crunchy to a fault, but remain fully juicy and fleshy within, full of zesty, spicy flavour. Watch out when eating – I was pretty zealous with these, and almost cut my mouth on several occasions. I did say crunchy to a fault!
The mayo was pretty much not needed at all, but should you require it, you’ll be greeted to a serious dose of tart creaminess, that’s not actually all that spicy despite the chilli in its name. Go nuts!
Another “shared entree” that has to be ordered separately is the smoked lemongrass tea barramundi. This dish is that of a nicely-steamed, tender fillet, with a nuoc cham-based broth that has oddly strong hints of smoky tomato (or is it tamarind?) to it. Very Asiatic.
It’s perhaps not as exciting as some of the earlier entries on the menu, but it’s no less delicious, and for those looking to get some fish in their bellies, this is the one to fish for.
Moving onto more substantial portions now, we were recommended to get the Lao-based Vientiane wagyu beef salad. While restaurants that specialise in Lao may feel they have nothing to fear, Mekong throws quality into the works – Rankarin uses MBS6/7 wagyu beef as the star of the show, which really makes itself known when you bite into it. It’s juicy, succulent, just the right amount of fattiness and oh so beefy. Sure, it’s $26 and $8 more expensive than the same thing from other restaurants, but that beef speaks for itself. Volumes, in fact.
The rest of the salad is classic Lao – roasted rice powder for that gritty texture, tamarind sauce, juicy cherry tomatoes, heaps of herbs and crunch from onion, and a lot of chilli. It is the spiciest dish that I’ve tried on Mekong’s menu – and while I can tolerate that, let it be a warning to the uninitiated.
The only real downside to this salad is that it can get too salty without any rice. I would highly recommend it to be paired with the white stuff – you’re in an Asian restaurant, after all.
Probably the most visually stunning dish on Mekong’s menu, the full moon is out to impress. Two ginger tiger prawns are served in a near-full young coconut shell, along with egg, basil and a broth of coconut milk. To the side, a smoking “cigar” of cinnamon that smells like…well…smoky cinnamon. It’s strong alright.
While quite the vivid dish, I found that the prawns were a little overcooked. The ginger was also a little too prominent on the palate, and sized a little too big such that I could taste chunks of the stuff. I love ginger flavour, but I’m actually not a fan of eating ginger itself (pickled gingers being an exception). I do quite like the young coconut flesh – which is soft and supple. I’m also a fan of the coconut milk broth – full of eggy textures, not too salty and just at the right spice level such that I could drink the entire thing if given the stomach space.
A dish worth getting then? I’d say so – get better prawns than I did, reduce the ginger profile and the full moon can truly be complete.
The most unique dish that I’ve tried on Upper Mekong’s menu is the royal seafood amok. I’ve never had Cambodian cuisine before, so this is a wholly new experience. After some research, I discovered that amok is perhaps one of the more famous examples of Khmer cuisine – featuring a medley of fish/seafood in a coconut-based curry. That’s exactly what Mekong has got going here – with prawns, scallops, barramundi & pipis in a rich yellow coconut curry that’s got an egg cracked into it for a creamy texture boost.
The primary flavour profiles of the curry appear to be that of luscious coconut, as well as essence of prawn. All of the seafood soaks up this flavour pretty well, and thus somewhat lose their own as a result. I can’t lament this too much – as scallops and barramundi don’t really have any flavour of their own to begin with, which enables them to take up the flavour of whatever they’re cooked with. Not entirely a bad thing. The pipis however, still tasted like pipis – just with a bit of a prawn-y boost. If you like prawns, you’ll really like this dish – with the reverse is also true.
As for the crunchy asparagus and a gloopy curry – a good pairing with rice doth they make. Shame that I uh, actually finished the entire serving. Whoops. Yep, definitely worth a try.
The second curry we tried was the duck at sunrise. A more familiar Thai-based curry of confit duck with cherry tomato & fresh tomato, this was delightfully as good as pretty much any Thai restaurant has made, and would stand well being served in any dedicated Thai restaurant (at least in Sydney). The duck is cooked with finesse – juicy, meaty and moist on the inside, while somehow managing to exhibit a chewy, textural delight of a crusty exterior. The curry is sufficiently rich and creamy but not overly so, and even the pineapple has a nice sweetness that makes me think “huh, guess it’s not just here for show”.
As far as Thai curries go, this is one of the better ones out there, and Mekong is strictly not even a Thai restaurant. Heh.
We’re done with the mains, but surely one would want some sides with all that rich curry, right? For example, the truffled garden. A medley of cabbage – both charred and fresh, sweet king brown mushrooms cooked in soy with lashings of truffle oil, this is a pretty deluxe side that could easily be your main. Vegetarians, take heed!
I’m actually not a fan of truffle oil (they’re synthetically made without any trace of actual truffle), but I can’t deny that manufacturers get the aroma pretty close. It’s hard to believe you’re not actually eating the stuff, and in the end that’s perhaps what matters when amping up something as stodgy as cabbage. Not that I don’t like cabbage – I do, and this is one of my favourite side dishes for that reason. The juicy king brown mushrooms only improves things.
A second side we received is the bottom dish in the above flatlay – water spinach, AKA morning glory. These crunchy, stalky vegetables are cooked in a semi-thick soy sauce w/Thai bird chilli & yellow bean for a particularly sweet, soy-rich taste. Another dish that can go with rice just by itself, otherwise it does admirable duty as a side dish for the more substantial stuff.
I think we’re going to need more rice.
Hold that thought – because we’re now onto dessert!
After all that chilli, curry and the general flavour train, it’s time to chill out with the bangkok ice cream bowl. It’s a gorgeously delicious dessert that’s worthy of being Mekong’s signature. At its heart is a coconut ice cream that casually wins the “best coconut ice cream” award. It’s very, very smooth and creamy, yet maintains an icy refreshingness (that somehow occurs at the same time), and is redolent of coconut flavour. This is 90% of what makes this dessert a winner. In fact, in recent memory, only the taro ice cream from Lazy Suzie compares – and that place really set the bar for ice cream creaminess.
The remainder of the dessert’s merit comes down to the attap chee, or plum seeds (semi-transparent stuff on the right). These are sweetened, chewy and gelatinous – a quintessentially Asian item to put into a dessert. Anyone who’s had ice kacang, shaved ice or the like will have encountered this at some point. The juicy yet almost “crunchy” texture is unique to this seed.
The corn, pomegranate, peanuts and glutinous rice complete the dessert bowl, and each adds their own flavour and texture boosters. However, the real star is that coconut ice cream. It is the alpha and omega of Mekong’s desserts.
BUT, having said that, if you are looking for something a bit different, and perhaps more western, there is the ever-so-pretty plate of rosewater lychee to make your mouth and your camera water. Crunchy meringue drops sit above a sweet mango jelly, which itself sits on top of a lychee & rosewater mousse that’s more lychee than rosewater. The texture of this mousse is for the most part creamy, but also exhibits a bit of sponginess with a mouthfeel of air pockets.
I was informed that the mango curds on the sides consist of mango and rum, but wasn’t really able to taste the latter all that much. It definitely does taste like mango though, but unfortunately had a bit of an oily complexion that was texturally off-putting.
The other side of the plate consists of what appears to be a pistachio/almond meal crumble, with a sprig of elderberries. More for visual effect than anything, you could eat them like I did, but elderberries honestly don’t taste like much of anything. But hey – clean the plate, right?
Much has been said of Mekong and its menu. You can tell that I quite like it, and this will be despite any disparaging comments about “authenticity” that get raised anytime a restaurant that serves more than one cuisine is talked about. In the end, the food at Mekong is simply delicious, where with the right starters, curry mains and that god-sent coconut ice cream, sets a high bar to beat.
Put on your adventure caps, it’s time to set sail into Southeast Asia.
This post is based on two visits to Mekong at the restaurant’s invitation.
Thoughts, ruminations, deliberations on this curious 5-in-1 restaurant? Sound off in the comments below!
- Flavourful, rich and delicious food
- Multiple cuisines under one roof
- Toilets are on level one only
- Purists of Asian cuisine may have much to quibble
- Spice alley is literally next door – is there really another Asian niche for Mekong to fill?
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7.5 | S: N/A (Usual Disclaimer) | A2