The Mekong River travels more than 4,000 kilometres through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It has become an important trade route that connects the six countries to each other and the rest of the world. Broadly speaking the river is divided between upper and lower Mekong with conditions varying along its length.
Our journey to the Mekong is considerably quicker and easier as it doesn’t even involve leaving Sydney’s CBD. Located inside a former three-storey terrace house on Chippendale’s popular Kensington Street dining precinct, the menu of our dining destination takes its inspiration from the dynamic and distinctive culinary cultures on the banks of its namesake river. The ground floor – “Lower Mekong” – is dedicated to traditional Vietnamese street fare while upstairs – you guessed it, “Upper Mekong” – showcases a contemporary twist on South-east Asian cuisine with influences coming from all six countries.
Resisting the temptation of pho noodles and rice paper spring rolls, we climbed the stairs and settled into the top floor dining area. Featuring a large emerald green wall and bamboo ceiling lamps, the room depicted a modern and affluent part of the region. The menu is far removed from the homely fare on offer downstairs – more exotic and experimental dishes with price points to match.
Seared Scallops ($16/2pc) are served in the shell with an ample amount of shallot and chilli garnish with fish sauce and tamarind dressing. The delicate meat of the seafood was prominent but with a pleasant amount of heat also coming through.
Two bite sized dumplings ($12/2pc) in an unusual squid ink black were filled with minced prawn and crab and elegantly presented in a deep bowl. Chicken broth was then poured over the dumplings and we emptied the bowl in no time.
Our next entrees Crisp Coconut Crepe ($16/4pc) shared the same filling as the dumplings but that was where the similarities ended. On paper at least, filling coconut crepes with seafood and sweet shrimp paste sounds an odd flavour combination. However when the exquisite looking dish arrived we were left in no doubt that savoury seafood was entirely compatible with the sweet crepe.
We were puzzled by our host’s recommendation of grilled cabbage ($16), apparently Upper Mekong’s house specialty. Theoretically this is a very basic dish with chunks of cabbage braised in soy sauce, more typically seen in the home than the restaurant. Just one bite of the cabbage was enough to demonstrate that this was far from basic. The vegetable was cooked to perfection whereby the raw, bitter taste was completed removed but the crunchiness retained; the truffle oil and orange infused soy sauce took this ostensibly simple dish to a total new level – who would have thought that a cabbage dish would be one of the highlights of the night?
The rest of the journey was smooth sailing downstream. Chargrilled pork ribs ($32) were plated with pickled vegetables, satay sauce and cassava churros. The latter were less churro and more prawn cracker in shape, texture and taste. The idea was to make small parcels with the “cracker”, vegetables, sauce and the pork, but we swiftly abandoned the delicate operation in favour of devouring the meat, only breaking away to eat the condiments.
King prawns ($34) of a staggering size were served half butterflied. The sweet and elastic meat demonstrated the freshness and quality of the produce.
Not knowing exactly what to expect for Egg Floss, Taro Custard and Rose Ice Cream ($12), we ordered this dessert purely for the novelty of seeing how the chef had combined these unusual ingredients. Egg floss isn’t uncommon in South-east Asia and is made by continuously stirring beaten eggs in hot oil. Typically a savoury ingredient, at Mekong it is transformed into a dessert and its bright yellow colour is visually stunning. Unlike the purple taro found in China, the Thai equivalent is also bright yellow, a good match to the egg floss and contrast to the pale-coloured ice cream. Certainly one of the most intriguing desserts we have experienced recently.
The journey to Mekong Restaurant was as inspiring as it was delicious. We learned how versatile South-east Asian cuisine could be – there’s certainly more to it than pho and pad thai. Who would have thought sweet coconut crepe could mix with savoury seafood so successfully? Who could anticipate humble cabbage becoming a star dish? We can’t wait to take a trip to the Mekong River itself and discover more South-east Asian culinary delights.
2/14 Kensington St, Sydney NSW
Phone: (02) 9282 9079