itsara – nedlands
Patience. Not one of my virtues. Blame it on being an only child if you will, or even that I’m a Leo born in the year of the Tiger, but “waiting” is a foreign concept to me.
I tried to go to Itsara earlier in the week. I tarted myself up, charged my camera’s batteries and shimmied into my car with a flick of my hair and a bounce in my step. I forgot to book. And they were fully booked.
Well I’ll be damned…they must certainly be doing something right! Not one to be thwarted twice, I made an immediate reservation for Friday.
Itsara is occupies the premises of an old Thai restaurant on Stirling Highway in Nedlands that was known as Thai Gold Plate. I never saw anyone in there and at times I suspected it was some sort of suspicious front for dodgier business dealings (I’m not casting aspersions, this is purely my overactive imagination).
Their menu looked intriguing and exciting, having taken the time to inject some playful creativity into the names of their dishes with encyclopaedic descriptions to match such as the Circle of Dreams (Crispy fritters of sweet corn, dessicated coconut, kaffir lime, chilli and thai spices served on a bed of baby spinach w asian vinaigrette) and Mermaid Delight (Stir-fry crispy fish of the day w a unique full-flavoured chilli jam, cashew nuts, spring onion and capsicum peppers).
We chose to start with;
- Imperial Path – $12.50 (Crispy jasmine rice squares served w an exotic dipping puree of prawn, peanut & thai spices)
- Fleeing Fish – $17.50 (Crispy fish of the day w fresh mango, lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, lime zest and cashew nuts tossed w complex homemade sweet and tangy chilli dressing)
- Call from the Past – $16.50 (Ruby pomelo salad w prawns, roasted desiccated coconut, peanut and spices finished w a caramelized palm sugar coconut dressing on betel leaf).
Yes those are the descriptions straight from their menu.
5 minutes later, the waitress scurried back to inform us that the kitchen couldn’t make the Call from the Past. Right. Not too unexpected I suppose as pomelos are out of season but would have liked to have been informed at the time of ordering. Nevertheless, I decided to ask for whatever the Chef recommended.
Moments later, our starters appeared at our table. Hmm…suspiciously quick. I was quite perturbed not just by how fast they had been dished out but also the fact that Chef Itsara was not in the kitchen but instead standing at the bar sorting out some seating related issues (in thongs I might add). I must admit, I was slightly disappointed he hadn’t had a hand in the actual cooking of my food.
The Imperial Path was first. It’s a popular Thai dish that I’ve had in the past but for $12.50 I felt they could have dished out more than 4 measly squares. It doth be a very expensive LCM…..The dipping paste was full of flavour, coconutty and a little bit sweet. It was the consistency of sambal though not very spicy, despite it’s deceptively red appearance.
Next came the Fleeing Fish, the dish I had been most excited to try. I was dismayed to see it was nothing like what I had anticipated. By the description on the menu, I had expected a version of or similar to the typical Thai Crispy Fish Salad, where the fish is flaked and deep fried before being tossed in a sumptous green mango salad. The texture and flavours of this dish are like no other and I’m always a sucker for ordering it whenever I do happen to come across it (which isn’t very often here). Instead, Itsara’s Fleeing Fish consisted of some deep fried whole fish cutlets under some salad (the majority of which was not mango). In fact, the only mango I spotted was a tiny garnish. Hrmm…all of this I was willing to overlook on account of taste. However, this too disappointed as I found the balance of flavours a little off. They had been a little too liberal with the sugar and without any spicyness to complement it, it was a little cloying. The fish, though deep fried, did not have the crispy crunch that you would have expected it to have. The worst thing of all though, was that it was cold. Yes, cold. Ironically, the Fleeing Fish nearly had me fleeing from the table.
The Chef’s recommendation turned out to be the Half Moon – $16.50 (Crispy Thai pancake with King Prawns, flavoured coconut, preserved turnips & beansprouts, finished w a tangy cucumber relish). It was quite an interesting combination of ingredients though I again thought the balance of flavours was slightly tipped. It was heavy on the coconut and sugar and without any accompanying sour or spicy flavours to match it wasn’t such a pleasant combination. As for temperature, this was also rather cold (the prawns would have been more at home lounging on a cold seafood platter somewhere). The most disappointing part though was the cucumber relish which consisted mostly of some diced cucumber in some clear sugary vinegar. Not the usual flavoursome bold Thai dipping sauce you would expect.
Not off to a fantastic start.
Our mains were up next and thankfully Itsara redeemed itself somewhat with it’s Nectarous Duck Curry – $32.50 *gulp* (Char grilled marinated duck curry w cherry tomatoes, pineapple, lychees, grapes & Thai basil). While by no means the “best duck red curry” I’ve ever tried (it still has to stand down to Nahm Thai’s version), it was a solid feat and much better than some other incarnations where the “curry” resembles more of a red tinged coconut soup. They were a little stingy on the lychees and grapes though…I counted only 2 lychees and 2 measly grapes. Or as S referred to them..grape foetuses. They were alarmingly tiny. The duck was tender though and the fresh Thai basil a refreshing addition. It was also the only dish that wasn’t served cold (which really, is just not that acceptable).
The other main we ordered was the Cashew Nut Stir-Fry – $25.50 (A sensual stir-fried chicken w cashew nuts, roasted chilli, spring onion and capsicum pepper). Yes the chicken was tender, yes the ingredients were fresh but yet again (am I sounding like a broken record yet?) the sauce was overly sweet. I expected something at least a little spicier than the other dishes..after all there were promises of roasted chillies! I only had a few pieces as I really didn’t take to it. I’ve seen my local Hans do a similar Cashew Nut Chicken for a much wallet friendlier price (*cough* $12.95).
On the plus side, their rice was gorgeous and silky with that tell tale crunch of good quality grain. I’m not sure how much of a good sign it is though that one of the best things about a meal was the steamed rice.
I tried hard to love it, like it even but it was hard to look past the cold food and erratic service (they were lovely and friendly but really, they topped up our sparkling waters TWICE with tap water). I recognise what they are trying to do and I do give them “mad props” for trying to serve something a little different. Unfortunately, execution and delivery just weren’t there. While the ingredients were fresh, the dishes lacked that special something, that inherent umaminess that makes you want to go back for more. Oh and if you like your Thai food nice and spicy I would also suggest you look elsewhere or ask them to dial up the heat (though I don’t know if they would/can cater to this) as all the dishes we sampled were very very mild. I’ll be honest…they’d lose out to a Subway jalapeno on the scoville heat scale.
I’m a little perturbed as it has received a couple of great reviews on Urbanspoon but I feel like I was dining in another restaurant entirely. Perhaps the outcome would be different under Chef Itsara’s actual hand (I didn’t see him in the kitchen much the whole time we were there as we had a really early table) but what we sampled didn’t give me any strong urges to rush back. I won’t write it off entirely though I will say if you are willing to fork out the $$$ for mod Thai cuisine and you love the typical bold Thai flavours of sour and spice then Nahm Thai may be a much safer bet.
3 out of 5 stars (though I am tempted to go back and re-assess once opening bugs have been sorted out and maybe on a quieter night)
$$$ – $$$$
25 Stirling Highway
T: 08 6389 2441