In behind the historic Parnell village shops lies a gem of a restaurant. To find it, follow the elephant footprints down the little lane, off the main street, to the charming Blue Elephant Thai restaurant. Surrounded by greenery, this cosy eatery proved the perfect venue for a full family gathering where we numbered eight, including two under-10s. Thai-style dining is ideal for group occasions because it is social and communal with a wide variety of dishes, designed to be shared.
When we arrived at Blue Elephant we were greeted by wonderful live music in the form of the khim, an authentic Thai harp-like string instrument, being played by resident musician Miss Ketkaew Bunrattanang, who graces the restaurant on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. It was delicate and melodic and set the scene beautifully for our Thai feast.
I've taken to skipping the starters at some Thai restaurants, having been disappointed by their sameness and propensity to fill one up, but these sounded too good to miss. Fresh spinach-leaf wraps with prawns; and barbecue duck, flavoured with the zing of ginger, toasted fresh coconut flakes and roasted peanuts were everything Thai food is meant to be. The taste structure of Thai cuisine depends on the complex balance of sweet, sour, salt and hot and texture is of equal importance to the flavour in each dish. These little snacks were served with a tamarind dipping sauce that completed the picture. The piping hot, freshly fried prawn cakes that arrived next had just the right amount of rubbery squeakiness to qualify as "authentic" in my books and with a background hint of kaffir lime leaf and a simple sweet chilli and cucumber dipping sauce, they took me straight to the markets of Thailand. Once again, attention had been paid to the textural element in the form of crunchy green beans and crushed peanuts. The satay caused my father to exclaim "Best satay I've had" as he deftly slid succulent chicken off a wooden skewer, dipping it into the rich peanut sauce. I missed the lick of a flame with these morsels but I'm picky. The fresh spring rolls were nothing to send an email home about but the curry puffs were another winner from the list of starters - fried to a golden crust, the pastry encased a spicy filling of potato and minced chicken.
The main dishes arrived, along with sticky rice served in cute little bamboo baskets and staff proffering generous portions of regular white rice from a communal bowl.
The next hour was spent working our way through some cracker dishes, none more so than the deep-fried whole snapper. Slashes in the skin allowed the fragrant flavours of the chilli and tamarind sauce to penetrate the white flesh and a liberal scattering of fresh coriander leaves made this a lively and impressive dish. The red duck curry, with a base of coconut milk and tomatoes, was sweet and rich. Pineapple, grapes and the delicious translucent soft flesh of Thai longan fruit meant you couldn't be averse to finding fruits in your curry to appreciate this dish but it was saved from being cloying shredded kaffir lime leaves and capsicum slices and we happily slurped up every last drop of sauce.
A dish of spicy crispy pork was less impressive but mostly because it was short on pork and long on vegetables and the sauce lacked spiciness and the promised fresh basil.
Pad Thai may seem a pedestrian choice but it's one of my favourite street foods when in Thailand and done well, it is magical. Congratulations go to Blue Elephant for their effort. Soft rice noodles and egg combine with crunchy bean sprouts and tender spring onions, turnips and tofu while chives and red onion offer their pungent flavours, and a sprinkle of crushed peanuts and squeeze of lemon make this a glorious comfort dish.
Ordinariness crept into a few of the dishes but in the main, we were deeply satisfied with our banquet and the wonderful staff, who handled a busy dining room as well as our changing minds, last minute extra orders and even a request for an additional carved carrot flower (to settle an escalating disagreement between the kids) with exceptional grace and ease. We retraced the elephant prints back out to Parnell Rd with smiles on our faces and an eagerness to return.
From the menu: Thai herb wraps $11.50, prawn cakes $11.50, chicken satay $9.50, Thai curry puffs $9.50, Blue Elephant red duck curry $23.50, sweet chilli fish $27.50, vege pad thai $17.50, basil & chilli tofu $18.50, fried bananas & ice cream $9.50, fresh fruit & ice cream $9.50
Drinks: Fully licensed /BYOW $10 corkage