It's the discovery I like. A chance glance when driving by or the casual reference from a friend that starts with "there's this new place we've just found". There's nothing quite like the excited feeling I get when checking out an eatery that has yet to be truly discovered by the masses.
@ Bangkok is a small Thai restaurant and takeaway in Kingsland and they're just getting into the swing of things. Their furniture hasn't arrived yet, so the tables are still themed to whatever the space was previously, and the booze licence has yet to be granted, but this young crew, who look like a bunch of Thai DJs, are already creating a great scene within the cosy brick walls.
So many of our city's Thai eateries have either an obsession with creating an atmosphere fit for Thai royals, with tables adorned with white cloth and gold-threaded stuffed elephant ornaments, or they go to the other extreme of fluoro-lit, glass-table-topped austerity. The owners of @ Bangkok, thankfully, seem determined to provide something different so there's soothing music, soft lighting, photographic collages on each wall and warm friendly service. The sum total being that you feel at home, or should that be @ home?
My anticipation grew as I took in the menu and spied the lone chef furiously tending his hissing, spitting, steaming pots and woks through the saloon swing doors to the kitchen. Dishes with names like "sizzling crying tiger" and "garden lover snapper", the famous curries, panang and massamun, are there, so is sticky rice as well as a whole page of those snappy Thai salads that shout with flavour. The choice is worryingly wide and I feared individual dishes might end up being "versions" of each other. Fear not. Every dish is made from scratch and sauces are made in-house.
Grilled pork arrives threaded on stout wooden sticks and accompanied by a sweet chilli sauce that will restore your faith in this over-used condiment, so alive is it with tanginess and spice. The handmade prawn cakes are another revelation and come with an almost-clear plum sauce, the recipe for which I tried to wheedle out of the chef - to no avail. Pickled plums, sugar, chilli and vinegar? All the notes were there in perfect harmony. The prawn cakes had that wonderful spongy texture, without veering anywhere near the rubbery stage.
We liked the section of the menu dedicated entirely to "Snapper Lover's" (sic) with eight different options of steamed and crispy fish with a variety of toppings. Our choice, the garden lover snapper, was crispy and delicious, topped with a mountain of fresh herbs - dark, pungent coriander, shredded spring onions, fresh ginger - flavours that just keep on giving. Ground rice was in there too and we were completely ambushed by the amount of dried chilli hidden in it. Hilariously, we found ourselves using the larb, usually a spicy salad in its own right, to cool our mouths down. I love it when dishes are not "toned down for the tourists"!
The larb was outstanding with chicken mince that was moist and juicy with lime juice, tinged with sweetness, and plenty of fresh herbs to keep us happy.
The duck panang curry was sublime. The first hint of its brilliance came with the tantalising aroma of shredded kaffir lime leaves that sat atop the dark red-orange sauce. Dipping into the coconut milk-based curry for the first slurp sent me into raptures - peanutty, sweet but not too sweet, with thick slices of duck that were soft, meaty and rich, not rubbery and fatty.
Small disappointments came with sticky rice served in plastic wrap. Okay, so I know the theory is that it keeps it moist, and admittedly when I'm in Thailand it comes, like most things, wrapped in cling film but it doesn't work for me at a dinner table.
We reluctantly left @ Bangkok, with its easy tunes and glorious food, not because we wanted to but because it's so small we felt we needed to give someone else the chance at a table. I was back two days later for takeaways.
From the menu: Hand made prawn cakes $5, Grilled pork kebab $5, Garden Lover Snapper $24.50, Chicken Larb $13.50, Panang Curry (Duck) $15.50.
Drinks: Soon to be licensed