FOR fear of disappointment I am usually very reluctant to venture out and dine at the plethora of “mum and dad” or suburban Thai eateries, particularly those that can’t (or don’t want to), make a basic Thai street food dish which, in most cases, is the “fast food” that Thais have to comfort them at any time of the day.
Unfortunately, when many local Thai restaurants do list such dishes on their menus, they use packaged sauces and pastes and cook for the palate of the farang.
When I do dine on Thai I usually come home wishing I had prepared my own Thai comfort food.
But there are exceptions, and that’s why I have been to Gladesville’s Chilli Jam five times in the past six weeks.
Chilli Jam brings back delightful memories of my regular Bangkok sojourns and my time working in the Kingdom, where one could leave the condo or hotel and walk out onto the street and indulge on som tam and sticks of moo bhing or gai yang for a pittance. Everything dish imaginable was available only a few steps away and at night the sidewalks would be taken up with plastic chairs where hungry workers nursed plates or bowls of delights from their favourite food stall.
But back to Gladesville and Chilli Jam.
The restaurant has a feature brick wall with a stark white mural to one side, contemporary beaded light fittings hang from the ceiling (like glass-beaded chandeliers), and to the rear is a small courtyard area for outside dining. The wooden tables are accompanied by heavy wooden chairs with bright and colourful silk cushions. At night, tea-light candles are placed on tables, and throughout the restaurant, giving a warm hue to the wooden floors boards.
Chilli Jam is overseen by chef Srisuda Khamchan (Mae Da) who was a chef at Bangkok’s exclusive Dusit Thani Hotel. Her direction in the kitchen is on Thai ‘street food’ though the menu does have a standard array of the ‘crowd pleasing’ Thai curries and other creatively Thai-inspired dishes.
During the lunch service Chilli Jam offers a lunch special menu which consists of some of the more traditional, street food offerings such as tom yum seafood fried rice ($10.90), gra prao gai (stir fried minced chicken with Thai basil), gai gratiem (garlic and pepper chicken) and larb gai (minced chicken salad with an array of herbs) (all $8.90). There are also several entrees, stir fries and specials available.
Service is attentive and helpful and the staff bring the spirit of sanook (to have fun) to what they do. Lunch is a more casual affair (Thai super band Bodyslam was being pumped through the speakers and on my request remained on until a group of young mothers came in and it was replaced with Norah Jones).
Dinner sees the lights dimmed and with the candles, the restaurant takes on a warm and relaxing atmosphere.
I have had lunch at Chilli Jam on three occasions and have ordered off both the lunch ‘street food’ menu and the main menu – the chicken pad thai ($8.90) gra prao gai ($8.90) and a stir fry of seafood with a lime leaf and peppercorn sauce ($10.90).
The pad thai was a generous serve and was a mound of al dente rice noodles that had been wok-fried in a tangy tamarind sauce with large slices of chicken breast, fried egg, spring onion and dried prawns mixed throughout. To the side of the plate were ground chilli and peanuts, fresh bean sprouts, sugar and lemon. It was flavoursome, no-nonsense and traditional.
The stir fry of seafood with lime leaf and peppercorn sauce reminded me of meal down in southern Thailand – a mixture of prawns, mussels and squid with sprigs of preserved green peppercorns all topped with shredded kaffir lime leaves. Great flavours, especially with the occasional pop of intense pepper on the palate from the peppercorns.
But it’s the gra prao gai which I keep coming back to at Chilli Jam – minced chicken doused in an array of sauces (soy, oyster fish and possibly seasoning sauce), with slightly blanched chopped beans and sliced banana chillies all topped with freshly deep-fried basil with a mound of rice on the side. Believe me – I was in heaven.
I have had dinner twice at Chilli Jam and was again impressed with the dishes served, their quality, the freshness of ingredients and their size. On both occasions (once with friends) we shared moo bhing (BBQ pork with sticky rice), som tam gai yang (papaya salad with grilled chicken), salt and pepper squid, choo chee prawns and a Panang curry with seafood.
The barbecued pork with sticky rice ($14.90) brought back mouth-watering memories of walking down Bangkok streets and eating moo bhing (the ultimate snack food) from sidewalk vendors. Marinated, grilled pork was accompanied by sticky rice and a nahm jin jaew (a traditional smoked-chilli dipping sauce which is a usually a blend based of dried chilli, palm sugar, tamarind and fish sauce). The way you eat the pork is by grabbing a mound of sticky rice in your palm, placing some grilled pork on top and slightly covering the pork with the sticky rice and dipping and eating. Absolute Heaven.
When I ordered the som tam I made sure the waitress knew I wanted it done the “traditional way”. This fiery north-eastern Thai staple usually consists of shredded papaya, fresh beans, dried shrimp, tomatoes and chilli and is dressed with fish sauce and lime juice – but there are local variations. Chilli Jam’s som tom ($16.90) was one of the best I have had. Not only was it spicy (thank you Chilli Jam for not compromising to farang tastes) – but the beans were fresh and flawless and blanched perfectly to remain crunchy and the cherry tomatoes were bright red, fully ripe and sweet. The whole som tam was bursting with freshness, sweetness, saltiness, and fire. The accompanying gai yang (grilled chicken) was juicy and tender.
The salt and pepper squid ($12.90) simply dissolved in the mouth. It was a generous serving of calamari cut Thai-style (elongated criss-crossed pieces), dusted with salt and pepper seasoning and lightly fried. It was so tender it melted like butter on a hot summer’s day and the seasoning was not overpowering.
Finally, the two curries (coo chee prawns ($16.90) and the Panang seafood curry ($16.90) were made on the spot with fresh ingredients, were packed with flavour and substantial. They were very pleasant and would more than satisfy those who prefer a Thai curry over the more “traditional” dishes I have reviewed.
Chilli Jam is the only suburban Thai restaurant that has got me out of the kitchen and renewed my passion for Thai comfort food that I have so longed for since returning from Bangkok. I expect it will be responsible for nurturing me with Thai comfort food for years to come. My only two issues (and they are minor is that bowls are used instead of plates, which makes sharing dishes difficult and there is a distinct lack of pork on the menu.
The verdict: Aroy! Finally a suburban Thai restaurant that has it all and pulls together no-holds-barred Thai street food without fear or compromise. Has Sydney’s best som tam? The Sydney suburbs’ answer to two other Sydney Thai stalwarts Chat Thai (city) and Spice I am (Surry Hills).
What: Chilli Jam Thai Restaurant, 249 Victoria Road, Gladesville. Open: Monday to Friday 11am to 3pm (lunch) and Monday to Sunday 5pm to 10.30pm (dinner). BYO. (02) 9817-0999
Ate there: 10, 16 and 23 April, 1 and 21 May 2010.