Thai me kangaroo down
I WOULD eat my neighbour's dog, if only to stop it barking at night. But kangaroo? Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, children's television hero, saver of men lost in the Bush and finder of little girls who have fallen down mine shafts? In a Thai restaurant? But then what kind of Thai restaurant is the Wyndham Street Thai? A brave one, certainly. It has opened in Wyndham Street on a site that has claimed its share of culinary scalps. The last of them was the vegetarian restaurant The Frog Pond. The restaurant business is fickle and unforgiving and Hong Kong is a fickle and unforgiving place to be in it.
If success depended on food alone, chef and patron Rosemary Lee would have little to worry about. Her menu is brash and exciting. But is it Thai? Skippy ($85) appears char-grilled with roast shallots as a blackboard special, a starter, not a main course, although most of the dishes could be either or both. His meat is as dark as beef, a little chewy, and with some of the pungent taste of venison.
Like all the food the kangaroo is presented at the table with a flourish. It emerges from the kitchen just like a flock of doves emerge from a magician's hat. It is placed in the centre of the table to be gawped at and poked before it is swallowed.
The meat is cut into slithers and arranged painstakingly between the shallots and among a mountainous pot-pourri of fresh herbs. The spicy squid with nahm yam sauce ($80) emerges with the same panache. Other blackboard specials included two interesting main courses: mud crab with garlic and holy basil ($170) and steamed New Zealand mussels with Thai herb broth ($145).
We chose something more conventional, or as conventional as the menu would allow. The beef curry ($155) and the deep-fried chicken ($162) took their time to arrive but if you want your food fresh, and everything in it fresh, you need the patience of a stone. Things are fresh at the Wyndham Street Thai, the herbs crisp and green with much of their life left in them. The mint, used lavishly in the kangaroo, still smells of mint.
The menu defies categorisation. It is partly Thai, but with pretensions, and sometimes dangerously nouvelle. But then the portions, be warned, are enormous. We grudgingly sent back half of ours, unable to get close to the desserts.
But food is not the sole way to a clientele's heart. The Wyndham Street Thai is a conundrum. One emerges feeling disconcerted and disorientated. There is so much to take in, and so much that is new, at least to Hong Kong, that it might be unfair to hand down judgment without the benefit of a second visit, for confirmation or denial.
The food is interesting, often excellent, and much of it you will not have eaten before. The wine list is flamboyant, but what we wanted, a couple of glasses of Wilson New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon, was not available. Instead we had two glasses of a good house Cotes du Rhone ($55 each).
Yet one leaves with a nagging feeling, perhaps unfounded but nagging nevertheless, that all is not right. The decor - and beauty I admit is in the eye of the beholder - is an uncomfortable cross between a crude cubist painting and the set for a 1960s budget science fiction series. The walls are painted in garish primary colours, reds and greens. The air-conditioning droned like a distant foghorn through a vent above our table, a constant irritation, but presumably a teething problem.
What the Wyndham Street Thai lacks, it hit me, was atmosphere. This restaurant has been put together as a concept, with so much thought and precision, that spontaneity has been crippled.
One is eating not in the intimate nooks and crannies of a favourite restaurant, but against a painted backdrop, one which might be whipped away and replaced by a new one when fashion dictates. Bravery deserves success, but is the Wyndham Street Thai too much a slave to its own image? It is certainly not cheap. Our meal for two - without any dessert - came to $843.70, which included a 10 per cent service charge.
Wyndham Street Thai, G/F, 38 Wyndham Street, Central. Telephone; 869-6216. Hours: lunch, 12 noon-3.00pm; dinner, 6.30pm-11p