My lips are tingling, both nostrils are damp and there is a humming in my ears, but it doesn’t matter; my tastebuds demand more.
I am two slices into Zaab’s Crying Tiger before realising that the name of this dish was either ironic, or foreshadowing. Grilled rare beef in a chilli-flaked citrus dressing, the flavours are delicate but the chilli flakes pack a punch.
Zaab, a Lao-Thai bar and restaurant in Lonsdale Street has been getting spruced up to celebrate its third birthday in October.
Becky, the owner, says that when Zaab first opened, it had a darker vibe, more of a gritty Bangkok street feel, complete with dim lighting, low stools and neon lights.
“Now, Zaab still has the street culture, we have just modernised it.
“Shoes are my forte,” Becky laughs, “and in shoe terms, you could say that our restaurant has gone from your standard sneaker to an Adidas Yeezy. We have soft chairs now instead of the stools and our diners appreciate the added comfort.”
“And we have this,” she indicates the graffiti wall spanning the length of the room. “It is my favourite part of the space.”
Becky commissioned street artist, Keo Match from Melbourne. The mural features a giant paint stroke in which Keo has captured the essence of Zaab’s Thai street life vibe within the nightlife culture of Lonsdale Street.
Zaab are launching a new menu to accentuate their makeover. They have reinvented some of their original dishes using modern techniques and more local ingredients. “Strong Lao-Thai flavours with a little bit of fusion and adaptation,” Becky says.
“Our regular customers come back for the food, those intense flavours. Our cocktails are popular and we have a large selection of Asian beers. And the vibe; they come for the vibe. We get quite up-tempo on the weekends.”
Zaab comes from strong restaurant pedigree. Becky’s family ran Thai Basil in Erindale years ago and now Becky is steering that business acumen in a modern direction.
Becky’s dad works as head chef in Zaab’s kitchen. Becky says that although he is ‘old school’, her dad’s skill in the kitchen was part of the inspiration for creating Zaab.
“Dad has had 30 years in the kitchen; he is instinctively good at putting intense flavours together and making them modern. He is affectionately known around Lonsdale Street’s community as ‘Uncle’.”
One of Zaab’s signature dishes is the plate of Betel Leaf; a vine-like leaf topped with fresh ginger, lime, peanuts, coconut, and a sauce made from a reduction of fish sauce, shrimp, galangal, textures and flavours. You wrap it up and eat it in one bite.
The Crying Tiger is another signature dish, as is ‘Uncle’s original recipe of Massaman beef curry.
If you are eating at Zaab for the first time and are unfamiliar with Lao-Thai flavours, Becky or the wait staff are happy to offer you the ‘feed me experience’. This is where your server will help you choose and taste a range of safe as well as exciting dishes.
Speaking of exciting, the eating has begun in earnest at my table.
Thankfully, I have a plate of Betel Leaves to soothe my fiery mouth after the Crying Tiger. The ingredients look quite dry, but I roll the first one up and have a bite. What a surprising taste sensation! Crunchy elements, juicy and aromatic. Not dry at all. The heat from the Crying Tiger recedes, leaving a pleasant warmth.
The papaya salad pops with salt and tang, sweet and spicy.
Uncle’s fried chicken is a plate piled high with superbly crunchy chicken pieces and a bowl of a chilli mayo on the side.
I dip a piece of juicy charcoal chicken into the Thai Verde sauce, a cracking green dipping sauce with all the Thai herbs and a little dash of chilli; it tastes amazing.
The lao sausage is filled with pork, dill, lemongrass and served with fresh ginger – Thailand disguised in sausage casing. Fried so that the outside has a bit of crunch, the filling is soft and packed with exotic Thai flavours and herbs. This was one of my favourite dishes.
Becky says that the word ‘Zaab’ means ‘delicious food’ in Lao, and it means ‘spicy’ in Thai. It has meant both to my tastebuds. My meal here has been zaab.
Zaab is located at 2/9 Lonsdale St in Braddon and is open every day for dinner from 5 pm until late.
You can contact them on (02) 6156 5638.