437 Oxford St Paddington, NSW 2021
|Opening hours||Lunch Fri-Sun noon-3pm; dinner Tue-Sun 5.30-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9332 1886|
So a Vietnamese, a Chinese and an Australian walk into a restaurant. "Sorry, gentlemen," says the maitre d'. "You can't come in here without a Thai."
The joke may come from my precious copy of Crap Dad Jokes, but the punchline is delivered by the happy mix of south-east Asian influences on the menu at Chubby Cheeks, a smart new Paddington eatery from Songpol and Lyn Manoonpong of Mona Vale's stylish Armchair Collective cafe.
Working with executive chef David Claesson, Thai-born head chef, Em Meechai has drawn on his time at Luke Nguyen's Red Lantern restaurant to come up with a pan-Asian mix that sees "crackling pork belly" ready to wrap in cos leaves with a smoky eggplant relish, mingling with Vietnamese soft rice-paper rolls of mushroom, tofu and seaweed.
That said, the Thai wins. Crunchy, frail, black squid ink crackers ($18 for three) carrying juicy slivers of roast duck, roasted rice and sawtooth coriander in a tangy dressing make a good, if pricey, intro to the whole sweet and sour narrative.
In line with the revitalisation of Paddington dining on the other side of Oxford Street (Saint Peter, Fred's, the Paddington), design team Guru Projects has aimed high on the charm scale with partially exposed brick walls, honeycomb tiles, round mirrors, a back-lit bar, herringbone brick-tile floor and shelves of decorative memorabilia.
It's an attractive, if dark, space, with only one misstep: a few tables offer a low, backless lounge as seating. Let's just say if you don't want anyone over 40 in your restaurant, install backless seating.
Classic dishes hide behind dumbed-down titles – "seared Hokkaido scallop betel leaf" channels Thai miang kum ($7), and Vietnam's banh xeo becomes "crispy turmeric rice crepe" ($22). The paper-thin pancake is folded over a crumble of minced pork, prawn and bean shoots, along with spanking-fresh herbs and lettuce leaves and a dipping bowl of ar-jard, that light, spicy rice vinegar sauce that makes everything taste better.
Claiming American barbecue as inspiration, the kitchen dry-rubs Rangers Valley wagyu brisket with Asian spices, smokes it for 12 hours, and sends it out with a green papaya salad ($35). The smokiness works, and the roasty, gravelly, burnt chilli relish should come in jars to take home, it's so good; but the meat feels flat and pasty.
The big order seems to be crispy skin master stock free-range chook ($28), provenance not identified. Steeped in a Chinese-style master stock and hung to dry overnight, it's deep-fried and cut into slabs of soft, giving white meat. Chef Em is good on saucing – the Thai-style satay sauce coats without drowning; as balanced and velvety as a good curry, bright with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and tamarind.
A lightly oaked chardonnay such as the fresh, fleshy 2016 Ngeringa JE from Adelaide Hills ($13) goes well with this sort of food, without getting in the way – and without being killed by the fish sauce. Dessert is surprisingly hearty, with black sticky rice topped with a thick pandan custard and Serendipity's coconut ice-cream ($12).
It might stop short of sweeping you back to the soi, klongs and laneways of Thailand, Vietnam or China, but with its smart fitout, well-mannered service and punchy flavours, Chubby Cheeks looks and feels like just the right fit for the streets of Paddington.
Address: 437 Oxford Street, Paddington, 02 9332 1886, chubbycheekspaddo.com.au
Open: Lunch Fri-Sun noon-3pm; dinner Tue-Sun 5.30-10pm
Vegetarian: There's a conscious attempt to provide vegetarian or gluten-free options, such as soft rice paper rolls, crisp turmeric rice crepe, sweet potato dumplings and yellow curry of cauliflower.
Drinks: Asian and local beers, spirits, Asian fusion cocktails including a Thai-spiced negroni, and a good-enough, good-value wine list.
Cost: Around $115 for two, plus drinks
Go-to dish: Crispy-skin, free-range master-stock chook, $28.
Pro tip: You can BYO your fave bottle of wine for $5 a head.