A Thai favourite reborn at Betel Leaf @ Bathers'

Poached prawn on betel leaf with caramelised peanut dressing.
Poached prawn on betel leaf with caramelised peanut dressing. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Still not comfortable with the idea of dining out? That's understandable. But in some ways, going out to eat has never been more enjoyable. The restrictions on numbers may be disastrous for restaurateurs, but lordy, they're good for diners.

You can (in fact, must) reserve a table, which means no queuing or hanging about waiting. You get a whole table to yourselves; no squeezing in and sharing. You get air around you, and can hear yourself speak. You get fed within an hour and a half without feeling rushed. And you are cared for by staff who are clearly pleased to be back in action, doing what they do best.

The team at Bathers' Pavilion has even flipped the downturn of events and functions in their normally busy first-floor dining room into a positive, by launching Betel Leaf @ Bathers'. The six-month pop-up comes via Ty Bellingham, former chef of the much-missed Sailors Thai in The Rocks.

Half dozen oysters with red chilli lime dressing.
Half dozen oysters with red chilli lime dressing.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Again, the diner wins, because while the room is large enough for the tables to be socially distanced, you still feel you're in a warm, well-tended restaurant. On a good day, you can even sit outside on a quite magnificent terrace overlooking the beach.

Inside, large wicker and cane seats, mirrored ceiling panels, potted palms and small windows that frame and crop Balmoral Beach combine to create a Raffles-like sense of privilege and well-being, as if tiffin is about to be served, before a spot of billiards. 

It's not, perhaps, a natural home for Thai food, but Bellingham, who worked long-term with our favourite scholarly Thai chef, David Thompson, is clever enough to make it work.

Chicken and potato curry.
Chicken and potato curry. Photo: Edwina Pickles

His opening menu is Sailors greatest hits, from oysters with red chilli and lime dressing to som dtam (green papaya and sweet pork salad), green curry of king prawns with Thai basil and apple eggplant, and mango sticky rice. And guess what? It's just like eating at Sailors Thai, but on the north shore.

Betel Leaf's miang kum is a cute bite of fresh betel leaf topped with coconutty, caramelised peanut relish, pomelo and half a fresh prawn ($6 each); a politely salty/sweet treat. A glass of Dog Point sauvignon blanc ($14/$79) is a good fit, with its zesty notes of tropical fruit and lemongrass.

I've been craving Thai beef salad for months, for its mouth-watering combination of rare, grilled beef tossed with cucumber, cherry tomatoes, mixed leaves, mints, coriander, and its textural finishing touch of roasted and crushed glutinous rice.

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Bellingham's yam nua ($28) is terrific, all juicy crunch and richness, with a massive dusting of that gritty, gorgeous rice that soaks up the juices.

Another craving – pad Thai – is all the better for not being ramped up with chicken or seafood. The thin, flat rice noodles ($26) are charry, chewy, and coated with wok-fried eggy bits, cubed beancurd, shallots and toasty dried shrimps, with fresh bean shoots, garlic chives, peanuts and lime adding contrast. It's just so, so, nice.

Nothing here is scare-the-horses hot or coarse, but balanced and nuanced. Curry is a must; all smooth, rich, gravy-like sauce and the gentle but deeply generated warmth of chilli.

On a good day, diners can sit outside on the terrace overlooking the beach.
On a good day, diners can sit outside on the terrace overlooking the beach. Photo: Nikki To

A tan-coloured southern Thai keng kari gai of tender chicken thigh and chunks of potato ($34) is completely fused, sweetly accompanied by vinegary cucumber relish to be strewn over the top, and yet you can still taste/smell individual components of ginger, turmeric and fried onions.

Former Tetsuya dessert whiz Kumiko Endo keeps desserts citrusy and refreshing, with the smoothest of coconut sorbets with basil syrup ($21), perky with marinated starfruit and dragonfruit.

Our restaurateurs know that a lot of their clientele are holding back, weighing up the joys of dining out against the risks and responsibilities.

Thai beef salad.
Thai beef salad.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Betel Leaf not only takes Thai street food indoors and upstairs, it also smooths out a lot of the issues people might have with dining out. Just as soon as they're ready to do so.

The low-down

Betel Leaf @ Bathers'

Address: Bathers' Pavilion, 4 The Esplanade, Balmoral, 02 9969 5050, batherspavilion.com.au

Open: Lunch Thu-Sun from noon; dinner Wed-Sat from 5.30pm

Dining window: 90 minutes

Protocols: Hand sanitiser, well-spaced tables; tracking details taken

Drinks: Six beers (no Thai), spritzes and a pleasant 18-strong wine list with most available by the glass

Vegetarian: Dedicated menu with appetisers, salads, curry, stir-fry and rice

Cost: About $125 for two, plus drinks

Score: Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet