You know what they say: a crab is as good as a holiday. With the dream of balmy getaways is officially dead this year, you're going to need a bigger crab. And have I got the crustacean for you.
Meet Talay by Thai Tide, a made-for-lockdown seafood-focused pivot delivering crab on demand and prawns en masse to your home.
If you haven't heard of Thai Tide, that's understandable. The Bourke Street restaurant ran for seven years as FOMO Thai. Driven by Melbourne's increasing love for regional Thai dishes, Bangkok-born owner Merica Charungvat renovated and relaunched the business in March. Things have been unbearably tough for city-based restaurants ever since. Talay is one of the few perks to have risen on COVID'S tide.
Seafood exports have slowed due to the pandemic, placing many of our primary producers in a precarious position. But it has also made tiger prawns, spanner crabs and the mighty muddies from the north more affordable domestically.
Charungvat's husband is from Phuket, where seafood-on-the-beach is abundant, and Talay was her way to take advantage of a COVID crustacean boom: bringing the experience of eating whole mud crabs, fresh off the plane from Darwin and perfectly seasoned with a fragrant fizzing black pepper mix, to your house.
So buckle up. Because this is the biggest trip you are likely to take while stuck at home. It might seem inconceivable that a fresh-off-a-beach-grill experience could possibly translate to Melbourne homes while we're still copping some chilly weather, but it does.
Talay's menu is entirely separate to that of Thai Tide, whose dishes steer to regional specialties – street snack cap moo, bubbling sheets of pork crackling, and the crisp coconut pancakes kanom krok. There are bold boat noodles, the spicy fermented sausages sai oua, and tom tum tard mixed platters from the north.
The Talay menu is, instead, a seafood smorgasbord – crabs, prawns and fish, each available in a variety of ways.
Each day, chef Nutchanun Thongsanat goes to market to fetch the catch. The mud crabs fly in on Tuesdays and Thursdays alive and kicking. I'm left in no doubt of this when I get a call telling me mine missed its flight and I settle on spanner crabs instead. I can't remember a time when I've been able to negotiate dinner, live from the marketplace, from the comfort of my couch.
Pick a crab, any crab, and choose between having it freshly cooked for dipping into different nam jim seafood sauces – one intensely fiery with its little bird's eye chillies, the other merely very, very hot with a little mellowing peanut thrown in.
I opt for Queensland blue swimmers in pad pong curry, whose firepower is low, a mere curry powder hum, with salty backnotes of soy, the crunch of celery and onions and a richness from thickening with egg.
From the west Queensland coast I also get two radiantly red spanner crabs, currently in their sweet prime, electrified with a harmonious hit of black pepper, capsicum and onions.
We might be deprived of our roving liberties right now, but until you have stripped down to your jocks, thrown down a tarp in your kitchen and dismembered a crab like no one is watching, you, my friend, have never tasted what freedom truly is.
Each crab has been cleaned and cleaved into sections for hands-on dismemberment and unless you get a mud crab, your hands and teeth alone are enough to get the job done. If you do get a big boy, grab a hammer from your shed.
Other unmissable joys: hoy jor are makrut leaf-fragrant crab and pork cakes encased in bean curd skins. The crab fried rice is loaded with generous lobes of pearly flesh, and served with a salty, chilli-studded fish sauce that brings the dish into definition like laser eye surgery.
A whole barramundi can be steamed, but get it baked in a salt crust. Peeling back the airtight skin, the flesh is so tender you could only describe it as fluffy, with the subtle influence of the lemongrass and thicket of herbs stuffed in its belly.
Dessert? Thai milk tea tiramisu is the perfect balance of creamy and tannic bitter-sweetness. A young coconut with the flesh extracted and reset in the shell with its own water-turned-jelly is as close to being at Coachella as we're likely to get for years.
Muddies are $130 apiece, certainly an investment, but cheap by restaurant standards and outrageously so as part of a set menu for $168 that also features that fried rice, a mountain of pipis fried with chillies, and dessert.
Set menus with blue swimmers, half a kilo of mussels plus clams start at $68 – for two.
That's not not only enticing and exciting, but hopeful. A sign that we're possibly reshuffling the deck.
This is a fantastic Thai execution of deeply Australian produce. Every year we get on planes to seek out these experiences, and they should be ours all along. It's a change for good. And that's as good as a holiday.
Talay by Thai Tide 171 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9650 7987. Find Talay's menu only via @talay.thaitide on Instagram.
Delivery? To most suburbs. Check thaitide.com.au for days and fees. Orders must be placed by 9pm the day before.
Cost A la carte or (huge) set menus from $68 for two, $168 for a family.
Go-to dish Any crab, and I'll be back for a muddie.
Pro tip Run, don't walk. Talay is a lockdown pivot, for now.