Kingdom of Rice review

Lort cha, made with rice drop noodles, bean sprouts, spring onions and a fried egg.
Lort cha, made with rice drop noodles, bean sprouts, spring onions and a fried egg. Photo: Christopher Perace

952 Botany Rd Mascot, NSW 2020

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Opening hours Lunch Fri & Sun noon-3pm; Dinner Wed-Sun 5.30pm-midnight
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 02 9114 7345

Cambodian food, I can hear you thinking. Not so different to Vietnamese, Lao or Thai, right? Same, same, but different.

Take the prahok k'tis​ ($15), at Kingdom of Rice, an adorable mix of salty fermented fish paste, coconut cream and a rubble of minced pork studded with little bombs of pea eggplant. It comes with a pick 'n' mix slice-up of raw snake beans, white eggplant, carrot and cucumber for dipping purposes, and makes a lovely gentle easing into the Cambodian way.

ACME's Mitch Orr and Cam Fairbairn, chef Lillia McCabe and front-of-house Sophia Thach won the pitch for the Merivale Group's newest six-month pop-up in the driveway bottle shop of its Mascot pub.

Prahok k'tis (pork and dried fish dip) with raw vegetables.
Prahok k'tis (pork and dried fish dip) with raw vegetables. Photo: Christopher Perace

It's still a hotch-potch of tables and chairs, flanked by two large roller doors, graphic walls, a flash of neon and the bottle-shop cool room, but now everything runs to a Cambodian street food market theme instead of the Adriatic teenage beach party of Mr Liquor's Dirty Italian Disco.

Communal tables are wrapped in by-the-metre gingham oilcloth; music is old funk and soul (cue Theme from Shaft); and instead of Mr Liquor's music clips, the flicks on the wall are restored vintage Cambodian films. Likewise, porchetta and gnocchetti have made way for fried chicken wings and lemongrass beef.

Kaffir lime leaf-scented peanuts and a pitcher of cold-brew jasmine tea are on the house, and tables are set with fermented chilli, kampot pepper and tdek trey, a light, perky fish sauce-based condiment. Add one of them, and it's good. Add two, and it's great. Add all three, and it's Cambodian.

The Tennyson Hotel venue has a Cambodian street food market theme.
The Tennyson Hotel venue has a Cambodian street food market theme. Photo: Christopher Perace

Thach's Cambodian background drives the menu, inspired by the simple, fresh, aromatic food of the Khmer people. So there is bort ling ($14), an intensely savoury, satisfying dish of corn kernels, tiny dried shrimp and garlic chives tossed over high heat in pork fat. I've seen it on YouTube made with sweetened condensed milk – this is far better for letting the corn be the sugar.

And there's lort cha ($15), a popular Phnom Penh street snack of rice drop noodles – like wannabe long noodles cut off in their prime – fried with bean sprouts, spring onions, soy and kampot pepper. It's about comfort more than character, made even more comfortable with a sunny fried egg on top. 

Cheery sommelier David Wood steps out of the refrigerated bottle shop like Scott of the Antarctic, with a bright, light, summery 2017 Save Our Souls Pinot Noir from the Mornington Peninsula, good value at $48.

Murk ung, calamari with pork fat and spring onions.
Murk ung, calamari with pork fat and spring onions. Photo: Christopher Perace

Like people, food can be noisy or quiet. Some dishes are in your face, leering and hollering; others wait for you to come to them. Kingdom's giant, super-crunchy, deep-fried chicken wings (three for $8) are loud and obvious, while a whole, sliced-and-reassembled charcoal-grilled calamari (murk ung, $24), dressed with a pork fat, soy and spring onion sauce has a funky, feral quality that quietly demands your attention.

Desserts feel weighty, rather than light and cut-through, from Insta-friendly pandan waffles to a vegetal, salty-sweet bobor lapoav of roast pumpkin with tapioca.

As with Dirty Italian Disco, Kingdom of Rice pulls a young, foodie crowd and big, happy groups. But there's something more engaging going on here, truer to the anarchic quality of street markets and the joy of sharing a messy table of family food. Same same, but very nicely different.

Roasted pumpkin, tapioca and coconut milk.
Roasted pumpkin, tapioca and coconut milk. Photo: Christopher Perace

The low-down

Kingdom of Rice

Address: Tennyson Hotel Bottle Shop, 952 Botany Road, Mascot, 02 9114 7345, merivale.com.au

Open: Lunch Fri & Sun noon-3pm; Dinner Wed-Sun 5.30pm-midnight

Cost: About $95 for two, plus drinks

Drinks: Angkor lager, sugarcane juice, cool cocktails including rum in a coconut, and an absorbing, intuitive – and vast – selection of wines.

Vegetarian: Limited – two noodle dishes, mushroom skewers, fried rice.

Go-to-dish Murk ung of calamari, pork fat, spring onions, $24

Pro tip: Ask for bowls to eat from – chopsticks don't like flat plates.

Score: 14.5/20

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.

https://merivale.com/