460 Church St Richmond, VIC 3121
|Opening hours||Sun-Fri, 11.30am–9.30pm; Sat 4.30-9.30pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, BYO, Licensed, Cheap Eats|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8528 6884|
The little clutch of shops next to East Richmond station would have once housed a shoe repair and key cut shop, a dry cleaner and newsagent – all the services a commuter needs on their way to or from work.
Today, the strip on Church Street is wall-to-wall restaurants – the food-service industry perhaps over-servicing Richmond's residents, designers, publishers and peddlers of fine furniture.
Sabai restaurant joined the fray around July this year, on the more discreet side of the street where small, owner-operated businesses face-off with some goliaths of the industry: Jimmy Grants, Public House and Richmond Oysters.
Sabai still has its new-restaurant glow: unscuffed and unscathed. It's neat and approachable, with traditional finishes like plaster (remember that stuff, before tiles and exposed brick took over), and mounted canvases (no murals or paste-ups).
Owners Sumalee Sae-tang and Manpreet Singh are partners in life and work, both are chefs, and both are first-time restaurateurs bringing experience from big corporate caterers.
They are pros with the details, like chilled frosty beer glasses, never-empty water glasses, a range of ceramics (colour-paired with each dish), and handsome stemless stemware. Thai-born Sae-tang makes the food, while Manpreet Singh is out front, selling it.
It's a smart small menu that weaves characteristic Thai zing with a bit of contemporary bling. On its second incarnation (for spring/summer), you might have thought the massaman lamb shank would have been shelved until next winter. "I cannot take it off," says Singh. "People come back for it. We do not have a lot of new customers yet, but we have a lot of return customers; many come for the massaman."
It is one of those dishes that could leave an imprint. There's a deep hum to the thick, paste-like curry that clings to the slow-cooked meat, pulling it down into the bowl – such that the shank bone lifts out clean. Pick through whole cinnamon quills, waxy potato pieces, cashews and soft lamb for mouthfuls that start as spice-rich (a delicious quagmire of cloves, cardamom and nutmeg, among others) and travel aromatically across the palate.
The barramundi bristles with Thai-ness: spiked with chilli, glistening with sweet-sour sauce and terrifically textured. Cubes of crisp, battered barra (bought from across the road at Richmond Oysters) sit under a nest of aromatic herbs and a mass of mandolin-shaved apple that gives the dish its crisp, creative twist. The same appley accent is given to the soft-shell crab sliders, an easy starter of three soft mini buns, each with its own dark-fried crab, herbs and apple.
It costs a song, with mains averaging $20, and the kitchen stays open right through the day. Even given the glut of options here, I'd go back.
Do … Consider desserts, such as coconut ice-cream served with shards of kaffir-lime toffee.
Don't … Order all roti at the start; order progressively, it's so good hot.
Vibe ... Slow-casual boomer waiting to happen.