Battered barramundi spiked with chilli.
Battered barramundi spiked with chilli. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

460 Church St Richmond, VIC 3121

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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)
Chef Sumalee Sae-tang
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.

Attention to detail: Sabai's pristine dining room.
Attention to detail: Sabai's pristine dining room. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

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.

Spice-rich marvel: Lamb shank massaman.
Spice-rich marvel: Lamb shank massaman. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

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.

Coconut ice-cream with kaffir-lime toffee.
Coconut ice-cream with kaffir-lime toffee. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

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.