71 George Street Parramatta, NSW 2150
|Opening hours||Tues-Sun 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-9.30pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa|
|Phone||02 9633 9926|
Gee, I feel guilty ordering laksa. It's the calories, mainly. That shimmering bowl of coconut milk beading with chilli oil and teeming with noodles – it can't be healthy. God knows how the finance workers who worship at the CBD laksa temples every lunch break can return to the office afterwards. One ladle of the stuff and all I can deal with is the couch and an Are You Being Served? marathon.
Laksa is highly delicious stuff, though, and Parramatta's joyously chaotic Temasek serves one of the best examples in Sydney. It would be rude if you paid a visit and didn't order it.
Susan Wong opened the Singaporean-Malay restaurant in 1992 after working in securities for National Australia Bank and realising she preferred cooking to bonds and debentures. It's still in the same half-hidden spot on a low-key laneway; an arcade of no importance except for this beloved and vibrant eatery awarded Best Malaysian restaurant in the Good Food Guide 1999.
There's a fair to excellent chance the Singapore tourism posters that hang on Temasek's cream walls are the same prints referenced by Herald restaurant critic Terry Durack in his 1998 review of the noisy (but "in a family reunion kind of way") restaurant. In that review, Durack proclaimed Temasek's laksa Singapura to be "a masterly effort … complex and balanced, with the flavour of the stock winning out over the coconut milk".
It seems nothing has changed about the dish in 20 years except the price. With your choice of succulent chicken or prawns or both, the laksa is now $18.80 instead of a cool eight bucks. There is also a $13 weekday lunch special if you're less predisposed to coconut milk-induced inertia than me.
Singaporean and Malaysian food is made for swapping stories and laughs over. Bite, slurp, chinwag, repeat. Few dishes at Temasek have the ephemeral qualities of pho, say, which is best siphoned piping hot in solitude with your complete attention.
Take the ngoh hiang ($22.80), a five-spiced sausage of pork, prawn and chestnut wrapped by crisp-fried beancurd. The combination of shattering skin and porky fat is still brilliant an hour after hitting the table, and even better the next day when it's spent quality time with a takeaway container in the fridge. (A container that will cost you 50 cents, mind. At least corkage is only $1.50 a head.)
Despite its Chinese origins, Hainan chicken rice is so popular in Singapore and Malaysia that it's more or less the national dish of both countries. Temasek's chicken rice ($15) is a gold standard, glistening with sesame oil after a pandan leaf-infused simmer so the chook becomes almost jelly-like. The accompanying chilli sauce speaks of freshness, while the moulded rice is enhanced by garlic, ginger and the chicken's own stock.
Beef rendang ($24.80) hums with just-ground spices and quiet integrity. The mild curry is joined by the sweet-sour tamarind punch of assam prawns in a nasi lemak ($17.80) garnished with ikan bilis (dried and fried anchovies with peanuts), diced cucumber, sambal and acar (pickled vegetables). Pick, mix and be merry.
Any given weekend also features rotating specials such as the fragrant and steadying pork-rib soup bah kut teh, banana leaf-wrapped fish mousse otak-otak, and the roll-your-sleeves-up stodge of mee rebus starring Hokkien noodles in sweet potato gravy. Truly, this a magical place.
It's great, I suppose, that Parramatta now has a Bourke Street Bakery, Gelato Messina and swish new bar from Sven "Eau de Vie" Almenning. But I can also find those offerings in other pockets of Sydney. There is only one Temasek, like there is only one of Parramatta's Hong Fu (cumin toothpick lamb for the win), and Haveli Indian at neighbouring suburb Harris Park.
As the city expands and corporate real estate groups move in, here's hoping Parramatta council does whatever needs to be done to keep its stalwart restaurants trading for future generations. As long as there is laksa and sunsets, there will always be a west.
Signature dishes: Hainanese chicken rice ($15); beef rendang ($24.80); laksa Singapura ($18.80-$20.80); king prawn har mee soup ($17.80); oyster omelette ($31.80); Singapore chilli crab (market price).
Famous diners: Bob and Helena Carr.