The experience of dining out can be entertainment in itself – a show and performance put on by the restaurateur. These performances range from the warmth of welcome at an Italian-nonna’s-dining-room style joint, or a chichi establishment where waiters dressed like Don Draper raise glasses of burgundy and discuss body and bouquet with a flourish.
In a recent article in The Australian, John Lethlean writes,
“Now, not all diners use restaurants as entertainment. Some conduct meetings in restaurants. Some just party, the restaurant being a venue to meet and drink, the eating merely a conduit to social abandon. But there are plenty of us who nourish our bodies and spirits with a restaurant meal, be it solo, as a couple or in groups.”
Here is the cast: the host at the door, the waitress pouring your wine. The set-piece and props: candles and cloth-bound menus, the distance between your table from the next. The soundtrack: The music playing from the overhead speakers, the scratching of cutlery against plates, any sounds of traffic sneaking in from outside? All these little pieces play a part. It is the restaurateur who has to play director, set decorator and cinematographer all at once, and boy, does Red Opium know how to put on a good show. (Too many metaphors? Sorry, ex-film-student talking.)
Red Opium is located on the slightly dodgier end of the Perth CBD district, in a nondescript building along Hill Street in East Perth. There are no flashy lights or windows to peer into, just a plain, almost dated-looking entrance with steps leading into a basement.
And then you get past the door…
The smell of jasmine wafts through the surprisingly spacious venue. It’s dim, but not overly so, with red lanterns and curtains strung about. My favourite touches are the opium smoking bed that’s used as a seat at one of the bigger tables, and the numerous paintings of 19th century Far Eastern ladies having a whiff. There’s not a lot of places in Perth that do Asia this well – evocative and exotic, a balance of class and tongue-in-cheek. Due to its location and set-up, there are no walk-in diners, and each table displays a personalised placard of whom its been reserved for. Although our group of three booked relatively late for a Thursday dinner, we were seated on a roomy dining table that could’ve fit up to 6. It’s a nice touch that says that they care more about the customer experience than a higher customer turnover.
Red Opium’s cuisine is contemporary Thai tapas style, and since the three of us were pretty experienced with Thai food, we decided to give the more ubiquitous dishes a miss for the night (no pad thai or pineapple rice) and go straight for the more unconventional.
Their menu has a selection of small plates, soups, salads and big plates. We started with the Sea of Love ($14.80) – a fresh oyster shooter, raw scallop and crudo tuna: impeccably served, each element paired with its own dressing (e.g. chilli & lime) and the Mixed Entree ($10.80) – a mix of random bites served with their house salsa. These two dishes are not particularly overpowering or stand-out, but they’re enough to get the palate excited for the rest of the meal.
Then we were served the White Bait ($8.80) and Son-in-law Eggs ($5.80), and I knew I was in for a good night. These two dishes use the simplest and cheapest of ingredients and let classic Thai flavours do the singing. Son-in-Law eggs are simply eggs that have been double-cooked – first soft-boiled, then deep-fried. While the ones that we were served were a little overboiled in the first stage, the chilli-tamarind caramel sauce and fried shallots that they were served with made up for any lack of ooze in the egg yolk. Good grief. I wish I could’ve ordered several of this to takeaway. The whitebaits were tossed with chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime, fried to crunchy perfection. The perfect finger food.
The F-Duck ($24.80) is a modern take on the classic Thai red curry with roast duck… and well, it’s pretty F-ing good. This is sweet, salty, sour and spicy all at once, and is served in a generous wide dish that’s brimming over with crispy duck, fresh veggies, and a surprising addition of lychees. I can’t even imagine all the different herbs and spices that went into this curry paste. This is a top-rate dish, and we found ourselves incredibly tempted to pretty much dump our rice into this sauce and eat it till the bowl was clean. The Kiss of Death ($24.80 – garlic king prawns layered with fried wonton skins and caramelised sauce) came at the recommendation of the staff, and while it was delicious, lacked the complexity and uniqueness of the duck dish.