“I won’t shake your hand,” David Thompson says, wiping his hands self-consciously on his chef’s whites. His digits are stained a violent yellow from hours of handling turmeric. After a few hurried pleasantries, he disappears back into the kitchen.
It’s opening night at Long Chim and Thompson is nervous.
You’d think he’d be past that by now. In the ’90s he ran two successful Thai restaurants in Sydney. Later he founded Nahm in London. The fine diner won a Michelin star and opened in Bangkok. Long Chim (which means “come and try”) is his newest project. There’s one in Singapore, Perth and Sydney. This is Thompson’s eighth restaurant opening.
It doesn’t matter. It could be the 500th and he’d be still sweating the details.
The food at Long Chim is approachable and unfussy, but you can taste that passion. Familiar dishes such as green curry, larp and pad thai take suburban Thai and turn up to 11 – these dishes are brighter, deeper and more aromatic. Sometimes they are spicier than other restaurants would dare.
The dried prawns, ginger and toasted coconut wrapped in betel leaves doesn’t fall apart as it might elsewhere. Each one is a robust, bite-sized parcel of aromatic, latte-coloured paste. They go down as easily as a spoonful of yoghurt. But for that to happen, the chefs first have to cut fiddly holes and latches into the leaves to keep them together. It must take hours.
These dishes benefit from the relationships and knowledge built at Nahm in Bangkok. Long Chim’s key ingredients come direct from the motherland, including curry pastes, palm sugar, tamarind, turmeric, noodles, fish sauce, chillies and limes. Koh Loy is Thompson’s preferred brand of sriracha sauce. It’s made in Si Racha, Thailand, not California like the more ubiquitous Huy Fong (rooster) brand.
But Long Chim is about more than just good ingredients. It’s also a place to try sour orange curry made with ling fish, and, as the menu grows from the current 35 to “45 or 50 items”, other Thai specialties not yet popular in Australia.
Which is the point, Thompson says. He’s done fine dining. Now he’s ready to bring diverse, authentic street food (which includes Chinese influences) to a larger audience.
With 160 seats, a bustling atmosphere and plenty of foot traffic, Long Chim is up to the task. “As I know Bangkok is, it’s fun and colourful and chaotic and delicious and smelly and unexpected and delightful and charming and easy-going,” Thompson says. The brilliant list of sweet, sour, spicy and salty Thai-inspired cocktails won’t hurt, either.
Technē and Long Chim’s David Cole are behind the busy fit-out, which still needs a few cosmetic touches before it’s complete. “It needs just another layer of Long Chim-ness thrown onto it, to get the patina of the streets and the scuff of the gutter of Bangkok,” Thompson says.
Just as in Thailand, the service is cheery and attentive, bordering on over-bearing.
“I don’t want perfection, necessarily,” Thompson says. “I don’t want the most exquisitely refined service. I’d rather have someone smiling and sincerely wanting the guest to have a good time, even if they do maybe put the plate down a little incorrectly, without the dish being at 90 degrees to the customer; even if they do arrive with something a little bit late, or stumble over their English.”
Don’t expect any of that stuff to happen. The staff is well trained and an invaluable resource given Thompson’s refusal to print spice ratings next to individual dishes. “I’m just not convinced about that kiddie-like menu,” he says. “I think that adults are adults and the waiters should be informed enough to say, ‘This is spicy, this is not’.”
Long Chim will accept walk-ins in a few weeks’ time. For now, it’s reservations only.
Crown Melbourne Riverwalk, 8 Whiteman Street, Melbourne
(03) 9292 5777
Mon to Sun 5pm–late