Where: 100 Darby Street, Cooks Hill, Newcastle, 2300; 4926 1229.
Owners: William Du.
Drinks: Beer, wine, cocktails, soft drinks and coffee.
Hours: Lunch on Friday only; dinner seven nights a week.
Bottom line: $70 (for two entrees and two mains).
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Do try: Curry puffs, green curry.
A CASUAL midweek stroll up and down either side of Darby Street regularly reveals the types of restaurants that not only survive along Newcastle's premier culinary quarter, but also thrive. There are at least three places that you can go to get your fresh Thai food fix along this small stretch of road, but I reckon there's only one name that is synonymous, in Newcastle, with the fine cuisine of Siam ... Benjamas.
For most Novocastrians, Benjamas has been the saviour of many Sunday nights spent trying to avoid the burden of cooking and cleaning, before the wheels of the working week start rolling once more. But, to only ever experience this Thai food from a stack of plastic containers is a bit like saying you're a fan of Harry Potter but haven't actually read any of the books.
Entering the restaurant, you're greeted by friendly uniformed staff that take you to your seat and hand you a wonderfully ornate-looking menu, resplendent on the front with a silver elephant (because elephants bring good luck, especially if the trunks are up, and this one's trunk was up).
Inside, there are more than 80 traditional Thai dishes to choose from, including entrees, soups, stir-fries, curries, seafood, salad, chef's specials, as well as 11 vegetarian options, including tofu satay, and versions of either green, red, or jungle curry.
Once you've decided what you want to eat you should look up and take in your magnificently decorated surrounds. Carved elephants of all shapes and sizes (all with their trunks up) are interspersed with motifs of birds and Thai women, dressed in traditional finery, hanging from the walls in between other emblems and images of this ancient south-east Asian land. Heavy gold-plated cutlery and blue-and-white patterned plates are already set at the table with mitre-folded napkins placed on top.
My dining associate and I weren't able to limit ourselves to just one dish from the entree menu, so we opted for the number eight, or mixed entree, which features a sample combination of one spring roll, one curry puff, a tod mon (fish cake), one peek kai (marinated chicken wings), and a golden boat, which is a tasty, crispy packet of minced pork and peanut. They're all served together on the one plate, with an accompanying cucumber, and sweet sauce. The curry puffs ooze with minced chicken, potato, and onion, and break softly as they're crushed between our molars. The tod mon fish cake is small and round and flat, and feels a little like eating a sponge, while the golden boat, along with all the other items from the dish, sail sweetly into the harbour of our mouths.
Our mains arrive in the same swift motion that the entrees get removed from our table. We order gaeng keow warn (green curry) and poo nim-pad med ma muang (soft-shell crab with cashew nut, capsicum, onion, shallots, and mild chilli jam).
The green curry (with chicken) is a firm favourite of mine, and, personally, I like my curries to be so hot that beads of sweat begin to appear on the ridge of my brow, as if I've just been jogging up Perkins Street, in a tracksuit, in the middle of summer. It's one of the reasons I use loads of green bird's eye chillies in my homemade version, much to the quiet ire of my dining associate. Benjamas is a little more user-friendly than my own, but it still possesses all those wonderful fragrances of fried seeds and spices, lemongrass, kaffir lime, coriander, and fresh veges, which saves it from the quiet ire of this heat-seeking restaurant reviewer. You can also order the dish with pork or beef.
From the Chef's Specials section we order a serve of the soft-shell crab, served with a load of fresh ingredients, including carrots and snow peas, capsicum and chilli that unites with the crispy, fleshy, spicy, smashed crab meat, in a way that only fresh, satisfying Thai food can do. Deep-fried, the meatier parts of the crab maintain their moist inside, while the more spindly parts, such as the legs and claws, make satisfactory noises as they crackle and crunch in the mouth.
Benjamas Thai restaurant is BYO, and I would suggest taking along a bottle of something off dry, or semi-sweet, such as a riesling, or one of those sweeter-style Hunter semillons, which will be the perfect partner to match with all the chilli and spice that Thai food is known for.
And, don't wait until Sunday rolls around to get your fix. Head there midweek and admire the decorative elephants, and, if you're lucky, the only thing you'll have to clean up is your plate.