With a squint you could be at a street stall in Bangkok and not a Mullumbimby laneway. Especially on a mild late-week evening dipping a fork into a little dish of steamed silken tofu salad, or perhaps caramelised sticky pork, or dry red curry of brisket…
For about the last six weeks there’s been a little piece of Thailand at the Rock & Roll Coffee Company, the cute 3-year old café snuggled up one end of a lane in town, thanks to co-owner and chef Michael Collins. Actually, ever since they opened up, his particular brand of South East Asian food has been available from as early as breakfast; dinners are, however, relatively recent. When I chatted to Michael he had just returned from Bangkok where he was privileged enough to spend about a week in the kitchen of David Thompson’s Nahm restaurant. Through a friend and colleague he had received an invitation to do so. ‘I was over the moon’, he told me. ‘I stayed at the Metropolitan where the restaurant is, got up in the morning and put on chef’s gear and off I went. I’ve never felt a warmer reception in any other kitchen than I did in David’s.’
For those unfamiliar with the name, David Thompson is an Australian chef whose very first restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in the back of a pub in Sydney’s Erskineville, was attracting glowing reviews as early as 1989. He later relocated the restaurant to the city where it became one of the more highly acclaimed eateries, famous for David’s particular style of Thai food, ground- breaking in that it drew heavily on traditional recipes – scrupulously researched – without pandering to the western palate. David eventually took himself off to London where in 2001 he opened Nahm: this became the first European Thai restaurant ever to receive a Michelin star. Bangkok’s Nahm opened nine years later.
Brisbane-born Michael was raised in New Zealand, coming back to Australia when he was 20 and cooking his way around ‘countless nameless bars and cafes in Sydney’ for about seven years. He tired of this eventually and got into IT, married and had a son – only to realise that IT wasn’t what he was looking for either. Meanwhile, his best friend Trent Morris had acquired the cafe in Mullumbimby and asked Michael if he was interested in coming and doing the cooking there. ‘We had no money, no idea!’, he told me. ‘I gave away IT and we moved up here and that was that!’
He had always had a love of and respect for Thai and Vietnamese cultures and from the beginning wanted to serve an Asian menu. ‘The approach to food can be incredibly humble and simple – or an amazing banquet. Whenever I come back from Asia (he tries to go at least twice a year) the dish I remember is always the simplest dish I’ve eaten, street-wise. When we opened I wanted to do something like that, giving kudos to the Asian approach to takeaway food.’
Now his slight Asian twist to dishes like Bacon and Egg Rolls have garnered a big following. ‘We sell more rice for breakfast than we do bread!’ he said. ‘The great thing about rice is it’s gluten-free – and we are in Mullumbimby!’
There’s a big blackboard menu, a tiny open kitchen, relaxed seating and, due to council requirements, only takeaway cups and cardboard boxes (all compostable and biodegradable). The coffee is excellent; the place buzzes.
Dinners, from Wednesday to Friday, have been ‘a runaway success. It’s the local community who comes’, Michael told me. ’We know every face that comes in for dinner – they’re all rapt.’ As we were after a fabulous feast of quite perfect fish cakes (with the chunkiest stickiest chilli jam), crispy barramundi salad, meltingly tender crispy half duck – and the standouts, stir fried flat rice noodles with fat shitakes and that dry red curry of milk-fed Angus brisket. Positively rapt!