Where: Isan Soul, 98 Bourke Street Melbourne
What: Decent Thai food if and when it arrives
Who: Mr Right Then
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
As detailed in my previous blog post, my first visit to Isan Soul was a disaster. We waited close to 50 minutes after ordering our food before we made the decision to leave – with our food having still not arrived – because we had an event to run to. Reviews on Zomato have indicated this is a common occurrence, though there are as many stellar reviews as negative ones, so visit when you have no time constraints.
It takes a particular kind of bravery to re-visit a restaurant after walking out on them but I was up to the challenge. After all, I have a somewhat unmemorable face (people are constantly introducing themselves to me despite us having met before), I had nowhere else to be this time, and I still really did want to try Isan Soul – the droves of people constantly in it made me think it must be worth its salt. Important note for planners: Isan Soul takes phone bookings and you’d be best off making a reservation, as the restaurant is perennially busy.
Isan Soul is a cutesy two-storey restaurant with wall-to-wall framed photos of Thai royals, cooking ingredients sitting in cabinets, tapestries and memorabilia imported from the motherland. Look up and you’ll find hanging woven rattan baskets, while on the ground floor, artfully designed tuk tuks jostle for space with the diners. There’s not an inch of space wasted. The tables are crammed tightly together, but it’s not as frenetic as it sounds – the acoustics are good so you can hear yourself over the din and a sense of cosiness prevails.
I visited with Mr Right Then who previously headed human rights organisation Right Now, which we volunteered at for several years. He’s a part-time pescatarian who sticks to his seafood-and-vegetable eating lifestyle as long as he’s not tempted to do otherwise. There are few options for vegetarians on the menu, namely the som tum thai (spicy green papaya salad) and the wok-fried mushroom and tofu, and Mr Right Then almost wavered after catching sight of the red duck curry, but I steered him to safety.
We were slightly worried there wasn’t an alcohol menu – it being a Friday night, us being office drones with a penchant for self-medicating once the clock hits 5 – because we weren’t initially provided with one. However we received one upon request and we ended up ordering a bottle of Shiraz to share. I technically (read: definitely) can’t drink wine, but there weren’t any spirits on the menu (a common issue I face in restaurants) and I really felt like a drink. Mr Right Then asked me if there was a wine that was not as bad for my intolerances but I lied to him and said they were all bad – in truth, red is the worst, but I’d also resigned myself to a bloat-filled night and figured I may as well get bloated off the wine I like best.
I wasn’t as stressed about timing on this occasion, so can’t definitively say exactly when our entrees arrived, but it was roughly 20–30 minutes after we ordered. To take full advantage of Mr Right Then’s decision to include seafood in his diet, we ordered a serve of the prawn cakes and fish ball skewers. The deep-fried minced prawn meat in the spherical patties was spiced with red curry paste, chilli and garlic – they were moist and pillowy on the inside, but light and crisp on the outside. They came with a sweet pale yellow plum sauce, but I ate my prawn cake by itself to preserve its savouriness and enjoyed it after having abstained from prawns for so long – prawns are high in histamines, which is a sad fact as it’s also one of my favourite types of seafood.
For our second entrée, Mr Right Then and I enjoyed the three plump, bouncy fish balls that were doused in a sweet chilli sauce and threaded on to a skewer. The flavour profile wasn’t dissimilar to the prawn cakes, but these were decidedly sweeter – you didn’t get an option on whether or not you wanted to add the sweet chilli sauce as it came pre-drizzled on to the skewers. These were the perfect drinking snack, and I relished alternating between a swig of Shiraz and a bite of these moreish fish balls.
For our mains, Mr Right Then and I decided to share the soft shell crab in curry powder sauce, which came with rice, and the signature king prawn pad thai.
For $17, the soft shell crab came in generous proportions – Mr Right Then and I had two hefty pieces each. The soft shell crab retained its crispness despite being submerged in the curry – I love the texture of crisp things going slightly soft in sauce or soup; my favourite version of this is dunked you char kway in bak kut teh. The curry itself tasted like the Singapore noodle equivalent of a curry; sweetish and not dissimilar to the taste of Keen’s curry powder. I quite liked it, while hungering for slightly more of a spicy kick.
You could taste the tart notes of tamarind in the prawn pad thai, with the thin rice noodles pleasantly charred and suffused in the flavours of fish sauce and palm sugar. The noodles were interlaced with scrambled eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts.
By this stage, Mr Right Then had polished off more of the wine bottle than me because I’d gotten too distracted by the food – always happens – so we ordered another glass of wine each, and then another after that. In hindsight, we would’ve been better off getting another bottle but it felt too extreme at that stage.
Isan Soul is great if you’re hankering for Thai in the city and are not within walking distance to Soi 38 (which I haven’t tried yet, but have heard great things about) and Dodee Paidang (which I can highly recommend). Although it’s not quite up to the standard of Melbourne Thai champion Jinda Thai, there’s always been a dearth of Thai options in the city, so I’m happy Isan Soul is filling it.
Thai is usually great for my intolerances, but consuming close to a bottle of red wine was obviously not without its repercussions, as was the decision to eat prawns and a curry. If I’m visiting Isan Soul again with someone else who has looser morals when it comes to what they eat, I’ll be keen to try the grilled pork neck, prik khing crispy pork and street grilled chicken.
Isan Soul is open every day from 12pm to 10pm.