A menu driven by top local produce is nothing new to Melbourne's food scene. But give it a modern Thai focus and team it with a stellar cocktail list equally filled with home-grown heroes and you've got something a little less ubiquitous.
So one can't help but feel excited by the offering at Smith Street newcomer, Chalawan. Named after the powerful crocodile king from Thai mythology, the contemporary Thai bar and eatery gives a big nod to its roots with an image of the toothy creature gracing one wall, and the dishes packed with those classic Southeast Asian flavours you know so well. But there's plenty of local love on display here too, creating an interesting balance both on the food menu and the list of exceptional cocktail creations.
The space itself is bright and snappy as that croc, with rib-like beams across the ceiling creating the illusion that you're dining somewhere inside his belly.
Perch at the long bar and watch all the crafty cocktail magic unfold as you peruse the selection of signature 'croctails' and classics. Here, you could kick it old-school with an excellent mojito or boulevardier, though taking a walk on the wilder side of the cocktail list really pays off. Australian basil, beetroot and pineapple, mingle with Thai teas, pandan and salted plum in a way that probably shouldn't work, but definitely does.
The Salika Sour is a herbaceous, multicultural riff on your usual whisky sour, blending Bacardi and chartreuse with fresh turmeric, peach, basil and elderflower ($25). We're earmarking the Tai Me Down ($22) for street-side spring afternoons; the mix of lemongrass, orange blossom, pandan and cucumber is as refreshing as a G&T, but with a kick that stands up well to the kitchen's punchy Thai flavours. A selection of Aussie wines, two local tap brews (the La Sirène Praline chocolate stout and a Barrow Boys pale ale) and a handful of bottles round out the drinks offering.
The share-friendly menu visits some familiar territory, though the kitchen's got plenty of tricks up its sleeve to keep punters guessing. That distinctive tom kha sourness appears as a foam, rather than the usual soup, cleverly pulling together an appetiser of fat scallops and delicately battered mushrooms ($15).
At the heavier end of the menu, a green curry showcases a beautiful piece of ten-hour braised O'Connor beef cheek ($28), while slow-roasted local lamb shoulder stars in a northern Thai-style khao soi curry, teamed with house-made black sticky rice pasta ($28). The duck in the red curry is from Mickleham, the beef in the larb salad is a Cape Grim grain-fed flat iron, and the pork belly was smoked just a few blocks down the street at Meatsmith.
Chalawan's modern Thai menu is served with a Melbourne twist and — matched with some truly great cocktails — proves little crocodile has plenty of bite.