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Located in the hipster precinct of Braddon where the nightlife of restaurants and bars has grown exponentially, ZAAB is a happening place with a take on Lao-Thai street food that you simply won’t want to miss. The gastronomy sojourn in ZAAB over the evening allowed us to taste the length and breadth of the culinary team although there are still some of the signature bests that we are to look forward to. If you are looking for a fun-filled venue that has an incredible buzz and don’t require a rarefied spice, then ZAAB is the deal! Who say Canberra dining is boring?! mylifestylenews writes.
If it weren’t for the illuminated sign that was hard to miss, you could almost miss the entrance as it is a small street frontage with a dining balcony. We probably picked the busiest night to dine, being a Saturday at peak demand time and predictably the restaurant was full and from the sights and sounds it was clear that everyone was having a great time, so we also had great expectations.
ZAAB translates to delicious and spicy in Lao and Thai respectively. This South-East Asian eatery enhances and elevates food to a salivating level with rustic, bold, complex, big and rich pleasing flavours accompanied by some awesome cocktails. In ZAAB, the food is all about sharing and if you don’t, you will miss out on some great dishes that set a new benchmark in flavour combinations. It is a narrow internal space with tables situated quite close to each other, which in itself creates a vibe! One side of the long narrow dining room is the ZAAB signature well-stocked bar and a sizable open kitchen at the end of the restaurant and the other side is dominated by a huge wall mural which is anchored with banquette seating. The interior design is a retro take on some hipster bars and restaurants in Asia, set with a black base off which murals give an incredible pop of colour and then a polished concrete floor and simple white tabletops, so a clever mix of basics and some selective lighting over the bar and spot lit dining tables.
The black sliding gates decoration behind the bar are commonly seen and used in any Laos and Thai shops and unpredictably being used as a décor on the wall and instantly became a bold “art piece” installation of a very attractively set up bar that draws you in, which is no surprise, as apart from the food, ZAAB is renowned for its mixologists and stunning cocktails, so this is the focus for pairing with food, although there is a very chic wine list as well, if cocktails are not your thing. ZAAB award winning and stunning cocktails come in some unusual combinations of spirits and herbs that will challenge to make a decision and definitely worth exploring. The more than just a “degustation” set menu is relatively a good choice to explore the exotic and bold flavours of ZAAB’s gastronomy as the selection and variation are intended to urge you to explore the different intensities of their renown heartening dishes that will delight your palate. Otherwise, be selective on their big menu that is to guarantee you have enough room for its generous portions being served.
<Crazy Coconut> & <Watermelon Massacre>
'Naturally we were initially more focused on the food and as our set course menu included a welcome cocktail, we got straight into the swing of things with two cocktails – a Crazy Coconut - a mix of Belenkaya vodka, lemon, strawberry, egg whites and coconut juice, the Crazy Coconut was not overly sweet and had such a zing that it was instantly addictive – think a more refreshed, light, less creamy and dominating of a more relaxed pina colada served on an actual coconut shell and a Watermelon Massacre - A mix of house-made citron vodka, watermelon juice, vanilla, apple and lemonade that was playfully packed into a made-to-order plastic drinking bag which immediately makes you realize that such an act was the motif from both the Laos-Thai culture way of enjoying their drinks from the street that was utterly and commonly used.
To whet our appetite, the first bite appears to be a flavour of explosion that packs a punch and will have you salivating for more. Also known as Miang Kham where Miang translate to “food wrap in leaves” and Kham “a bite” and this “one bite wrap” is a common and heartfelt traditional delicacy from both Laos and Thailand introduced and reserved for the royal family in the past and now you can find this tasty little mouthful morsels at restaurants and local street food stalls. The condiments mixture consists of roasted coconut, peanut, ginger, lime, onion, galangal and shrimp paste reduction comparing to the vendor version that is more of a rough cut and chopped ingredient and condiments for a chunky and chewy palate (you truly need strong and healthy teeth to battle). ZAAB’s version is more refined although minus off the fiery chili padi yet still was a piquant mouthful that sets the palate off with some zingy flavour, thanks to the shrimp paste and the combination of those explosion condiments for a delicious experience of aroma, flavour and texture from a handful of Laos-Thai cuisine most loved ingredients.
Kingfish itself is not a strong flavoured nor very fishy fish, slightly oily with a mild taste and soft flaky texture, but with the addition of pickled onion, kaffir lime leaf, aromatic rice powder and banana chilli relish, it was stunning! ZAAB culinary team cleverly puts all these ingredients atop the fish and they are not large in quantity, but instantly make a statement that compliments the carpaccio.
We went on to a culinary detour by ordering some additional side snackers from the a-la-carte menu. Larb is commonly served as a ground or minced meat salad which is the national dish of Laos along with green papaya salad and sticky rice and with further influence to the neighbouring country that mixed with zippy chilis, ground toasted rice, fish sauce, lime juice and fresh mint. ZAAB ditched the usual suspect by moulding the ground pork meat into a meat ball size and drenched with a bed of very tasty, slightly spicy and devilishly tamarind sauce, topped with deep fried basil and rice powder to enhance the meat flavour. Despite the meat was slightly on the dry side, Larb Bites still makes a good love bite.
Now just when you think you have had your share of chicken satay, along comes ZAAB with a twist on this favourite. The chargrilled meaty chicken remained juicy and tender and the peanuts are still a key ingredient, but with the addition of turmeric and coconut, thick and creamy combine for an elevated street dish that is an absolute winner!
<Crispy Pork Belly>
The five layers of fat and lean meat was well chosen to create this crispy pork belly dish, crispy on top, moist and juicy inside and well balanced on the palate without either chewy excess fat or the lean meat of its thin sliced mouthful portion, which is how it should be and the most ideal way to enjoy a good crispy pork belly. With the combination of sweet and sour pickled radish, red chili hoisin dressing, onion and micro herbs to compliment the rich savory of the meat is simply a winning formula.
This pork sausage is handmade in house to a secret recipe and after the first bite, you'll know why! With a mix of dill, lemongrass, onion, ginger, charred baby carrot, tamarind and leafy greens and bird eye chili that will set your tongue on fire – in an extreme palatable way. This is the best pork sausage second to none and must not be missed.
<U.F.C Uncle’s Fried Chicken>
Crunchy, crispy and meaty! Boneless thighs were chosen and beautifully deep fried to golden brown with a ZAAB spice blend, topped with a citrus dressing and chilli mayo. A satisfying delish bite!
<Ox Tongue Skewers>
Back to the set menu continuation, the skewers of tongue meat were twice cooked with staranise and cinnamon, sliced to perfection for a smooth, creamy flavour accompanied by a small cup of tamarind and green chili puree. But first try without the sauce and then with, just so you know that the tongue is so enjoyable on its own too!
This is no Tiger meat nor Tiger prawns! The medium rare cooked tender wagyu beef is another highlight of the set menu. With the addition of a citrus dressing, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli flakes, topped with aromatic rice powder and chopped spring onion, you are given another dimension in which to enjoy the beef and spice things up.
<Spring Thyme Negroni>
To accompany the wagyu beef dish, we decided to go with the recommendation of having another cocktail which was a hit. Although it was an aperitif, the thyme infused Archie Rose Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth and herbal bitters had such a smoky and complex quality to it as well as to open your appetite that left us wanting more!
Eye-catching and beautifully cooked and presented as though a dancing fish lay on a coral bed of charred watercress, with a bed of red chilli paste gravy, lemongrass, tamarind is another triumph of flavours. Barramundi flesh can be too firm if overly done and loses its own flavour, so the other ingredients are added in small quantities to allow you to enhance the fish and it works superbly. Topped with halved chargrilled brussels sprouts and well accompanied with a bowl of fragrant jasmine rice to balance up the complex palate.
This is a classic Asian spin with five spice, tropical curry blend, lychee, pineapple, cherry tomato and charred beans. It is the thigh and leg meat that was cooked to perfection and so rich in sweet taste from the five-spice used and a highlight on the palate that can also to be enjoyed on its own. This new add-on to the menu has a hint of spiciness that comes later from the tropical curry blend flavours that play the foil to the richness of the duck meat and the front and centre hit of star anise, which we love! You really need some rice to soak up the juice of the sauces, so ensure you indulge in this practice.
<Pistachio Fairyfloss Ice-cream>
We probably shouldn’t have gone for dessert, given how many dishes we had tried, but the idea of ice-cream to cool down and refresh the palate after so many spicy and rich flavours just made sense to us. The vanilla ice-cream with caramelised coconut on top and the thick wads of fairy floss made for a perfect dessert. A very creative and eye-catching presentation!
The front of the line team is quite switched on. Madeleine, Paige and Emma looked after us superbly, and answered all our tricky questions with aplomb. They took time to chat and helped us get to the root of the cuisine with explanations that enabled us to enjoy the evening more, as their passion became our delight! There are a lot of strong and bold flavours that make the food standout and the service team seem to be cruising at a high level, because they don’t miss a trick and make you feel so welcome. We needed to feel the warmth and vibe on such a cold night out and this intimate space is the perfect destination for a hip and good vibe with a modern twist on South-East Asian food. ZAAB is a must seek out place to dine. Mind you, Canberra does have good TASTE to offer!
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