Thai celebrity chef Pitaya Phanphensophon is scouting Sydney for a venue that would be suitable for the latest in his rapidly growing global collection of Mango Tree restaurants.
Khun Pitaya (as he is known) is a regular on Thai television, and the CEO of the COCA Group, which operates in 16 countries around the world, with new restaurants opening in the US and in China.
Phanphensophon and his Canadian managing director Trevor MacKenzie have pinpointed Sydney and the Gold Coast as their two areas of interest in Australia after a proposed deal with the Crown Casino complex in Melbourne fell over.
“Crown wanted us to invest $3 million in a fit out when we felt $1.7 million was more than adequate,” McKenzie said.
Phanphensophon, described as one of Thailand's foremost cultural ambassadors, says he is looking for a “class A Sydney location with a mix of clientele” but McKenzie, aware of the issue of penalty rates, says the proposed Australian eateries might not open on public holidays.
“We need to find a place that charges the right rent, because we are aware Australian labour costs are high,” he says.
And despite the unrest in Bangkok, a new Mango Tree is being built on the banks of the busy Chao Phraya River.
Khun Pitaya plans to add market tours and a cooking school to his latest venture, making it easy for visitors to get up close and personal with Thai cuisine from the many different regions of the country.
For those inexperienced with Thai flavours, the Mango Tree restaurants make for an easy introduction – particularly the original restaurant which has, you guessed it, a Mango Tree in the courtyard.
Here, think authentic but approachable dishes like watermelon with dried fish, lobster with lemon-grass, young coconut, chilli and tamarind, stir-fried sa-to (rice wine) with clams or even a green chicken curry, albeit made with home-made pastes and free-range poultry – not something you find at most food stalls.
And Thai-style tapas dishes have been added to the menu at the OP Garden offshoot of Mango Tree; think dishes like sai oua (Northern Thai sausage) or maybe moo ping jim jaew (grilled pork neck).
Mango Tree: 37 Soi Tantawan Surawongse Rd, and Mango Tree OP Garden: Soi Charoenkrung 36, Charoenkring Rd. www.coca.com/mangotree