Tucked away between the boutique design stores and coffee bars of Kings Lane in Darlinghurst is Joe’s Table, a bite-sized south-east Asian eatery. Joe’s Table might be hard to find, but it’s even harder to forget. Once you’ve eaten there, you’ll join its ever-growing list of regulars.
Chef Joe Kitsana is the mastermind behind Joe’s Table. With an instinctive taste for flavour, he honed his craft in commercial restaurants since he was 17. Shortly after, Kitsana moved to Sydney favourite Longrain, in Surry Hills. After six years in that 15-chef kitchen, he relocated to Sailor’s Thai in The Rocks, owned by chef and restauranteur David Thompson. He then settled at Phamish in Darlinghurst, which he managed for four years. Now, two years later, we find Kitsana in a workspace acutely distinct from the chaotic, large-scale kitchens in which he was trained, operating Joe’s Table all on his own.
We’re not exaggerating by saying Kitsana runs the place solo. At Joe’s Table, Kitsana is a chef, host, bartender and waiter and manages all of this without stress and with a huge smile. While a ringing phone and a flurry of customers accompanied our meal, there was a professional tranquillity to the dining experience, one that can only be achieved by a restauranteur truly confident in his food.
In addition to operating the restaurant without any other employees, he also does this without gas. The restaurant is entirely electric. When speaking with Kitsana about this masochistic set up, he says the food’s roots lie in simple but tasty home cooking, not overly complicated fine dining.
My first experience with Joe’s Table was at lunch time, and after a short visit I was hooked. For lunch, Kitsana nods to the space’s previous role as a sandwich shop, albeit with Kitsana’s own take on the humble sando. In addition to the classics, he has added revamped editions such as soft shell crab and chilli jam chicken.
The true star of the lunch menu is the vermicelli noodle salad with poached chicken, fresh herbs and peanuts. The sweet and sour tingle characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine is elevated by its contrast with iceberg lettuce, sliced shallots, and citric coriander. Like me, you’ll find yourself digging deep into the corners of your takeaway box to find every last nutty cluster.
Kitsana’s dinner menu highlights his flair for flavour. Must-haves are the Hanoi-style crispy chicken spring rolls and the pan-fried garlic and chive dumplings. The spring rolls flake away at the touch, and the dumplings are so soft they could pass for gnocchi. Other favourites include the Thai fish cakes, honey and lemon chicken and stir fried pork hock. While fiery, the dishes reflect Kitsana’s approach to extracting a range of tastes from his favourite flavour, chilli.
“There are many different types: dried chilli, green chilli, red chilli. So many kinds to work with!”
Joe’s Kitchen is a haven of spice and locality. When I ask Kitsana about manning his kitchen alone he replied “I am so happy now I’m working by myself. It’s a different mentality having lots of people around and going through drama and stress with them. Now I have my own space, and I manage it.”
Just as the service is reminiscent of being invited over for dinner at a friend’s home, the produce for Joe’s Table is also about close connections. Kitsana buys from the same person in Cabramatta every week: “I talk to the grower. It’s very small, home-grown stuff,” he said, “but more than that, there’s a friendship there which has changed the idea behind the food and where it’s coming from.” I witnessed this same kinship while sitting in Joe’s at lunchtime, as nearby shop owners, dog walkers and commuters religiously stop by for ‘the usual.’ Kitsana is dedicated to what he deems important – his customers and his food. The famed smoked coconut ice cream that comes out at the end of our meal is an exemplar of Kitsana’s creativity and commitment, taking three whole days to make. It is smoked with Thai flowers and candles for 24 hours before being hand churned for a further 48. If this isn’t unadulterated skill and innovation, then I don’t know what is.
1/28 Kings Ln
Mon – Fri, 12 – 3pm
Tues – Sat, 6 - 9.30pm