320 Crown Street Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Eating out these days is getting more and more like an episode of Go Back Where You Came From, as chefs start ransacking their own heritage for inspiration, instead of the latest chef cookbooks. Hottest menu credits are no longer Alain Passard or Michel Bras, but the chef's Italian mum, Argentinean dad, Vietnamese auntie or Greek grandmother. Not, obviously, all at once.
Chui Lee Luk has been making veiled references to her own Malaysian heritage over several years of fine dining at Claude's in Woollahra, until she and former business partner Phillip Haw recently decided to call it a day. In what has been a pretty fast turnaround, Lee Luk has opened "a modern day interpretation of a contemporary Chinese inn" in the recently vacated Bentley Restaurant and Bar premises. The short (less than 30 dishes) menu channels favourite eats from China, Singapore and Malaysia, all of which have been Chui'd to varying degrees.
Listed under Small Dishes is a platter of crunchy, punchy, fluoro-bright pickled vegetables ($10) including "Uncle Tony's achar", lively with turmeric and blachan (dried shrimp).
Cannon-shot dumplings ($9) make a direct hit: deep-fried balls filled with roast pork, yam bean and shitake mushrooms, their squidgy/chewy glutinous rice flour casing deliciously reminiscent of yum cha staple, ham sui gok.
Hot favourite is the lemon chicken ($21), which is so not your local Chinese take-away's sticky sweet version. Instead, it's cooked on the bone, brined and fried, with lightly peppery spicing, then served with Vietnamese mint, a swipe of creamy lemon curd and – genius – pearls of lemon sago. Twice-cooked duck with yellow bean sauce is also a big order ($35 half, $55 whole), coming with a miniature loaf of steamed bread for sauce-mopping.
The ripe and earthy 2011 Williams Crossing Pinot Noir ($45) makes a good fit with the duck, from a drinks list that has everything from beer to espresso martinis to contemporary, natural-leaning wines.
There's a terrific toss of choppy kale and chrysanthemum leaves strewn with cubes of 5-spice tofu and dressed with sesame oil, black vinegar and light soy ($11), and "drunken'' mussels cooked with blachan, galangal, garlic and beer ($18) that don't have the clean, distinct flavour of other dishes. And don't be thinking the crab with chilli and fried bread ($31) is the saucy, sweet, eggy Singapore chilli crab experience. It's more of a Malaysian sambal, coated in a paste of chilli, ginger, garlic and blachan, and would perhaps be better with mud crab rather than the somewhat plasticky limbs of king crab.
There's even an egg custard tart ($8) to finish; a ginger-scented Frenchy version of the layered, lard-rich Cantonese original.
Hopping with post-work shared tables and couples, Chow is a fun place to be. Manager Gavin Wright, last seen at the Wine Library, has a good tableside manner, although the youngies are still in various stages of confidence with a full tray of beers (you're OK until you have to remove one). Giant Design's Chris Wilks has created a stripped-back, savvy, gritty-but glam space with both high-top and low-bench seating; a glowing, green-tiled, spot-lit bar, and a long communal table inlaid with mahjong tiles. Monochromatic wall murals use a similarly restless pan-Asian attitude as the menu, referencing lucky cats, hair curlers, cheong-sams and ming vases.
This is very much chow for now, as Chui Lee Luk brings her considerable intelligence, focus and skill to a genre (modern Asian) that can often stop dead at the deep-fryer and the mayonnaise squirter. By going back where she came from, she's managed to move forward at the same time.
Best bit Fish cooked whole, chicken on the bone, etc
Worst bit The loos need sprucing up
Go-to dish Lemon chicken, on the bone, lemon confit, $21