85 Underwood St Paddington, NSW 2021
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Groups, Licensed, Outdoor seating, Pub dining, Romance-first date|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9331 3200|
I can hear a voice in the back of my brain. "You Have To Order The Wontons." It's not what I think it is – a great life-truth spoken from on high – but a fellow diner pausing by my table on his way out, kindly advising me on what to order.
He is so right. The wontons ($16 for 4) are plump with prawn and bug meat, their floppy, satiny, skins sliding around in a dark and dirty sauce of soy, chilli and the lip-numbing twang of Sichuan pepper.
Chinese Food in Pubs is a bit of a thing at the moment, kicked off by the game-changing Duck & Rice in London. The Merivale Group is on the case, of course, but its long-awaited Queen Chow, yet to open in the Queen Victoria pub in Enmore, has been gazumped by prominent Sydney restaurateur Kingsley Smith's East London in Natasha Stanley's contemporary Paddo pub.
Wooden stairs lead to a higgledy-piggledy series of rooms grouped around a central service bar; some with long share tables and squeezy tables for two, others that are phalaenopsis-bedecked atriums.
Twenty-four-year-old head chef Jack Steer (China Doll Group and Melbourne's Chin Chin) plunders the major elements of Shanghainese and Sichuan cuisines, rendering them into something lighter, fresher and smaller: think drowned fish with dried chilies, or kung pao brussels sprouts.
It is, however, hard to gauge just what you will get, which could be a lot or a little, a doozy or the occasional dud. A gutsy "three-flavoured" eggplant with pork mince and coriander ($22) has flavour coming at you every-which-way, while the trad Cantonese white-cut chicken ($25) is classic in its plain simplicity, the half chook gently steeped in broth with the requisite velvety texture, and Sichuaned with a little saucer of spicy salt with Sichuan pepper on the side. Two-chilli fish ($29) sees a lightly steamed thick, snowy fillet of blue eye topped with pickled green chilli and salted red chilli in a sesame broth that is deeply pleasing.
The duds include a big bowl of one-dimensional dan dan noodles ($22) with firm tofu instead of the traditional pork and enveloped in a thick creamy sesame sauce that's borderline backpacker, fill 'em up territory. Crisp-bottomed prawn and scallop pot-sticker dumplings ($16) are pasty and bland. "Crispy Sichuan duck" ($18) is weirdly small, and feels not just roasted but re-heated and dry; as does sliced pork belly ($25) with butter lettuce leaves for wrapping. There are no desserts, just a little complimentary fresh fruit to finish, a la Chinatown.
Kingsley Smith puts up a fairly priced, all-Australian wine list that includes a 2014 La Prova gargenega, a deliciously juicy, Soave-style white ($11/$52), and a ripe, round 2013 Schwartz Wine Co GSM ($11/$50), both from the Barossa.
Service is sweet, young and try-hard and there's a good buzz to the place which ramps up to a dull roar on big pub nights. It's all very easy and likeable, and will be more so when the few duds are turned into doozies as well. In the meantime, you have to order the wontons.
Worst bit: So loud.
Best bit: A fresh, spicy take on pub food.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
Go-to Dish: Bug meat, prawn, chilli, Sichuan pepper wontons, $16