Ridgy-didge good tucker ... Billy Kwong restaurant in Surry Hills. Photo: James Brickwood
It's not every day someone invents a new cuisine, but Kylie Kwong has. Our most famous Aussie-Chinese chef has gone bush, on a mission to explore the native produce of Australia. Ever an evangelist – for organic food, biodynamic wine, Fair Trade, slow food and Australian marine conservation – she's now evangelising indigenous produce.
And she's doing it the only way she knows how: by cooking it.
Take the stir-fried vegetables, for example. Set aside all mental images of gai-lan and bok choy and replace them with sand dune succulents such as Coorong beach bananas (Disphyma crassifolium) and bower spinach (Tetragonia implexicoma), tossed in a hot wok and seasoned with organic ''white soy'' – shiro shoyu sauce ($15). It's all crunch and squish and deep, clean flavours and tastes unmistakably backstreet Chinese, yet it couldn't have been cooked anywhere but in Australia.
Go-to dish ... stir-fried, pasture-fed wallaby tail with black bean and chilli. Photo: James Brickwood
At a recent game-changing dinner titled Chinese Bush Tucker, at Cullen Wines as part of the 2012 Margaret River Gourmet Escape, the chef talked of how meeting Mike and Gayle Quarmby of Outback Pride and James Madden of Flinders Island Meat has revolutionised her cooking at Billy Kwong. ''Incorporating native ingredients has given my food authenticity and meaning,'' she said. ''More Australianness, if you like.''
The highlight of that dinner – fat, golden saltbush pancakes – is also a highlight here. The pastry manages to be soft, crisp and flaky, barely holding in the glossy, buttery green leaves of the old man saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) mixed with tatsoi ($19).
There are dumplings, of course, the best being plump, pale, steamed and filled with a dense, rich mix of warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides), silverbeet and black fungus ($19); and a mod noodle dish of flat, stracci-like egg noodles ($23) tossed with shredded chicken, warrigal greens, nasturtium leaves and cress.
The Flinders Island wallaby meat is put to good use, the mince mixed with pork in delicate steamed sui mai dumplings ($19) and the loin stir-fried ($36). The tail, smaller and less fatty than kangaroo tail, is cooked with black bean and chilli and stacked in a dense, sticky, finger-licking pile ($28); the bones are an elegant elongated version of oxtail, the flavour sweet, soft, clean, extraordinary. We have a new meat, Australia.
The idea of bush tucker has often smacked of tourist fodder with little regard for relevance, suitability or sustainability. Worse, the meats and native grasses were cooked in the cloaking French style. Here, they sing, the high heat and direct cooking techniques of China bringing out the best in them. Nor are they token, instead taking their place alongside other top local produce, such as Saskia Beer's Barossa chicken, Patrice Newell's Hunter Valley garlic, and line-caught fish from noted sustainable Tasmanian fisherman, Mark Eather. A fillet of Eather's ling is shockingly simple, sweet and fresh, steamed with ginger, shallot and bathed in shiro shoyu ($39).
Lots of highlights, then, in a meal of strong, direct, clean flavours. Kwong's food is now tightly edited, each dish distinct. There's room for improvement only in the steamed jasmine rice ($2.90pp), which lacks that comforting fluffy steamy factor. And while I champion the idea of serving only fresh fruit and organic 70 per cent dark chocolate for dessert ($15), I'm not convinced they don't fight each other.
The rest of the Billy Kwong experience hasn't changed. The stools remain stubbornly backless, the tables squeezy, and the walls cleverly disguised cupboards and open wine storage. Floor staff are caring and well-briefed, the good-natured Kin Chen bringing a sense of grace to the table. The two dozen-strong wine list continues to focus on sustainable and biodynamic vineyards, and it's hard to go past the light and refreshing Billy Kwong Biodynamic White 2012 ($44), made for the restaurant by Margaret River winemaker Vanya Cullen.
The only change appears to be to the no-bookings policy, which now makes a handful of tables available for reservations for either 6pm or 8pm any night but Saturday.
Kwong has always been a great Aussie-Chinese chef, but something was missing. Now she's gone more Australian and more Chinese, creating a new Australian-Chinese cuisine that is ridgy-didge good tucker. If you had one night in Sydney and you really wanted to go somewhere that would give you a taste of this land, this people, this nation, you'd go here.
Best bit Chinese bush tucker.
Worst bit The stools.
Go-to dish Flinders Island wallaby tail with black bean and red chilli, $28.
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.
- 02 9332 3300
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - About $110 for two, plus drinks.
- Features - Licensed, Accepts bookings
- Chef(s) - Kylie Kwong
- Opening Hours - Dinner daily.
- Author - Terry Durack