Photo: Domino Postiglione
There's always a collective gasp from the audience during the film of Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, when the Chinese-American heroine takes her new American boyfriend home for dinner. In typically Chinese style, the mother serves the fish, modestly suggesting it has little flavour – the cue for her entire family to reassure her.
But no, New American Boyfriend agrees with her, and helpfully pours soy sauce over the top.
In the same way, the innate modesty, simplicity and naturalness of true Cantonese cooking requires a different set of expectations. It's not loaded with chillies or Sichuan pepper, not layered with curry spices or smothered with sauces. At its best, it simply tastes of what it is: fish, pork, chicken or vegetables.
But Sydney palates are hard-wired for instant gratification from the more assertive Thai and Malaysian cuisines and our Chinese cooks tend to be from the spicier, feistier, north, east and west of China rather than Guangdong (Canton) or Hong Kong in the south.
There are so few pure Cantonese restaurants in Sydney that Potts Point's new Fei Jai (Cantonese for “Fat Boy”) is something of a rarity. Accountant Peter Lew, who has opened Fei Jai with ex-Hugo's Nicole Galloway, is the nephew of the great Melbourne Cantonese restaurateur and founder of the Flower Drum, Gilbert Lau, and cousin to Jason and Michael Lau of the more modest Lau's Family Kitchen. While there is no formal association between Fei Jai and the Laus' St Kilda hot spot, the inspiration is unmistakable.
The Melbourne rellies have shared their recipes with Malaysian-born, Hong Kong-trained chef Kenny Kong, and the menu is a list of the retro-Canto, family-style dishes every Melbourne Chinese food-lover grew up with.
Simple steamed fish is the very cornerstone of Cantonese cuisine, and here it comes as Humpty Doo barramundi ($29) from the Northern Territory; two thick, translucent fillets bathed in a light soy and hot oil dressing and topped with spring onions. That's it. Unusually for farmed barramundi, it tastes clean and sweet, and the flesh is not overly soft. Usually the least exciting thing on a Chinese menu, a dish of wok-fried seasonal vegetables ($18), is just plain lovely – the green and glossy snow peas, sugar snaps, choy sum and bok choy all snappily cooked.
Not everything is Cantonese but even the ma po dofu – known here as ma pu – is cooked to Cantonese sensibilities rather than Sichuan; the cubed beancurd coated in a lightly spicy savoury mince of pork, chilli and Sichuan pepper ($24).
It's a charming spot; the tiny street-front dining room done up with leather banquettes, pendant lamps, glowing metal mesh wall features and a small cocktail bar lined with cast-iron teapots. Folding doors let seating spill on to the footpath, complete with market umbrellas and patio heaters.
Next comes a dish of clouds. I'm not being poetic; I seriously think the eggwhite omelet with crab ($16) might be made of actual clouds, rather than just eggwhite, cream and generous pieces of blue swimmer crab.
Hand-made dumplings are individually priced, which is a bit weird, and vary in quality from divinely sweet and mousse-like siu mai of scallop and prawn ($3) and crisp-bottomed pork pot-stickers served with red vinegar dipping sauce ($3.50) to more homely, pursed-top dumplings of pork and ginger ($3.50).
There are dishes I don't love. Whole poussin, chopped and served with prawn crackers and spicy salt ($26) glistens with oil from the deep-fryer. A daily special of king george whiting fillets ($29) is bland and under-seasoned.
Galloway's eclectic 20-strong list of suitably fresh, young, fruit-driven wines starts about $40.
Unlike its Chinatown equivalents, Fei Jei is modern, cool, and already a little cliquey, with young, bright and caring staff. The quiet, under-the-radar observance of quality means dining here isn't as cheap as you might expect; and consistency is not anywhere near Lau family levels – you can't copy 40 years of professional excellence overnight. But it's great to see a commitment to quality Cantonese food in a sweet, modern setting, without the fusion and fashionable plating that so often accompanies it overseas.
Normally at this stage I'd suggest that Fei Jai now needs to grow up and develop its own style and its own dishes. But then, I think of those soft clouds of crabmeat omelet borrowed from Melbourne, and I'm not so sure.
- 02 8668 4424
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - About $90 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed
- Opening Hours - Mon, Wed-Fri, 6pm-late, Sat & Sun, noon-late.
- Author - Terry Durack