Fu Manchu's new space feels less cheeky and more charming than the original location. Photo: James Brickwood
Nostalgic Shanghainese art. Tea house wooden screens and saddle stools. Softly glowing hanging lanterns. Heavily glazed ceramic plates. Peking duck wraps. Chilli salt squid. Steamed pork belly buns.
If you were tracking the progression of modern Asian dining in this city, these would be your road signs. And like road signs, we take them for granted, barely seeing them, but following them nonetheless.
A small rewind, then, to March 1994, when the enterprising Annie Lee opened her ground-breaking, mixy-matchy modern Asian restaurant Fu Manchu in Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, with then business partner Annette Zubani. That's three months before Neil Perry's Wockpool in Potts Point; six years before Kylie Kwong opened Billy Kwong; 13 years before the Finger Wharf's China Doll; 15 years before Neil Perry's Spice Temple; 16 years before the Merivale Group's Ms G's and 18 years before their Mr Wong.
Go-to dish: Sang choy bao with prawn. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
Back then, it was a shoebox of a space with a pop-art Brian Kiernan fit-out that ran to lippy-red punching bag stools and two gleaming stainless steel communal tables, and it put northern Chinese dumplings and crisp lettuce cups of Hong Kong-style sang choy bao on the map.
Since Lee moved The Fu into the much roomier space fronting The Kirketon Hotel last year, it feels less cheeky, more charming and far more accommodating. The chicken rice, wonton noodle soup and roast duck are still here, as is the scattering of Malaysian and Nonya dishes. As well, there are menus for coeliacs, vegetarians and kids, along with a short, seasonal menu projected against a wall of bamboo.
Spring dishes include ''Land & Sea dumplings'', thick-skinned chicken and crab wontons ($12) and a light Sichuan spring salad ($8) that's a textural, tactile mix of celery, slippery beancurd skin and smoky dried chilli, underscored with the hum of Sichuan pepper.
The place is jumping with happy families, girly groups and young couples, while big eastern suburbs' sedans pull up outside to pick up takeaway food. The biggest order is, as always, sang choy bao ($14): two big lettuce leaf cups filled with a bucketful of wok-tossed minced pork and water chestnut. It's straight-forward, fresh and moreish. Another spring special is a slow braise of meaty, de-fatted lamb ribs fragrant with cinnamon and star anise ($28).
You could just as easily stick to Malaysian dishes for the whole meal. A velvety Nonya chicken and potato curry served with a round of flaky roti bread ($20) is smoothly nuanced, but I'd sacrifice the ease of eating to have the skin and bones along with the meat. Char kway teow ($15) is a nicely murky small dish of floppy fresh rice noodles wok-fried with prawns, sweet lup cheong sausage and scrambly egg. It's good with a cold Tsing Tao beer ($8), although a Christophe et Fils chablis 2011 ($14 glass, $55 bottle) from the short but serviceable wine list also manages to ride the spice.
"We only have one dessert," announces Mei Onsamlee, one of the graceful floor team. I'll have that, then. Sago pudding ($7.50) re-works the elements of a Malaysian gula melaka, layering the sago pearls with palm sugar syrup and fresh coconut cream in a glass. Like most things here, it gives you just enough of what you want, without loading you down. There seems to be a clear directive to the kitchen to lighten up on oil and fat, without compromising flavour.
The cooking sometimes lacks oomph, the rice can be over-steamed and the stools can numb your bum over time; but after almost 20 years, the overall Fu Manchu experience is still a happy one.
Three-year-old Felix Brooke, whose mum used to eat at Fu Manchu long before he was thought of, tonight ate a whole plate of prawn dumplings himself. And so it goes. He, too, will be back.
Best bit It's a genuine local hero
Worst bit Numb-bum wooden stools
Go-to dish Sang choy bao with pork $14, or with prawn $16
- 02 9360 9424
- Cuisine - Chinese, Malaysian
- Prices - About $85 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly
- Chef(s) - Annie Lee
- Opening Hours - Daily 5pm-10.30; Sunday yum cha 10am-3pm (from December 1)
- Author - Terry Durack