A Vietnamese, a Singaporean and a Taiwanese walk into a bar. Not just any bar, but a Justin Hemmes bar. And suddenly, what used to be the Tank nightclub is serving some of the best Cantonese food in Sydney, via Australian-Vietnamese executive chef Dan Hong, Australian-Taiwanese head chef Jowett Yu, and Singaporean dim sum chef Eric Koh, of London’s Hakkasan.
The vast, moodily lit, upstairs-downstairs warehouse space is too much to take in at once, with its mix of huge wooden columns, gleaming stainless-steel kitchens, marble tables and 1930s Shanghai teahouse vibe. An impressive gene pool of designer talent has been at work, including designer Bettina Hemmes, stylist Sibella Court and Michael McCann of Dreamtime Australia. With Justin Hemmes, they have created what is in essence a self-contained Chinatown, complete with dim sum kitchen, roast meats counter, downstairs banquet hall and a moody colonial dive bar that could have been plucked from the backstreets of Hong Kong.
As someone who has been less than excited about the local yum cha scene for some time, can I just say a special ‘‘Welcome to Sydney’’ to Eric Koh. In London, his restaurants such as Hakkasan and Yauatcha reignited my love affair with dim sum, proof that dumplings don’t have to be fist-sized, deep-fried and stacked with sugar to succeed. Chef Koh’s har gau ($9) are delicate, translucent, perfectly pleated little beauties full of sea sweetness. The deluxe scallop-topped shumai with their icing of flying-fish roe ($9.80) are beautifully put together; prawn and broccolini cheung fun rice rolls ($10.80) are silky and subtle, with just enough crunch to keep things interesting; and deep-fried bean curd skin-wrapped prawn rolls ($9.80) have the crisp-to-soft ratio down pat.
Go to the loos (charming in their own right) and admire the glass-encased drying room of hanging ducks on the way. On the way back, stop by the roast meats window with its glossy ducks and sides of barbecue roast pork, expertly tended by master roast meats chef Yeung Lam, from Hong Kong’s East Ocean restaurant.
Indeed, the Peking duck ($88/$45) is very nicely presented with pancakes, sauce, cucumber and spring onions, but it pales beside the plainer, simpler beauty of the Cantonese roast duck ($60/$34). Served in traditional style on the bone, complete with lacquered skin and mellow, liver-like meat, it swims in a pond of wonderfully ducky juices so beautifully balanced you could make a meal by just spooning them over a bowl of steamed rice.
Roast duck, as every Chinese eater-who-drinks knows, means pinot noir, just as spicy, tangy Asian food requires riesling. Hence Merivale’s resident wine savant, Franck Moreau, has composed a spice-savvy list particularly well endowed in riesling and pinot, with an earthy, intense 2011 Rua Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Central Otago district ($65) that is infinitely duck-friendly.
Like the kitchen team (and the bow-tied floor staff), the menu is a clever mix of old and new, with respect paid to the classics by Hong and Yu in their use of top-grade produce and their ability to leave well enough alone. Chinese steamed fish with black bean, chilli and shaoxing wine ($32) is translated into neat lozenges of lightly steamed mulloway, the fragrant juices touched with soy, and smoky with chilli. That classic Chinatown dish, live pippies with XO sauce ($34), is cleaner here, without the glug of cornflour; and mapo tofu ($24) has the peppery minced pork spooned over a bed of silky-smooth soy milk custard. Then there are clever combinations such as raw sea scallop layered with lup cheong sausage and woodear mushrooms ($16), a textural minefield; and lightly smoked eel, silken bean curd and century egg ($12) that is both challenging and comforting.
The same light, fresh rethinking has conjured an uplifting dessert of green apple ice, osmanthus jelly, water chestnut and coconut sorbet ($14) that’s as refreshing as a chilled hand towel, but more enjoyable to eat.
Wow. This is a major piece of work, built on a seriously scary outlay of money. It’s as if someone sat down and asked themselves: ‘‘What if Chinese restaurants used better produce, had a great wine list, cut down on the oil and cornflour, did more manageable portions and threw in some Asian salads and amazing desserts?’’ And just did it.
Is Mr Wong Sydney’s long-overdue answer to Melbourne’s Flower Drum, or is it what our Chinatown could be, but isn’t?
I’m not entirely sure, but I do know I love it.
The bottom line
Best bit It's the new Chinatown.
Worst bit No bookings for fewer than six at night.
Go-to dish Chinese roasted duck (Half $34/whole $60).
- 02 9240 3000
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - Dim sum: about $70 for two plus drinks, Dinner: about $110 for two plus drinks
- Features - Licensed
- Opening Hours - Lunch and dinner daily (occasionally closed Mondays for functions; phone to confirm); Thu-Sat until 2am.
- Author - Terry Durack