Ideally, you'd book a table for eight at 8pm at The Eight. Whether it's because the Chinese word for eight (ba) supposedly sounds similar to the word for prosper (fa), or the figure eight symbolises infinity, eternity and perfect symmetry, it's as lucky as a number gets if you're Chinese.
And it's why the owner of the Zilver restaurant in Pitt Street, Henry Tang, named his new establishment The Eight. It's a crossover restaurant, apparently, fusing modern touches with tradition in both interior design and the menu – and it's big. Seven hundred and fifty seats big. You probably know the space already, as either Kam Fook, Dragon Star or China Grand, but the entrance is new, shifted away from Galaxy World and towards Nando's.
It has always been a bit of a barn; now it's a modern, plushly furnished barn, broken up into service areas with bars and private rooms. Hong Kong designer Danny Chan has installed rich textures, "lucky" red-glass screens and deep red carpet with the repeated motif of concentric circles referencing the number eight.
The glossy full-colour picture menu is encyclopaedic in its efforts to catalogue most known animals and sea life and to give a potential 750 people what they want to eat. So there is abalone and lobster and sweet-and-sour pork with pineapple and lychees and braised fish maw with sea cucumber and prawn roe, as well as a dedicated list of fashionable Sichuan specialties.
A typed sheet lists the day's market prices for live seafood and fish, running from $188 a kilogram for lobster sashimi to pippies at $48 a kilogram and live Murray cod at $58 a kilogram. Every table seems to have a whole fish on it, with one big-spending table of four men tucking into one of these plus whole crabs and lobster, while on their mobile phones. All four of them. At the same time.
An obliging waiter agrees to negotiate a "small" serve of pippies to be cooked in XO chilli sauce. They're good, fresh and meaty, although the sauce is heavy and indistinct. At $30, it seems fair value for live seafood. Pacific oysters are available steamed and topped with XO chilli sauce and a few soft noodles for $7.50 each. They are comically, astronomically, huge, each one the size of an abalone; and this time the sauce is fruity, light and spicy, full of shredded dried scallop.
Had the oysters not been madly overcooked, it would have been quite an exciting dish.
According to Tang, The Eight aims to blend Chinese classics with modern contemporary touches, so I try to do the same. Typical of the modern offerings currently cropping up in fashionable Hong Kong restaurants is a "signature" dish of beef fillet with foie gras paste ($32.50) served here on a bed of oak-leaf lettuce.
The eye fillet has been cubed and tossed in a wok with soy, hoisin, oyster sauce and ketchup and, I assume, goose liver and is almost supernaturally tender and unremittingly ruby-red throughout. The texture is a little pasty but it makes beef that bit more interesting.
Shredded crisp chicken with garlic, vinegar and sesame dressing ($20.80) is back in a more traditional comfort zone, the dressing adding a light tang to the cleaver-chopped, reassembled bird. A dish of baby bok choy cabbage is in no way a side order, as it might be in Western cuisine. It, too, is enormous, the fluorescent greens floating in a bath-tub of delicate broth topped with shredded scallop and wolfberries ($22.80) – the very picture of Cantonese simplicity.
The wine list won't win awards for innovation but the Tsingtao beer ($7) is cold and among the old faithfuls is the Rockford Basket Press Shiraz at $135.
By day, the place heaves with dumpling trolleys and large family groups and the yum cha is a step up from the average. Best bets are the football-shaped ham sui gok fried pork dumplings, fluffy steamed char sieu bao pork buns, stir-fried spanner crab and an out-there avocado and seafood mousse spring roll with wasabi mayo.
The Eight is still finding its feet, sorting out its systems and coming to terms with its size. The kitchen has to pull back a bit on overcooking but what with the enormous servings, reasonable prices and popular initiatives such as discounted car parking on Friday and Saturday nights, it should settle relatively easily into being a long-term Chinatown player.
With any luck.
- 02 9282 9988
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - about $95 for two, plus drinks at dinner; about $60 at lunch
- Opening Hours - daily, lunch and dinner
- Author - Terry Durack