Contemporary teahouse style: the multi-million dollar Waitan in Haymarket. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Location, as they say, is the first thing to get right. So it's not a great start for a restaurant supposedly $10 million in the making, when I walk straight past it.
This ambitious new opening, launched in a blaze of Lamborghinis and food-blogger publicity, is on the first floor of a central Chinatown building, accessed by an escalator from the street, with little in the way of signage. Once upstairs, there's an anonymous door marked "Fire Safety Door: Do not obstruct." Having missed the receptionist downstairs, I have to bang on the door to get in.
A joint venture between two respected Asian restaurant hospitality giants, the China-based Xiang E Qing group and Singapore's TungLok Group, Waitan spans 2500 square metres over two floors encompassing a vast restaurant, three bars, 14 private dining rooms and a members-only lounge.
Go-to dish: Asian tapas plate $24. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Moodily lit in a contemporary teahouse style, the space is punctuated by filigreed screens, softly glowing red lanterns and a bright beacon of a glassed-in kitchen.
Chinese favourites (Peking duck, XO pippies) share equal billing with Malaysian hawker dishes (Hainan chicken, seafood laksa), and several fusion offerings that defy any geographic pigeon-holing, including sambal bravas and 62C egg with jamon serrano, and black bean fudge brownie sundae. And - blimey - all these different offerings come from different kitchens, overseen by a Western executive head chef, John Rankin, who has previously cooked at Astral, Sean's Kitchen and Owl House. It sounds almost impossible to pull together in a coherent whole.
The Asian tapas plate ($24) showcases the kitchen's unorthodox take on dim sum. Har gau prawn dumpling wrappers are black with squid ink; siu mai dumplings are filled with markedly smoky pork; and long, slender cigars of prawn spring rolls come upright in a glass jar, with a terrific tom yum sauce for dipping; all good fun.
Moodily lit: Waitan. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Hainan chicken ($27) works well enough, the poached chicken skin-on and lapped with light soy juices, as does skate wing in a spicy, fruity sambal ($27).
Then along comes a dish of pig's tongue with heirloom tomatoes, jellyfish and smoked paprika ($16) that is just plain bizarre, each element refusing to co-operate with the others. Hor fun ($27), that boy's own Chinatown favourite, is studded with wagyu beef, but the rice noodles are bland and the mouth feel is oily.
Waitan's signature Peking duck ($47 half/$88 whole) is served three ways: the glazed skin with a little bowl of dipping sugar; skin and meat with traditional pancakes, hoisin, cucumber and spring onions and the remaining meat with steamed silverbread buns. Ours is disappointing; the skin dull and overtly oily, and the smoky meat feeling flat and dry.
If you're not up for the one-off $50,000 bottle of cognac, a silky 2011 Earth's End pinot noir from Central Otago from the well-stacked wine list delivers real duck-friendly clout for $73.
A black sticky rice dessert ($13) is promising, but the cocktail glass of creamy rice, papaya, mango sorbet, puffed rice and microcress ($13) has little clarity.
Waitan is bold, brave and unapologetically modern; a new and different experience for Chinatown.
There's great expertise in the excellent steamed buns and pancakes; the slicing and chopping; and the clear, distinct sauces. But oh, the systems. The food comes with no rhyme nor reason and an order for wine results in a long, long wait, as it is apparently kept on a different floor. Service is sweet-as-pie under former Yoshii frontman Aaron Ching, but the logistics make it harder than it has to be, for them and for us. I'm filing it under ''I for Interesting''.
Best bit: Something different for Chinatown
Worst bit: Paper serviettes
Go-to dish: Asian tapas plate, $24
- 02 8218 1000
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - Around $120 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Licensed
- Chef(s) - John Rankin
- Owners - Xiang E Qing group, TungLok Group
- Opening Hours - Dinner daily 6pm-midnight
- Author - Terry Durack