Culinary revolution ... Justin Hemmes (in grey) with Mr Wong chefs, left to right: Eric Koh, Jowett Yu and Dan Hong. Photo: Marco Del Grande
A new wave of non-traditional restaurateurs and chefs is respectfully rocking the foundations upon which our love of Chinese cuisine is built.
The lucky cat at Mr. Wong must be exhausted. Not only does it wave up to 1000 diners a day into the $4 million neo-Shanghainese dining rooms, its little paw also seems to be waving goodbye to Chinese eating as we know it.
Back in the day, we went to Chinatown for cheap and cheerful chow. Now, we're going everywhere but Chinatown for imaginative modern interpretations of the old Chinese standards, cooked by non-traditional chefs (Mr. Wong's three chefs have Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Singaporean ancestry). That cat, traditionally the lucky charm of the Japanese, now symbolises the dawning of a new era, as a new generation translates our dining past into our dining future.
Last year drew an official line between old and new Asian dining in this relentlessly modern city, not only welcoming Mr. Wong, but also China Lane (the third in the China Doll and China Beach trilogy), Simon Goh's funky Chinta Ria Mood for Love, and David Chang's Asian-influenced high-flier, Momofuku Seiobo. As well, small and large Chinese restaurants reinvented and relocated, from little Fu Manchu in Darlinghurst to the much-loved Chinatown staple Golden Century, which opened as the Century at The Star. Small, modern Asian kitchens popped up in drinking spaces, such as Johnny Wong's Dumpling Bar on the steamer-sized mezzanine floor of Kinselas on Taylor Square. Inevitably, they're homing in on the small-bar scene (Uncle Ming's in York Street, city) and the cafe scene (Home Cafe in Dixon Street) as well. March will also usher the launch of China Republic in World Square, which promises to pair traditional Peking duck service with a world-class wine list.
Old-school dishes ... Banana fritter and ice-cream. Photo: Ken Irwin
Not that there's anything radically new in the idea of combining Asian cooking with a contemporary dining ethic. Rockpool's Neil Perry got there first nearly 20 years ago when he launched Wockpool on the site of what is now Ms.G's in Potts Point.
''I've always had a passion for Chinese and south-east Asian food, and knew that if I could add wine, ambience and service, it would turn into something Sydney would love,'' Perry says.
His natural affinity with Chinese flavours culminated in the opening of the subterranean Spice Temple in 2009, spurring on an even more pronounced Chinese focus in his original Rockpool on George restaurant under head chef Phil Wood.
Nouveau Chinese ... Aunty peanut cakes at Chinta Ria. Photo: Steven Siewert
According to Perry, non-Chinese operators such as Merivale, the China Doll group and Rockpool bring a different mindset to Chinese and Asian dining. ''We have the ability to look at the food unhindered by cultural ties and traditions, and to use great ingredients,'' he says. ''We don't feel as much pressure to have to make food to a particular price point.''
Kylie Kwong, an early Perry protege, has added indigenous Australian ingredients to the ethically sourced produce at Billy Kwong, creating a new Chinese-Australian style of cooking dubbed Chinese bush tucker. In turn, former Billy Kwong head chef Hamish Ingham and partner Rebecca Lines are dishing up fried old-man saltbush leaves with chilli mayo, and Wessex pork belly with black bean, chilli and native thyme at nearby Bar H.
Chinatown may have lost touch with what modern diners want, Lines suggests. ''The contemporary dining public is much more concerned about the quality of their food now,'' she says.
The Bar H mantra, Lines says, is all about lightening dishes. ''Hamish will use traditional Chinese cooking methods but eliminate things such as cornflour, which leaves dishes heavy, and MSG, that makes everything taste the same.''
Our Chinatown is still a mecca for the masses, but Steve Anastasiou, the co-owner of China Doll/Beach/Lane, argues that while restaurants in China and Hong Kong have evolved and modernised certain elements, Sydney's Chinatown hasn't changed much since inception. ''It still offers a genuine Chinese experience, but it is no longer the only place,'' he says. ''There are plenty of suburban hubs offering similar restaurants.''
For Merivale chief executive and the founder of Mr.Wong, Justin Hemmes, Chinatown is all about the food, and nothing else. ''That's what makes it good,'' he says. ''But you wouldn't necessarily take a date there.'' Well, some of us might, but then, we don't date the likes of Natalie Imbruglia and Amber L'Estrange.
'It's still a fantastic experience'' he says. ''The rooms are awful, but there's something charming about the fluorescent lights and the only music is when everyone sings Happy Birthday.''
His vision for Mr.Wong, he says, was to create an experience that worked on many different levels, focusing on service, decor, music, atmosphere and ambience, as well as the food. The result is a self-contained Chinatown, in essence, 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. ''We already had the talent in chefs Dan Hong and Jowett Yu, and we managed to get former Hakkasan head dim sum chef Eric Koh, so we were lucky,'' he says.
''We also focus heavily on the quality of cocktails and wines, which, traditionally, Chinese restaurants don't do.''
Unusually, the restaurant has targeted the Asian market as much as the non-Asian, even enlisting the services of the general manager of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney, Xing Jin, to instruct staff in traditional Chinese customs and social etiquette. ''It's important to be respectful to the culture,'' Hemmes says. ''We didn't want to bastardise the experience and make it too Western.''
Chinatown, too, is reinventing Chinatown, even if it has to open elsewhere to do so. Billy Wong (the ''other'' Mr. Wong) says his family's new Century restaurant at The Star gets the best of both worlds: ''It attracts those who know Golden Century in Chinatown as well as corporates, executives and tourists.''
And, yes, dating couples, too. ''They tend to eat, enjoy a glass of wine and stay longer than in Chinatown,'' he says.
Sydney dining is constantly changing as the winds of global influence sweep over us – it's all Mexican one minute, Peruvian the next – but our continuing love affair with Chinese food is neither fad nor fashion. As the editors of the scholarly new work Australia's Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century write: ''Asia – real or imagined – is embedded in the Australian story.'' They might not have been specifically referring to ma po bean curd and Peking duck spring rolls but our enjoyment of Chinese food is now generations old. It's part of who we are, whether we belong to the 8.2 per cent of Sydney's population identified in the 2011 Census as having Chinese ancestry or not.
Of course, the ways in which we experience it will keep evolving and changing – and good design, caring service and quality wine were no doubt long overdue – but at least we have stopped treating Chinese food as a poor-relation Friday-night takeaway. Instead, we're rethinking tradition with great produce and imagination, and serving it with pinot noir.
What's next? Asian hipster cuisine, kick-started by Dan Hong and Jowett Yu at Ms. G's in late 2010, looks here to stay, whether you like it or not. Expect more mash-ups of hot dogs with kimchi, salt-and-pepper squid, and Peking duck burgers. Witness the ''US-Asian-Bar-B-Q'' menu of the new Santa Barbara in Kings Cross, with its Korean short rib bings (Chinese pancakes) and Singapore Slang cocktails.
Chinatown may be standing still – or ceding ground to Thainatown and Koreatown – but Chinese food continues to evolve and make its home in Sydney in a uniquely modern, Australian way.
The way we were
● Prawn crackers
● Dim sims, steamed or fried
● Deep-fried crab claws
● Lemon chicken
● Sweet and sour pork
● Beef with black bean sauce
● Combination chow mein
● Mongolian sizzling steak platter
● Pineapple fried rice
● Banana fritters and ice-cream
New-wave go-to dishes
● Wessex pork belly hot pot with black bean, chilli and native thyme at Bar H, Surry Hills, 9280 1980.
● Fried salt bush cakes at Billy Kwong, Surry Hills, 9332 3300.
● Salmon sashimi and shredded carrot at the Century, Pyrmont, 9566 2328.
● Aunty peanut cake of peanut-stuffed glutinous rice flour dumplings at Chinta Ria Mood for Love, city, 8072 8888.
● Moreton Bay bug crudo with wakame, cucumber and dashi vinaigrette at China Doll, Woolloomooloo, 9380 6744.
● Five-spice drunken lamb with pickled radish, spring onion at China Lane, city, 9231 3939.
● Textural salad of poached chicken, jellyfish and pig's ear at Mr. Wong, city, 9240 3000.
● Grilled wagyu flank steak with pho jus and pho garnish at Ms.G's, Potts Point, 8313 1000.
● Lemon-cured wagyu beef salad with bean sprouts, rice paddy herb and saw leaf coriander at Red Lantern on Riley, Darlinghurst, 9698 4355.
● Chicken with zheng shui dan (Chinese steamed eggs), precious herbs and drunken condiment at Rockpool on George, The Rocks, 9252 1888.
● Pork belly steamed bun at Momofuku Seiobo, Pyrmont, 9777 9000.
● Stir-fried quail and peanuts with steamed egg custard at Spice Temple, city, 8078 1888.