20 Danks Street Waterloo, NSW 2017
|Opening hours||Lunch, Tue-Sun, 11am-3pm; dinner, Tue-Sun, 5pm-late|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 8399 1331|
The thing is, Sydney is awash with little Asian diners spruiking noodles, dumplings and stir-fries. Wherever there is a new residential building, you will find one. Wherever there is a bus stop, they will be there. It's a hard life at the low-cost end of the business, and rare to find a place that doesn't need to compromise the quality of its daily staple proteins. Vannamei prawns imported from Vietnam or Thailand, basa (catfish) from the Mekong, processed squid from China and (probably) battery-operated chicken make for an affordable meal, but let's not pretend we're eating grass-fed, dry-aged beef in our massaman curry or Spencer Gulf king prawns in our laksa.
Then there are those who rise above the pack by virtue of having some form of idea or ideal behind the business, such as Pu'er. The charming concept behind this little Asian diner in Danks Street is to pay homage to the most sought-after teas of China, with a menu that showcases tea-friendly (and tea-steamed) dumplings - yum cha, after all, means ''to drink tea''. As well, there is a fusion of pan-Asian dishes such as Hainan chicken, three-cup drunken duck, and, weirdly, panko-crumbed pork miniature burgers.
Informed by his Chinese heritage and inspired by a love of tea, owner Siev Gour opened the place with Australian chef Matthew MacLeod in January this year. It's an eye-catching space, with its covered terrace running the full length of the place, and its moody, tea house-inspired interior with solid wooden tables, traditional Chinese saddle stools, softly glowing floral motif lamps and displays of tea caddies, tea pots and tea cups.
The dumplings I try are from the land of the giants, their generous proportions a decent attempt to make up for their lack of finesse. Plumply filled spicy prawn dumplings ($7) raise a smile with their fluorescently pink, chilli-flecked wrappers, and fat, round, mushroom pot-stickers ($7) have the nicely gooey texture of ''nian gao'' rice cake. Yum cha obsessives might hope for more precise dumpling-making skills, however. The Shanghai pork and soup dumplings ($7) I ordered had no discernible soup inside; and the slices of scallop topping the sui mai dumplings ($7) had shrunk to the size of buttons. Lighter lunchtime dishes include Singapore noodles ($12), a feathery, light bird's nest of fine egg noodles tossed with a few prawns and lardons of fried bean curd, topped with a thatch of fresh bean sprouts. Bland, but pleasantly so.
At dinner, there is a selection of street-food offerings running from steamed oysters to braised pickles, as well as more substantial share plates. Caramelised Berkshire pork belly ($21) is a curious fusion of old and new worlds - a monolithic slab of soft, sweet meat cleaving away from crisp crackling, teamed with tea-marbled and spice-infused hard-boiled eggs and a crunchy cloud of deep-fried pork rind. Another share dish, of Shandong chicken ($29), is one-dimensional; the large chicken pieces too firm from their poaching in master stock and deep-frying.
And the tea? It's a little problematic, because an order for tea takes the owner off the floor for up to 10 minutes. If you're in a hurry, go for a beer or one of a dozen serviceable labels on the wine list. Otherwise, settle in with a fascinating tea list that runs from a fresh and refreshing Lion Hill Longjing ($9) to three different pu'er teas, including the 2011 green tea cake ($8), which has been compressed, aged and fermented for extra depth and complexity. Gour sets up a rosewood tray on the table, gently breaking up the tea cake and dousing the leaves with hot water. This first brew is to soften the tea and warm the cup; it's then poured off and a second lot brewed, steeped and poured into tiny, glazed earthenware cups in a sweet, meticulously orchestrated ceremony. Each sip is earthy, smoky and lightly tannic, with orchard-like notes of stone fruits and nuts.
This emphasis on tea is being echoed around the world, as restaurants enlist 'tea sommeliers'' and feature tea cocktails and infusions. Here, it adds romance and refinement, making up for the occasionally forgetful service and indistinct flavours, and ensures Pu'er is not just another Asian diner spruiking noodles, dumplings and stir-fries.
The pu'er tea ceremony.
It feels a bit exposed to the chill winds outside.
Spicy prawn and bamboo dumplings in chilli pastry, $7.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.