436 Victoria Ave Chatswood, NSW 2067
|Opening hours||Takeaway (pick-up only) from 11.30am to 8pm until July 9; then lunch Wed-Mon from 11.30am; dinner daily from 5.30pm.|
|Phone||02 9170 4714|
When Amah by Ho Jiak opened in June, the Chatswood locals at the table next to mine were thrilled to have it in their neighbourhood. "We can come back any time we like," said one with glee.
They can't, actually, because nobody can while we are in lockdown, but at least they can drop in to pick up takeaway.
And from past experience with the Ho Jiak Malaysian mothership in Haymarket and more recent sibling in the CBD, the kitchen will provide that vital service well.
A joint venture between former Mr. Wong head chef Hun Loong and Ho Jiak's Junda Khoo, the restaurant pays homage to Loong's late grandmother, evoking her traditional east coast Malaysian cooking with food that smells good, looks good and tastes good.
Amah has moved easily into the first-floor District Dining precinct in Chatty, taking over the angular site vacated by General Chao and replacing the murals of Shanghainese girls with Tiger Beer vintage poster art.
Fronted by a cocktail bar and anchored by a central island kitchen, it's a practical, no-nonsense space that rumbles every few minutes with the passage of trains through the station below.
The menu is way too long, in the grand tradition of its genre, running through lots of Ho Jiak specialties and barbecue meats as well as live lobster at market prices.
But I'm here for the more home-style dishes, because, for some reason, the food of anyone else's grandmother, from anywhere, is just as appealing as that of your own.
Like the Spanish mackerel fish ball soup ($19), a bowl of clear flounder stock afloat with hand-rolled fish balls that actually taste of fish, rather than being vaguely reminiscent of it.
There are prawn balls in there, too, wrapped in dried beancurd skin, and skeins of wilted lettuce that give up their last vestige of crunch in the mouth. So good.
But pay attention, because the real magic here is the chu yau char. These intensely rich cubes of crisp, rendered pork fat are to blame for the ridiculously addictive nature of so much Malaysian food. Here they soften and almost emulsify the broth, giving it a porky kick.
The chu yau char comes into its own in the char kwai teow ($27), in which king prawns, slabs of fish cake, squirls of omelette and slashes of sweet lap cheong sausage interweave through generous folds of flat rice noodle, tossed over high heat until smoky and soy-blackened. And yes, icy cold Tiger beer is on tap ($11), glad you asked.
There's more – much more. A gentle, comforting stir-fry of cabbage, mung bean noodles, crunchy wood-ear fungus and soft hanks of bean curd skin ($23) that's like a breath of fresh air.
A bowl of chu yau bak, the dark, heady, soy-braised pork belly in rich masterstock with soft-boiled eggs ($29), fragrant with star anise.
A classy, chunky fillet of beautifully cooked toothfish ($48) in a sweet-and-sour tamarind curry studded with okra, tomato and red onion. A home-town favourite, egg noodles with prawn wontons, char siu pork (sweetly, deeply charred) and gai laan ($22). At this stage, there's no dessert on offer.
Service is chirpy and cheerful, the food court setting keeps things accessible, and the mix of cooking smarts and family sentiment is engaging, done with equal shots of respect and chutzpah.
Just about every dish I've name-checked is on the online takeaway menu, along with laksa studded with king prawn and chicken, which has to beat lasagne in the lockdown takeaway wars.
And always, always, get extra rice with your order, so you can make fried rice with all the leftovers the next night.
Or feel free to wait until we're all back in business and head in there IRL. Because we need exciting things to look forward to, and this is exciting.
Amah by Ho Jiak
Drinks: Asian-inspired cocktails, Tiger beer on tap, and a limited but reasonable wine list.
Vegetarian: Seven vegan and vegetarian dishes.
Pro tip: Chilli heat is marked in one, two or three chillies, as in hot, hotter and bloody hot (ask and they will adjust up or down).