Darling Dr Haymarket, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch daily 11.30am-2.30pm; dinner daily from 5.30pm|
|Features||Licensed, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 8072 9141|
Buddha takes up a lot of space in Simon Goh's life – and in his new restaurant, Buddha Love, at Darling Square. "Everyone says he's taking up too much room and that I should have more tables," laughs Goh.
The three-metre high, round-bellied "laughing buddha" statue, last seen at Goh's Temple of Love in Darling Harbour nearly 20 years ago, happily eats up space that could fit another 25 diners. Enlightenment isn't necessarily good for business.
Goh is returning to a smaller, simpler version of his endlessly reincarnated formula, born in 1988 in Melbourne's Prahran. Chinta Ria Jazz combined curry laksa and roti flatbread with a jazz playlist inspired by his moonlight gig as a jazz radio DJ.
Since then, he's done Chinta Ria Soul, Chinta Ria R & B, Chinta Blues, Blue Chillies, Chinta Ria Temple of Love, Chinta Ria Mood for Love, Sassys Red, Chinta Kechil, Ella Blues, and now Buddha Love.
In fact, this small, cute canteen takes me right back to the original. With Wayne Finschi's bold primary colours across piles of noodle bowls, metal-framed chairs and wooden tables, it's like some sort of Golden Gumnuts daycare for people who love Malaysian food. And Ella Fitzgerald, of course, is in the house.
Darling Square has more than its fair share of smartly fitted-out modern Asians – Tan Viet, Hello Auntie, Dopa by Devon, Bau Truong, Lilong, Mr Bao and XOPP, to name a few – and you can lunch around here very nicely for $15.
Buddha Love joins the fray with its nasi lemak ($15) and a wok-scorchy char kway teow ($14) of flat rice noodles tossed with bean shoots, fish cake and frizzled lup cheong sausage. A rich, coconut-creamy seafood curry laksa is fine ($18) although I'm not mad about the prawns. Chicken laksa ($15) might be a better choice.
Come back at night when you're feeling a bit flush for the chilli crab from head chef Peter (Mun) Lee, a regular at the fish markets.
He knows his crab, cooking it over high heat until the flesh is velvety, breaking up the shells for easier eating and dousing the lot with a glossy, fire-engine red sauce built with sun-dried red capsicum, kaffir lime, tomato paste, lemongrass, chilli, rock sugar and stock, and thickened with egg. At $100 a kilogram, it's cheaper and better than any I know of, and comes with six glossy, golden, deep-fried mantou buns for dipping and swiping. Glorious.
Speaking of bargains, you can't beat two comfort-food, carrot and potato-stuffed curry puffs for $6. That's just $3 each. Is this 1988? And I had completely forgotten how much I loved Lingham's Chilli Sauce, thanks for the reminder. Scrunched kerchiefs of flaky roti bread ($5) can be had with a small dipper of excellent chicken curry sauce for an extra dollar (go on, splash out).
Manager Peter Yong runs the place with a smile, and his brief but bargain-priced wine list means those going by the bottle win big-time. An earthy, cherry-rich Pike and Joyce Rapide pinot noir from the Adelaide Hills is $37; by the glass, it's $14 – do the maths.
Mind you, for these prices you're not going to get wagyu beef, leather banquettes or linen napkins, and the box of tissues on the table is no match for the spills and thrills. But the freshness, speed and commitment to ridgy-didge Malaysian flavours mean that – like Goh's jolly, giant Buddha – you'll be laughing.
Vegetarian: A smattering of curry puffs, curry laksa, fried rice, and wok-fried greens.
Drinks: Lucky Beer comes in a Buddha-shaped bottle, wine mark-ups on the short list are crazy-low (top bottle is $37), and BYO is $4 a person, a generous act.
Go-to dish: Chilli crab with mantou buns, $100 a kilogram.
Pro tip: Finish with a mango or pineapple Buddha Love macaron on a stick, $6.