Ho Jiak Town Hall has been Sydney's most exciting new Malaysian restaurant, twice.
Owners William Xie and Junda Khoo opened the new Ho Jiak on March 9 only to be forced to close it on March 18, before I could get in to review it. Now it has opened once more, as the restaurant industry slowly, tentatively, stiffly, gets its joints working again.
And how good is this? A huge, rambling, two-level, 250-seater in the bus-busy part of York Street behind the QVB, Ho Jiak is slightly crazy, like a bunch of small restaurants forced together, creating vignettes of laneways, bars and split-level dining rooms.
You can see the bones of what used to be The Cuban Place – the bar here, dance floor and DJ there – under overlays of funky hawker murals, bright neon and Malaysian street signs.
With a maximum of 50 people in the space, it feels like a quiet, civilised, mid-week dinner, but there's a buzz in the air from being able to order cocktails, and wine, and to leap into feisty, spicy favourites from the unusually big (80-dish) menu.
Junda Khoo is a talent to be reckoned with, self-taught and grandmother-influenced. He's at the stage of his cooking life where he wants to develop his own style and make it count for something.
So the food has its roots buried deep, even if it grows into something hipster-friendly, like the crisp curls of fish skin with caviar, or stir-fried squid spiked with the yeasty umami of Vegemite.
Take the har mee bomb ($23). A Khoo original, it smashes all the elements of a Penang prawn noodle soup – the prawn, pork, bean shoots, even the noodles – into five big, meaty, dumplings, swathed in fine wonton skin.
The classics are especially strong. If you have a thing for satay, a craving for char kwai teow or a longing for chicken rice, this will tick all your boxes.
The chicken satay smells of smoky charcoal, with a well-judged peanut sauce for dipping (six sticks, $15). Char kwai teow, like many of the bigger dishes here, is value-added with either marron ($48), king prawn ($33) or crab ($27). The lush, satiny flat noodles are dark with soy, studded with clams and lup cheong, and warm with chilli. Don't tell the big-spenders, but it would be nice to be able to order it without all the upgrades.
And, oh joy, the Hainan chicken rice ($32/$55) is restored to its early-days glory, with chicken poached on the bone then unsheathed for serving, the flesh jellified under its canopy of fresh herbs. There's a depth to the chicken broth, a freshness to the mandatory relishes and a clarity to the flavour that you just don't find out on the street.
It makes you realise how much these dishes have been desecrated, and how we diners just keep recalibrating our expectations lower and lower instead of demanding – and paying for – better quality.
The only puzzle here is that while the food arrives hot, the lovely blue-bordered plates it comes on are not, which allows it to cool sooner than it should.
If you're after just one dish, go for the nasi lemak ($28), for its perfect mound of coconut rice, its chunky chicken curry, freshly roasted peanuts, perfectly soft egg, and the crispest ikan bilis in captivity. Or the chicken laksa. Or the – you get my drift.
This is the sort of food everyone wants right now. Warm, beautiful, spicy, table-covering food, made to be shared with friends and family.
It feels like a rebirth, a joyous sign of life, like a gurgling baby crawling around at a post-funeral wake who forces everyone to smile. Welcome to the world, Ho Jiak. Glad you're open. Again.
Ho Jiak Town Hall
Address 125 York Street, Sydney, hojiak.com.au
Open Daily noon-10pm, for 50 people
Dining window 90 minutes
Takeaway Yes, from Ho Jiak Town Hall, Haymarket and Strathfield.
Protocols Social distancing, hand sanitiser available, contactless payment.
Vegetarian A dedicated 16-dish veg, vegan and gluten-free menu.
Drinks Tiger beer on tap, Pandan Sazeracs and Laksa Bloody Marys, and a rewarding wine list with everything from La Fontana Albarino ($16/$75) to Chateau de La Tour Clos Vougeot ($800).
Cost About $75 for two, unless you upgrade to lobster and marron.
Where's the score? While the industry works to get back on its feet, the concept of scoring reviews has been set aside.
More Malaysian hot spots:
This Chinatown favourite reopens with its signature satays, curries and noodles, all supported by Sydney's flakiest, toastiest, pull-apart roti.
Lunch and dinner daily. 15 Goulburn Street, Sydney, 02 9211 1668, mamak.com.au
Craving curry laksa, char kwai teow, and Hainan chicken rice? Malay-Chinese reopens for lunch only, Monday to Friday. 32 Lime Street, Sydney, 02 8084 0649, malaychinese.com.au