409 Victoria Ave Chatswood, NSW 2067
|Opening hours||Daily 11.30am-3pm; Mon-Sat 5.30pm-10pm; Sun 5.30pm-9pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Groups, Events, Private dining, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9157 1488|
There's something very celebratory about sitting down to a whole crab. For the diner, I mean, not for the crab. It's as much a life lesson as a luxury: you have to work for what you want, not get it handed to you on a plate.
At Chatswood's newly arrived 180-seat Mama Mulan, former Lotus chef Marble Ng offers mud crab or snow crab six different ways, from the classic wok-toss with spring onion and ginger to a mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper, chilli, garlic and onion sauce.
No contest. For my one kilogram muddy ($70), it's Typhoon Shelter-style, developed by the vast floating communities that once flourished in Hong Kong's protected breakwaters. Basically, the crab is broken up and fried with a bucket-load of crunchy confit garlic, black beans and chilli, and brought to the table under a golden sand dune of crisp, oily sweetness. Like I said, very celebratory, in a picky, messy kind of way.
In pointed contrast to the old-school Chinese restaurants of Chatswood, Mama Mulan is a contemporary designer bunker (via the DS17 design group behind Nour and Alpha) with all the lime-washed concrete walls, banquettes, geometric lighting, marble-topped tables and designer chairs you could want. And this, in a building that hovers above the Concourse like a grand concubine's pavilion.
Just as original is the crazy mash-up of a menu, which I'm guessing reflects the tastes and heritage of entrepreneurial owner Kim Jen, who was born in Inner Mongolia, but grew up in Beijing. Hand-pulled noodles and live seafood rub elbows with braised beef short ribs with pickled fennel, and a bunch of garlicky, oily Shandong and peppery Sichuan dishes.
Poached and chopped chicken with Sichuan sauce is served too cold, but comes super-charged with a tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper and chilli. A salad of snappy-crisp ice plant ($18.50), an Australian coastal succulent, acts as an instant antidote to the tingling "ma la" effect, although the two little scallops on top do nothing for it.
Noodle chef Long Wong clearly knows what he is doing. Lunchtime's signature dan dan noodle soup is rich with minced pork and thickly sauced with peanut and chilli ($12.50), lifted considerably by the nicely elastic strands of skilfully pulled and stretched noodles.
Similar finesse applies to xiao long bao soup dumplings ($10.50), so thin-skinned, you can even eat the little top-knot where the folds are gathered.
For drinks, cocktails include a Jade Emperor ($18.50) that tastes more of cucumber, apple juice and soda than Hendricks; and a supple, juicy Te Mata Estate gamay noir from Hawke's Bay ($55) that's rightly listed under "light and elegant".
Service is keen but needs to drill down on helpful things like offering extra (paper) napkins or hand towels for the more interactive dishes.
There's a puzzling Mongolian dish of very long lamb rib cutlets ($42) – more mutton, perhaps – that are roasted, then deep-fried, then fried to order with a handful of toasty cumin seeds, paprika and salt. Getting the meat off the bone is a wrestle, as is trying to chew it.
Dessert is fun; a big, round, panko-crumbed ball of salted caramel ice-cream scattered with butterscotch popcorn ($13.50) in a collaboration with ice-cream truck operators Duo Duo.
So it's hit-and-miss food, with noodles and dumplings the clear favourites. But the super-cool space aimed at next-gen Chatswood – and the crab – says there's still cause for celebration.
Go-to dish: Typhoon shelter-style mud crab (market price).
Pro tip: Hand-pulled noodles are lunch times only.
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.
Address: Level 1, The Concourse, 409 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood