Icon review: Peacock Gardens

The Peacock Gardens' dining room today.
The Peacock Gardens' dining room today.  Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

100 Alexander St Crows Nest, NSW 2065

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Features Business lunch, Events, Family friendly, Groups, Outdoor seating, Private dining
Phone 02 9439 8786

When Peter Meakin was head of news and current affairs at Channel Nine, the fearless journalist was famous for his studio "lunch truck". Meakin would regularly lap Kerry Packer's Willoughby campus, collecting producers from loading docks and transporting them up the road for an extended spring roll and shiraz session at Peacock Gardens.

It was a time of Hawke and Hoges and Benson & Hedges cricket ads. A time for rolling another bottle of Houghton White Burgundy into dinner and waking up under a table at North Ryde RSL. I might be the only Nine employee to have had lunch at Peacock Gardens and return to the office afterwards.

Mathew Chan launched his Crows Nest institution in 1975 with a level of silver service rare for a Sydney Chinese restaurant and nonexistent in the suburbs. If you were keen on modern Chinese in the mid '70s, Haymarket's Mandarin Club was the hottest ticket in town. Chan learned the ropes of restaurant management at Denis Wong's glitzy 24-hour watering hole before venturing out on his own.

One million lettuce cups and counting: Peacock Gardens introduced Sydney to sang choy bao.
One million lettuce cups and counting: Peacock Gardens introduced Sydney to sang choy bao. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

All three major television network studios were a small Cabcharge away from Peacock Gardens and the restaurant quickly became a second office for the entertainment industry. David Leckie pretty much lived at "the Nine table" (back left corner, next to the window) in his early days of schmoozing clients for the number one free-to-air station.

It's likely every Hollywood star to visit Nine studios was ushered up Peacock Gardens' Pebblecrete stairs to the private dining room, but Chan is too discreet to ever name names. (I'm certain Sammy Davis jnr hit the Ben Ean moselle here more than once.)

Chan still dons a suit each day and patrols the room, gently shaking hands and sharing racing tips with loyal customers. Although most of the television industry is now based on the other side of the harbour, advertising folk and old boys still frequent the Gardens for lunch, and the dining room is a weekend destination for local families.

Mustard king prawns on a bed of deep-fried spinach is a signature.
Mustard king prawns on a bed of deep-fried spinach is a signature. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Waiter John Lau joined Chan in 1976 and relative newcomer Ricky Law started working the floor in 1980. The blokes continue to put in the hard yards, pushing trolleys laden with juicy shantung chicken ($25.80) punching with black vinegar, and duck pancakes ($32.80) featuring a succulent five-spiced bird that's steamed, deep-fried and shredded.

Spring rolls ($5.60) are golden and textbook crunchy. When Chan whacked them on the menu in 1975, spring rolls in Sydney were usually Chiko-sized. Chan made his rolls smaller for greater crunch and filled them with pork and celery instead of old cabbage. It was a revolution in the art of entrees.

Chan also introduced Australia to sang choy bao, adapting a dish he recalled from his childhood in Hong Kong (Chan moved to Australia to attend boarding school in Albury when he was 15). Pigeon meat was swapped for pork mince and Sydney fell in love.

Mathew Chan mixing cocktails in 1977.
Mathew Chan mixing cocktails in 1977. Photo: Fairfax Media archive

Both components were easily identifiable – iceberg lettuce and mince deeply savoury with oyster sauce – but combined, they created an exotic sensation. Chan estimates he has sold more than 1 million sang choy bao in the restaurant's 44 years and the cups are still on the menu at $5.50 a pop.

Mustard king prawns ($31.80) are a polarising signature, but I bloody love their bravado. Inspired by mustard roast beef at Sydney Hilton San Francisco Grill (one of Australia's first fine-dining restaurants), Chan's prawns are covered in sesame sauce and English mustard for a nostril-flaring slap to the face. A bed of deep-fried spinach is dusted with sugar to soften the blow, but I find fried rice ($12.80) does a better job. A good lug of Hunter semillon doesn't hurt either.

The cellar has teemed with big-ticket drops from the get go, ready to celebrate ratings wins and series renewals as necessary. "Here's to another year of The Footy Show, Fatman. Let's crack out the Mount Mary and party! Someone peel Blocker off the floor." The bottle prices represent fine value too, from Lake's Folly 2017 Chardonnay at $148 to Rockford 2012 Basket Press Shiraz for $198.

When Peacock Gardens opened, it created wave of influence that still ripples today. In the "Australian meals a speciality" era of suburban Sydney Chinese, Chan refused to offer steak and chips and put faith in traditional Cantonese cooking. If there was a Mount Rushmore for Australian Chinese restaurants, Chan's smiling face would be etched in the rock.

The next time you splodge sang choy bow mince on your shirt, turn to Crows Nest, salute and give thanks. Or better yet, hail your own Nine lunch truck for spring rolls straight from the source.

Est. 1975

Signature dishes Mini spring rolls ($5.60); mustard king prawns ($31.80); sang choy bao ($5.50); Peking duck ($75); chow sam see pancakes ($19); sizzling fillet steak ($29.80); crab meat with soft egg ($31.80); crispy skin chicken in shallot sauce ($25.80).

Famous diners Mike Willesee, Ray Martin, Brian Henderson, Peter Meakin, Geoff Harvey, Sam Chisholm, Paul Barry, Mike Munro, John Laws, David Leckie, Kerry Packer, Kerry Stokes, Daryl Somers, Eddie McGuire, George Negus, Bert Newton, Jessica Rowe, Karl Stefanovic.

peacockgardens.com.au