9 Aquatic Dr Albert Park, VIC 3206
|Opening hours||Daily 11.30am-3pm; Sun-Thu 5.30pm-10pm; Fri-Sat 5.30pm-11pm|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9682 5566|
Anyone who has tackled fiery Sichuan mountains like Chongqing chicken before, needling chopsticks through the pile of dried chillies and numbing peppercorns to extract pieces of fried bird, will be less terrified by the sizzling chilli fish at Sun Kitchen, Albert Park's new high-end Cantonese/Sichuan restaurant. They'll realise the bark is worse than the bite, even if the gigantic bowl arrives with so many crimson bombs shrouding the fish that it resembles a food-based commentary on the plastic crisis plaguing the oceans.
Relax. A server presents the sizzling dish, pauses for dramatic effect (photos), then allows another waiter to scoop most of the hollow chillies and whole Sichuan peppercorns off. If only the Pacific garbage patch was as easy to fix. Or as delicious. Beneath, the ultra-tender fillets have heat and numbing zing, but it's a thrill, not a kill. If anything, the meat is buttery, the thatches of bean sprouts and cucumber in the broth beneath refreshing.
This complex elegance, and theatrical delivery is why you might want to pay attention to Sun Kitchen. The two-storey building on Albert Park lake used to house the Point. This upstairs area is now nine private dining rooms. The lower level (previously Hidden Jade) is where the action goes down over fresh, plush carpets, at large, linen-clad tables indicating how many people are optimal for tackling the refined dual-region menu.
As you enter, hostesses in headsets point out the essentials: toilets to your right, tanks of rock lobsters, primed for despatch, on the left. Your table waiters (plural) instruct you to choose which of your two chopstick sets, black or white, you will use to pluck from the shared plates and which to put in your mouth. They deliver hot towels, thimbles of a jasmine and gin cocktail and seasoned nuts while explaining the rich and spicy nature of their Sichuan dishes and the subtler thrills of the Cantonese.
You'll notice immediately that Sun Kitchen can get expensive. Not "expensive for Chinese food". No one is opening that can of cultural myths and misunderstandings. No, we're talking bog standard bleed-from-your-eyeballs pricey dishes akin to ordering the whole $288-a-kilogram lobster at Sydney's Bert's.
Here you can live like a banker before the Royal Commission with a show-stopping $398 imperial treasure soup packed with abalone, Kanto sea cucumber and fish maw. Elsewhere, there is 9+ score wagyu for a $125 stir-fry, shark fin and birds nest. However you value the above is between you, your god and your credit card.
But it's as smart, if not smarter, to go for the wallflowers. Chef Vince Lu's menu can be lavish, but it's also light, refined, lovely. Thick chilled ribbons of translucent mung-bean noodles are delicate jelly snakes vibrating in their fiery, fragrant Sichuan oil with hits of sesame and fresh green onions. Xiao long bao present with perfect symmetrical pinches, the broth surrounding the gingery pork mince inside is subtle, but sticky and deep as the ocean.
The vegetable section is hiding a mighty (non-vego) star of water spinach bathing in mellow chicken broth, studded with whole garlic cloves roasted down to chewy toffees and crisp rolls of bean skin. The restraint and freshness of the cooking is arresting, across the board.
Crashing together your two provinces – the spicy Sichuanese and the more familiar, gentler Cantonese – requires a lot of gear switching, but it also provides some light and shade. Would you rather save the subtle, ethereal fried milk dish, a fluffy egg white and milk omelette folded through with lobes of crab meat and scattered with chewy strips of dried scallop, for a visit of light dishes or use it as a soft landing after all that numbing spice?
The menu's immense breadth allows for myriad ways to mix and match. I can't speak (yet) for the entirely separate menu of hot pots, nor the more avant garde dishes like the kangaroo. But I can tell you the sweet, gelatinous, Donting-style braised pork belly resonating with five spice, bedded over fresh wilted greens gives enough faith in the kitchen to make me curious.
Service is attentive and plentiful. Seats pushed in, napkins rolled on standing. Although, knowledge can feel by rote. We're told we're ordering too much (useful) but not what dishes might best pair or what's in them beyond what the menu says. But undeniably, this is a brassier pitch on which to find those flavours pronounced. Gold leaf flecking a too-firm osmanthus-tea-flavoured jelly doesn't elevate this restaurant above its peers. But the mile-deep wine list, the rigour on floor, and in the kitchen do.
Vegetarian Plenty, but watch for semi-vegetarian dishes with meat broths.
Drinks A library of big-hitting international wines to match the $398 soups.
Cost Dim sum $18, mains $38-$60.
Pro Tip: You need at least four people to eat broadly.
Go-to Dish: Sizzling fish fillet in hot chilli oil ($58).