Wai Bo

Roasted duck is a highlight.
Roasted duck is a highlight. Photo: Josh Robenstone

214 Pakington Street Geelong West, Victoria 3218

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Opening hours Tue-Sun 11am-3pm; 5pm-10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Business lunch, Cheap, Yum cha
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Wai Yip Chan
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 5229 6838

If you grew up in a small town the specialities at your local Chinese restaurant might have read something like satay chicken, Mongolian lamb, beef black bean, spring rolls and fried rice. If it was a special occasion you might have ordered scallops stir-fried with ginger and possibly, if luck was on your side, there would be prawn toast. My local, Rose Garden, played to its audience. Honey chicken and fried rice were the hottest orders, and so they were pushed upon all who came.

In Melbourne, we've been educated in Cantonese for 40 years. We speak har gow and char siu fairly fluently. Dainty Sichuan has given us a solid appreciation for setting our faces on fire, and the Uighur restaurants and ShanDong MaMas have reminded us that China has other regions. Geelong is not a rural town. Culinarily, it's currently the hottest food destination in the state thanks to Igni, ex-Loam chef Aaron Turner's return to the fine dining world.

But the desire for yum cha has typically inspired trips to Melbourne. And when you do eat Chinese here, proficiency with chopsticks and orders from the specials board can sometimes elicit surprise from your waiter, which makes Wai Bo a small phenomenon.

Raising the bar: Hong Kong chef Wai Yip Chan opened Wai Bao two years ago.
Raising the bar: Hong Kong chef Wai Yip Chan opened Wai Bao two years ago. Photo: Josh Robenstone

The tiny, non-descript Cantonese restaurant in Geelong West is run by Hong Kong chef Wai Yip Chan, who came across to work at Man Bo before branching out on his own two years ago. It isn't new wave or slick in any way, but nor is it sticking to the status quo.

The glass shopfront is obscured with menus and lunch deals. Wooden tables inlaid with stone are the only decorative feature in the room, aside from the bar and small fridge stocked with VB and Coronas. At lunch, there may be a table of big, beefy guys all eating fried ice-cream. But behind them is a blackboard of specials scribbled in English and Mandarin. Here you'll find abalone, and whole steamed snapper and roasted duck that comes on a bed of peanuts boiled with soy and five-spice. Here is a prominently pushed agenda of fresh Cantonese, at early 2000s prices.

To start there is fried milk, in which your dairy is cooked with egg whites and cornstarch to the texture of silky scrambled egg crossed with bechamel, all shot through with pieces of prawn and scallops and topped with a dusting of toasted pinenuts. The ultimate comfort food.

House-made dumplings.
House-made dumplings. Photo: Josh Robenstone

And while the room doesn't scream "high roll, here" the lobster stir-fried with ginger and spring onions for $44 is worth the low investment. The better part, if not the whole tail arrives all hacked up, still partially in the shell and tangled with fine egg noodles, spring onions and whole slices of ginger in a glossy sauce that might, on first impression, taste under-seasoned, but in reality, simply lacks the thirst-inducing heavy hand of salt you might usually expect.

Chan's light touch is refreshing if initially confronting.

The whole abalone, also affordable at $37 for the whole, meaty mollusc, is steamed, cut into dense slices textured like a thick rice noodle and slicked with a sauce you might call gravy, though anchored to the sea. It is a little more subtle even than the lobster and teeters towards dull, but then the sweet, and lightly funky quality of the mollusc comes through, cleanly.

Bamboo rolls: tofu skin rolls filled with bamboo heart, pork and prawn.
Bamboo rolls: tofu skin rolls filled with bamboo heart, pork and prawn. Photo: Josh Robenstone

The hallmarks of house-made produce are evident in everything from a plum sauce that's got the quality of the actual fruit to thin-skinned dumplings with a firm prawn farce flavoured with spring onions.

Yum cha is done in the tick-a-box fashion rather than served on trolleys, although there are separate yum cha specials you should also ask to see. Like that snappy-skinned roast duck with a hint of star anise, cooked in a dedicated oven. Here again, you're getting the better part of half a bird for just $12. Bamboo rolls, in case you're wondering, are the familiar tofu skin rolls, the sweet crinkly skin filled with a mix of bamboo heart, pork and prawn.

You'd do fine just to stick to the typical roll call of dumplings and egg tarts, but a huge part of the charm of eating here is the excitement when you let Chan stretch his legs. They will claim the fried ice-cream is their speciality dessert (the same goes for Flower Drum, too), but overall Chan is actively raising the bar for Cantonese in Geelong. Let him.

Pro tip 
Go for Igni, Aaron Turner's new restaurant (2 Ryan Place, Geelong), and follow up with Sunday yum cha here.
Go-to dish Lobster tossed with egg noodles, ginger and spring onion.
Like this? Tao Tao House in Hawthorn has the same fresh cooking hidden behind humble looks, 815 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn.