Often overshadowed by the latest far-out flavours making first appearances down under, Tatyana Leonov samples a new generation of chinese restaurants responsible for putting the cuisine back on sydney’s sino-culinary circuit
Chinese dining is nothing new in Sydney, and the bustling district of Chinatown has been on the tourist radar for many years. But gone are the days when patrons were limited to sweet and sour pork, beef in black-bean sauce and honey chicken. Today, the cuisines of Hunan, Shanghai, Sichuan and Xinjiang are becoming increasingly visible against a backdrop of Cantonese cooking which dates back to the Australian gold rushes of the mid-19th century. And Sydneysiders? These days they’re as comfortable with chopsticks in their hands as they are with a knife and fork.
Last year saw a bevy of new Chinese restaurant openings in Sydney. The newbies – Mr. Wong, The Century and China Lane – are three of the latest and greatest restaurants headed up by top-notch chefs putting traditional Chinese cooking into a more modern context, joining the already impressive likes of Neil Perry’s Spice Temple, Kylie Kwong’s Billy Kwong and Surry Hills hotspot Bar H.
“Sydneysiders are used to new restaurants opening all the time. If it’s new, then they’re curious and want
to visit,” explains Lorraine Elliott, the food writer behind Not Quite Nigella – considered by many to be Sydney’s number one food blog. “The difficulty in Sydney is sustaining patronage long term... The location of Mr. Wong and China Lane is good for those who work in the city, and there aren’t that many Chinese restaurants right in Sydney’s central business district.” The Century, on the other hand, is located outside of Chinatown or the CBD, in the recently refurbished The Star casino complex. Slick-looking couples, groups of well-groomed businessmen and trendily dressed friends can all be found milling around the laneway entrance to Mr. Wong. A gracefully dressed woman at the door greets each group and leads them to their assigned table. Soon the 240-seat, two-floor restaurant is full to the brim. Mr. Wong has played an integral part in Chinese gastronomy’s revitalisation, and when it first opened in August 2012, it was hailed as one of the most significant openings of the year. Fast-forward to today, and people are still talking about it.
Heading up the kitchen is executive chef Dan Hong, alongside Eric Koh. Hong has quickly gained a reputation as one of Sydney’s fastest- rising talents, and Eric Koh has an international professional pedigree, including almost five years at the Michelin-starred Hakkasan. Together they make the perfect pair. As the night pushes on, the softly oozing modern jazz drops into a mix of funk and soul, and diners relax in the plush, 1930s Shanghai-inspired surrounds. They’re eating, talking and laughing.
It took Hong six months of planning to develop the Cantonese menu, which pays homage to classic Chinese dishes with a modern twist. “I got a lot of my inspiration from the local street vendors, where so many authentic recipes are passed on from one generation to the next,” he explains.
Customers can choose from over 60 dishes on a menu that cherry- picks Hong Kong’s best, as well as
an unrivalled dim sum miscellany created by Koh. Waiters whisk past carrying dish after dish, each one beautifully presented. A selection of delicate, colourful dumplings lands on one table, drunken pork hock teamed with marinated jellyfish on another. A woman in the corner looks like she’s in heaven as she indulges in yet another steamed scallop topped with ginger, shallots and XO sauce.
“I love the scallops,” Koh says. “We only use the best; they are fresh and naturally sweet.”
Sydney’s coastal location makes it a seafood lover’s paradise, and the restaurants that stay around, and are full most nights, serve up the very best. Billy Wong, general manager of recently opened The Century, agrees. “The live seafood is what draws the people in,” he says. “Steamed coral trout or barramundi, Australian southern rock lobster cooked different ways, and steamboat abalone are all amazing delicacies. We are very lucky in Australia to have some of the best seafood produce that people travel around the world to eat.”
The Century is the gleaming new restaurant from the Wong family who own and run the Golden Century in Sydney’s vibrant Chinatown – a crowd favourite and late-night hangout since 1986. “The Century’s Chinese name (金唐薈) translates as ‘the essence of Golden Century’. The idea was to have the best of what people know about Golden Century in a refreshing and modern environment,” explains Wong. The magic of the Golden Century has been transplanted – then modernised. The innovative design scheme incorporates a number of quirky themes, while still maintaining traditional Chinese elements. Teacup- light features, a wall made up of 82,320 chopsticks, and 15 huge, double-glazed fish tanks that separate the entrance from the main dining room all add to the electric atmosphere. “Live seafood is our speciality, and that is obvious when you walk past the rows of fish tanks,” Wong says.
China Lane, located in the heart of Sydney’s business district, offers diners an experience that also respects tradition while blending in more contemporary elements. The eclectic interior-design scheme pays homage to the 1950s and ’60s, with a chic mix of art deco furnishings and a dash of traditional Chinese décor. “We’re looking to start doing projections into the alleyway to carry on the Blade Runner feel,” says head chef Ben Haywood.
Haywood has an ingratiating smile and doesn’t look like a typical Chinese chef. He spent his teenage years working as a butcher’s apprentice, then a kitchen porter; he sold fish; and then, one day, his dad suggested he combine his strong work ethic and skills, and apply for a commis chef role at a new Michelin-starred restaurant, Chez Nico in London. “It had three Michelin stars. I was allowed to wipe the plates clean when the chefs were plating the food, reheat the fresh bread, plate the amuse-bouches and make the petits fours,” he remembers. “I was 16 when I was there and saw what perfection is like... I will always strive for that perfection.”
Today, 20 years on, he’s risen to the top of the culinary hierarchy. “It’s my first job as a head chef, so I am giving everything I have got to make the restaurant successful. I spend all my time in the kitchen, talking, tasting and working with my team. They mean everything to me!”
Their passion is apparent, judging by the dishes that soon start appearing – all of which are stunningly presented. Perfectly crisp pig’s ear is teamed with pickled cucumbers and garnished with delicately sliced shallots, the aromatic John Dory coconut sambal is rich and creamy, and the lobster, ginger and truffle dumplings are a unique taste sensation. “It’s modern, and sometimes Chinese, but I pull my influences from all over – from Indonesia and Malaysia, to China and Japan – which makes it extremely good fun to research,” Haywood says.
His reference to flavours can be used to describe Sydney’s pulsating Chinese dining scene. Right now,
the multifarious nature of the city’s Chinese restaurants offers patrons a variety of distinct dining experiences – from traditional Cantonese-style cuisine to region-specific specialities and modern fusion fare. Sydney is a foodie’s playground, and the latest Chinese menus deserve a closer look.