China isn’t slowing in Sydney. Three new restaurants, Mr Wong, China Lane and the Century, offer three different interpretations of the Middle Kingdom’s ascent.
The clientele of 20 and 30-somethings in short skirts and slim-fit shirts at Mr Wong’s attest to the influence of the China-chic from a nation that’s morphed from drab communists to cool urbanites.
Business patrons are lured to China Lane’s sleek “Shanghai meets Mad Men” diner, while the Century caters to gamblers looking to celebrate a win, or drown their sorrows over a loss.
Mr Wong is the latest addition to restaurant magnate Justin Hemmes’s empire centered around the Establishment Hotel on George Street. Executive chef Dan Hong also heads two other Hemmes restaurants, Ms G’s and El Loco.
Mr Wong’s quiet, back-lane setting sets a Shanghai 1920’s kind-of-mood upon approach, enhanced by glimpses of the basement and ground-floor diner, which seats 240. Inside, dim lighting, exposed wooden beams reflecting the building’s industrial past, and discreet dashes of old China continue the theme.
Our party of four arrived on a Saturday at about 7:30 p.m., without a reservation, because the minimum is a party of six. Then came the bad news: with a sympathetic grimace the maitre d’ told us we’d have to wait until about 9:30 p.m. for a table.
Needing a drink, we gave her our mobile phone numbers and seated ourselves at the bar. A platter of Mr Koh’s delectable fried, baked, poached and steamed dim sum convinced us to wait it out. A couple of Tsingtao beers later, my phone rang with news our time had come. At 9 p.m., we took to the bamboo-framed wooden chairs at our wall-side table.
We were seated directly below a speaker with jazz-funk tunes playing a little too loud for easy conversation. Otherwise comfort reigned, with generous spacing between tables. A cozy atmosphere is created by heavy wooden columns and the clever use of screens to break up the restaurant’s vast space.
Scanning the Cantonese-inspired menu, a few must-have dishes jumped out: roasted duck, wok-fried Pippies in XO sauce, and hotpot of braised tofu and baby vegetables.
We took the waitress’s recommendation and added stir-fried noodles with beef, and sweet & sour crispy pork hock. She knew what she was about -- while all dishes satisfied, it was the pork, with its sauce’s delicious, over-the-top sweetness and the fatty meat’s full mouth, lingering flavor that had us diving for seconds.
From then on, the service went downhill. With a table full of empty glasses, we had to ask for the wine list; the food’s saltiness needed water we had to request; once our plates were expired we had to ask for the dessert menu; and again we had to conjure the list when searching for a wine to match.
Still, Mr Wong is new and such slips will no doubt soon be addressed. On all other fronts, it’s a great addition to Hemmes’s stable of diners offering broad appeal.
Business patrons may prefer the smaller China Lane, concealed in Angel Place, off Sydney’s busiest strip, Pitt Street. Outside, dozens of bird cages are suspended about 20 meters above a cluster of tables.
Inside, green leather bench seats, red lounges, and a 50s-mod vibe give what its website perfectly describes as a “Mad Men” look.
A friend and I arrived for a Friday lunch at the designated time, only to find a packed restaurant and an apologetic host explaining that our table wasn’t ready.
A flicker of annoyance was soon snuffed out as she found us a place to wait at the bar and by her insistence that she “buy us a drink.”
The rest of the staff was just as thoughtful, taking our order while we drank our beers and making our table ready soon after. A plate of delicious Sichuan chili chicken wings came as we took our seats -- another freebie.
A salad of slow-roast pork belly with prawns and jellyfish was deliciously crisp with pomelo (a Southeast Asian citrus fruit) and coriander.
Like much of head-chef Ben Haywood’s menu, the dish is more Chinese-inspired than Chinese, reflecting Haywood’s experience, including time with Raymond Blanc (Petit Blanc and Le Manoir) and Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck).
Duck pancakes and prawn dumplings -- the most explicitly Chinese dishes on the menu -- were tasty, but it was the spiced slow braise of Wagyu beef shin that stole the show with its delectable tenderness and gentle spice.
The Century, under the city’s casino, is the most Chinesey of the new eateries. Fish tanks crammed with lobsters, crabs and fish adorn the entry. Inside, round tables with Asian diners are diligently tended by black-and-white clad waiters.
The Peking duck here eclipses China Lane’s for crunchiness and depth of flavor, while its follow up san choy bow was just as adroit. Little wonder, since chefs here draw from expertise acquired from parent Golden Century, a Sydney staple since 1986.
The wine list caters to all fortunes -- for high rollers on a hot streak there’s the 1825 Chateau Lafite Rothschild for A$98,800 ($103,000). Those down on their luck can get a bottle of Australian wine from A$32.
While China’s economy has cooled in 2012, there’s little sign of that 5,000 kilometers to the south.
The Bloomberg Questions
Average cost per person for shared meals and a couple of drinks? Mr Wong’s: A$80. China Lane: A$60. Century: A$70.
Sound level? Noisy at Mr Wong’s (peaking at mid-90 decibels), chatty at China Lane, quieter at the Century.
Inside tip? Arrive early at Mr Wong’s to secure a table.
Special feature? The Century’s wall of fish tanks.
Will I be back? Mr Wong’s: Yes, socially. China Lane: Yes, for any occasion. The Century: unlikely.
Date place? Mr Wong’s: Yes for the 20 to early-30s bracket. China Lane: Yes for the rest. The Century: No.
Rating? Mr Wong and China Lane **, The Century *.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambiance *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Mr Wong, 3 Bridge Lane, Sydney, 2000. Information: +61-2-9240-3000, http://merivale.com.au/mrwong/
China Lane, Shop 2, City Recital Hall, 2-12 Angel Place, Sydney. Information: +61 9231 3939, http://chinalane.com.au
The Century, The Star, entry on Pirrama Road, Pyrmont, 2000. Information: + 61 9566 2328, http://bit.ly/SeYyGo
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: City street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Underground train.
(Malcolm Scott is writing for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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