There was a time in Sydney when the neighbourhood Thai restaurant was considered hip and exotic.
Lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork with its psychedelic red gooey sauce and chicken chow mien were meant to tempt gweilos into believing these kind of dishes are mainstay Chinese. Asian grocery shops were only stocked with a few dehydrated shitake mushrooms, herbs and some obligatory canned food while South-east Asian ingredients were scant at best.
Those were the days when conversations about food were whether peas or lettuce came with the steak and nasi goreng was pronounced “Nazi goreng”. Those days were in the 1960’s and 70’s.
In 2013, the food culture in Australia has evolved from its early days of meat pies and sausage rolls into a gastronomic food paradise that rivals the best in the world.
Our wine industry has flourished where there are no less than 2,000 wineries all over the country. Sydney’s famous fish market is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and only second in terms of size and variety to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
The success of multiculturalism in Australia has a big part to do with the development of our food culture over the last forty years.
Early European settlers are slowly being replaced by migrants from Asia, predominantly those from China and South East Asia. Australia’s mining boom has turned this country into one of the richest in the world with a small population relatively to its land mass. Our strong ties with China being the fastest growing economy in the world has attracted foreign investments to our shores like never before.
Let alone Italian, French, German, Greek, Spanish, Middle-eastern and a host of other European cuisines, Sydney dining is at its most vibrant and competitive in thirty years, and in particular Asian flavours. You name it and we’ve got it – Korean BBQ, Japanese sushi and ramen bars, yakiniku and a host of Chinese denominations – fine Cantonese, yum cha, dumpling and noodle bars, Hunan, Jiangxi and Sichuan food and the list goes on.
South-east Asia is staking its claim to Sydney’s culinary melting pot as well. There are literally hundreds of Thai restaurants all over the city. The number of Malaysian restaurants that have opened in the last two years alone serving its brand of fiery curries, satays and roti is quite astonishing. Vietnamese cuisine with suburban stronghold in Cabramatta, Bankstown and Flemington has countless pho noodle joints dotted all over Sydney. Indonesian restaurants abound in Maroubra in Sydney’s east where nasi goreng and ayam panggang are mainstays on eat strip Anzac Parade.
The implications of Sydney bar tzar Justin Hemmes‘ Mr. Wong taking out the Best New Restaurant in the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards are far-reaching. It is perhaps the first time a Chinese restaurant with a non-Asian owner has taken out the gong for this prestigious award.
The reported 4-million fitout that blends old style with modern sensibility and a menu that is bold yet elegant are more than a few steps ahead of traditional Chinese restaurants.
It is testament that Chinese cuisine in itself, rooted in rich history and tradition, is changing.
New Asian migrants arrive with new ideas and perspectives. Second and third generation Asian Australians are staking their claim on what it means to be Asian living in cosmopolitan Sydney.
This week, Mysaucepan and I are invited to three new restaurant openings in Sydney. All three are Asian, two of which have raked up a massive spend on its fit out alone.
The sheer number of high-profile Sydney fine dining restaurants that crashed into administration has not deterred WAITAN from splashing out a reported $10 million on its fit out.
Perhaps out to reinvent Chinese food, WAITAN has signed on John Rankin as Executive Chef, whose previous gigs include Quay, Astral and Sean’s Kitchen. But how would traditional Asian clientele react to this? It’s akin to having an Indian or Chinese chef cook you risotto al funghi in an Italian restaurant, which incidentally is happening in many restaurants around Sydney.
Over at The Rocks just north of Sydney CBD, The Argyle has totally refurbished its dated precinct to launch a 7-days a week dumpling bar complete with trendy cocktail bars, plush velvet lounges, shimmering gold walls and sparkling disco balls.
The Argyle is set to become yet another entrant into the Chinese yum cha arena, albeit owned by restaurant mogul John Szangolies, a Sydney resident of German heritage.
Few doors up the road on the The Rocks Square, Wok on Inn‘s fiery woks are tossing up delectable noodles reminiscent of those in the streets of Bangkok.
Chains of command are becoming blurred as new Chinese and Asian restaurants are increasingly managed and owned by non-Asian entrepreneurs.
Food critics may judge the food but it is the customers who are the ultimate judges of these restaurants.
Competition is fierce and fast, so new restaurants need new attractions whilst older restaurants may need a face-lift or totally re-invent themselves to keep up with the times.
With restaurants opening and closing almost as often as we change Prime Ministers, the winners appear to be Sydney food lovers.
Despite changing food trends, one thing seems quite certain – Asian food in Sydney is here to stay and the trend is fast moving towards casual and affordable dining.
Here’s my take on three of Sydney’s newest offerings.
WAITAN, Haymarket Chinatown
What do Lamborghinis have in common with fine Cantonese food? Read on to find out.
An email invitation to a restaurant launch arrives in my inbox with a logo of a man riding a rickshaw carrying a cargo with words WAITAN.
“Hey, another street food court is opening up in Sydney” I tell Mysaucepan.
She reads the email and says, “Hello, a $10 million fit out for a street food restaurant in the heart of Chinatown? You gotta be kidding!”
I check the invitation again and true enough, WAITAN’s logo has nothing to do with street food. On the contrary, its fit out bill in excess of $10 million is probably the most expensive restaurant opening before Sydney closes out 2013.
So when three Lamborghinis are parked at the front of WAITAN on opening night, I figured these fast cars have nothing to do with fast food.
As we make our way into the restaurant tonight, we are greeted by a bevvy of willowy Chinese models strutting around, mingling with guests.
Famous personalities are not in short supply and we bump into Alvin Quah, the MasterChef Australia contestant in Series 2. Affable, witty and suave with his trademark trendy eye-wear, he shares a few jokes with us.
“Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen tonight Alvin?” I jokingly ask.
He laughs. “This restaurant would be in serious trouble if I did!”
But watching the MasterChef Australia series back in 2010, my friends agree that our friend, The Monk cuts a striking resemblance to Alvin Quah. So on this rare occasion tonight, I seize upon the opportunity to get a snapshot of these two fellas.
So dear readers, don’t you agree there is an uncanny resemblance between these two cute, albeit ball-headed Chinese men?
WAITAN occupies 2,500 sqm of floor space over two-levels where the upper floor boasts fourteen private dining rooms designed for cocktail and corporate events, intimate gatherings for family and friends. Private chef services are also available for parties of six to eighteen.
Strong ties between WAITAN and Moet Hennessy has resulted in a $50,000 6-litre bottle of Hennessy XO Mathusalem in its custom travelling case handcrafted by designer Arik Levy taking centre stage in the Dining Bar on the second floor. For the most discerning cognac connoisseur, this is reputed to be the only bottle in Australia.
The lower level consists of the open plan kitchen, restaurant dining area, cocktail bar and lounge as well as a series of opium beds for guests to laze and sip Asian-inspired cocktails.
But for tonight, we are feted with a free-flow of Veuve Cliquot Brut and our charming French waitress is doing a great job to ensure our glasses are nicely charged.
The ambience of WAITAN is seductive where dim red lamps and bird cage lighting hang from the ceilings. Dark wood paneling and Asian motifs are intended to embrace tradition, paying homage to Chinese culture whilst celebrating new-age Asia.
The adjoining smoking area offers smokers a puff while gazing down onto busy Dixon street with its non-stop foot traffic.
Tonight, guests are mingling around the opium beds and the cocktail lounge as they wait for canapes and finger food to be served.
Meanwhile, a team of chefs are preparing Chinese buns ala Momofuku style.
Chinese restaurants in town are coming up with their own version to the ‘original’ pork belly. Peking duck has also made it’s debut although tonight, it’s David Blackmore’s wagyu beef.
The bun is warm and fluffy although I’m not sure if the traditionally sweet hoisin sauce is a good match with the wagyu beef. Personally, I much prefer pork belly and the gamey flavour of Peking duck in these buns.
A good piece of wagyu deserves just a pinch of salt and black pepper to savour its beefy flavours rather than slathering it with a sweet paste.
I have a brief chat with John Rankin, the Executive Chef of WAITAN. Whilst some restaurants are offering ‘deconstructed’ dishes where ingredients are separately treated to make up a particular dish, he is championing the notion of ‘constructed’ food.
“As well as new ‘constructed’ Asian favourites, we will be bringing back the French Gourmand tasting menu with a unique eastern twist. We want to offer Sydney the opportunity to delve deeper into Asia’s rich culture in a setting that redefines expectations of these cuisines” he says.
Apparently nasi goreng and jamon serrano will be on the menu when the restaurant officially opens for business after this evening.
I’m not sure how South-east Asian and Spanish flavours are going to combine with a predominantly Chinese menu. It will be an interesting prospect to observe customers’ reaction to this new direction.
Spicy deep-fried prawn skewers dipped into a light chilli sauce are tasty treats and these seem very popular with the guests.
These simple canapes seem to have been prepared specially for this launch and I doubt they will make it onto the regular menu.
The counter dishing out Peking duck pancakes seems very popular with four busy chefs slicing, assembling and wrapping pancakes for what seems to be an eternal queue.
It is only launch night and whilst this place has some wow factor, the few canapes I sample did not strike me as something out of the ordinary. It will be interesting to observe how WAITAN’s concept of cocktail lounge, luxurious dining experience and up-market private dining will pan out against its competitors.
WAITAN is the first Australian venture for Asian hospitality groups Xiang Er Qing and Tung Lok. Patrick Tian is the local Managing Director of this venture.
The Argyle, The Rocks Sydney
It was just a few weeks ago that I visited Lotus Dumpling Bar located in Walsh Bay a few blocks from The Rocks.
This week, The Argyle launches a new South-east Asian inspired food concept within a stylish setting in the heart of The Rocks precinct.
Owned by John Szangolies of the Urban Purveyor Group, restaurants in his Sydney stable include Bavarian Bier Cafe and a cluster of restaurants at The Rocks – The Cut Bar & Grill, Sake Restaurant & Bar, the German Lowenbrau Keller and French style Ananas Bar and Brasserie.
One of Sydney’s top tourist locations, The Rocks can now claim to add another local attraction – a 7-days a week dumpling and Asian hawker style eats with an Asian-inspired cocktail list in tow. Sydney dining now appears to be gripped by a Chinese dumpling fever, besides a Japanese ramen and Spanish tapas craze.
It’s a cool spring evening and we are greeted with cocktails at the al fresco courtyard area. A bar spans the length of this area and guests are enjoying their drinks whilst they mingle.
The Argyle’s new drinks extraordinaire Daniel ‘Muffin’ Mussen has crafted a hot list of Asian-inspired cocktails – Shisho Malt Sour with scotch, shisho leaves, lime and sugar or Green Tea Colada with rum, green tea, coconut and pineapple. There are also shared drinks such as Treasure Chests and Briefcases filled with cocktails for groups.
Red Chinese lanterns and giant lamp sheds lend an Asian feel to the cobbled courtyard area. The Rocks is one of Sydney’s oldest precincts and some of the oldest building were made mainly from local sandstone.
MasterChef Australia contestants seem to be making their appearance in restaurant launches everywhere and this one is no different.
A lion dance is wooing the crowd with acrobatic moves. The Chinese believe the lion dance is meant to scare away evil spirits and bring good fortune and prosperity to a new business venture.
The more vibrant and exciting the dance, the more vigour and strength will come to the business and the lion dance troops did not disappoint. Two lively ‘lions’ are weaving among a huge crowd eager to capture images of these prancing lions with their cameras.
The booming drums and cymbals add to the spectacle and the crowd is enthusiastically cheering the troops on.
The interior of The Argyle is dark and cosy. The space is huge where the downstairs level features the new Gin Sling Lounge and a Raffles-esque inspired area complete with a mix of leather lounges and wicker peacock chairs.
Sydney is not short of stylish cocktail lounges to hang out for a drink and this is another one to that list.
The Argyle has five bars over two levels and features a variety of areas to suit any mood or occasion. Apart from the restaurant area downstairs, the upstairs space has private booths for group bookings and a 1970’s inspired discotheque.
Newly appointed Head Chef, Micheal Nguyen (correct spelling of his name). most recently Surry Hills’ Red Lantern has teamed up with Sake Restaurant & Bar Executive Chef, Shaun Presland to offer their take on traditional Asian flavours with some new twists.
Menu highlights include gyoza, har gow and xiao long bao, fresh salads such as crispy pork belly and green papaya, tiger prawn and green mango. A new twist on Asian classics of Peking duck and sang choy bao.
It seems like we can’t get enough of these light and tasty morsels – Chinese tapas if you will, where smaller portions to be shared among large groups of diners is the way things are heading all over Sydney. Prices are competitive because there is nothing over $20 on the menu.
A lazy weekend can easily be spent in this cosy space with its plush leather lounges gobbling down a few xiao long baos.
Not to be outdone by the stylish decor outside, a long corridor leads patrons to what might be the biggest men’s lavatory in Sydney.
Open concept is not limited to just restaurant kitchens these days. The boys have large standalone urinals to stand behind and hide from the girls. And both boys and girls share what might possibly be the largest hand basin in Sydney too.
Washing your hands may suddenly be a lot more fun in this giant hand basin with overhead sensory taps.
The Argyle is set to be another hip and trendy place for Chinese dumplings.
It may not replace traditional yum cha by sheer variety but what is there not to like about having a few Chinese dumplings and sipping a chilled chardy in a outdoor courtyard on a beautiful Sydney day?
Wok On Inn, The Rocks Sydney
Wok-fried noodles are among the most popular dishes in Thai restaurants. Whether it’s Pad Thai or Pad See Ew, the taste and smoky aromas of these noodles are difficult to match.
Wok on Inn planted its first two outlets on Darling street and Oxford street in Balmain and Darlinghurst respectively. A third outlet has now opened at The Rocks Square to join a host of cafes, pubs and delicatessens. Its South-east Asian inspired menu includes Singaporean street noodles, Penang Satay noodles and Indonesian style nasi goreng to just name a few.
As we head towards The Rocks Square, we can almost follow our noses as the delectable wok fumes get stronger as we get closer.
“How can anyone resist that smoky satay aromas?” Mysaucepan quips.
“She’s right”, I thought to myself.
Guests are having a few drinks as we wait for the noodles to arrive.
Bandana-clad Thai chefs are tossing noodles and the clanging of their fiery woks is only making us more hungry.
Red wine is being served tonight but to accompany these noodles, my personal favourite is an icy cold beer or two.
Before long we are presented with an array of stir-fried noodles and fried rice. The classic three-step approach to ordering and personalizing your plate of noodles is on the menu.
First, choose from up to eight different flavours – Chinese oyster sauce, Thai chilli basil, Indonesian satay, Japanese teriyaki, Malay laksa, Singaporean curry, Mongolian sweet soy and Korean BBQ.
Then choose your type of noodle – egg (thin), Hokkien (fat), rice (thin and flat), vermicelli (thin and long), rice sheet (fat and flat), udon (thick Japanese style) or Jasmine rice.
Finally, add your star ingredient with a choice of vegetable or tofu (both $10.95), chicken or beef (both $11.95), prawn or seafood – prawn calamari and mussel or a combination ($13.95).
Slurping down these noodles in an outdoor setting reminds me of Bangkok where tasty and affordable street food is so plentiful.
You know your noodles are going to have that awesome wok breath when the flames are fast and furious.
Delicious food at such reasonable prices is presenting Sydney food lovers with options like never before. There is food in every corner of the city and prices in some eat streets have even come down by up to 25%.
With so many new restaurant openings, the generals of these eateries are boldly beating their war drums to shore up attention.
An Asian food warfare has truly arrived in Sydney.
And diners can only smile with glee because this Asian food war does not seem to be subsiding anytime soon.
So dear readers, what is your favourite Asian cuisine and do you have a favourite dish or favourite Asian restaurant to share with us?
ChopinandMysaucepan attended these launch events as invited guests of WAITAN, The Argyle and Wok on Inn courtesy of Hill + Knowlton Strategies, The Cru Media & Six Degrees Creative. All views and opinions on this blogpost are our own.
405 Sussex street, Haymarket Chinatown,
Tel: +61 2 9212 7999
Opening hours: 7 days 6pm – 12am
18 Argyle street, The Rocks Sydney
Tel: +61 2 9247 5500
Opening hours: 7 days Lunch till very late
Wok on Inn
26 Playfair street
The Rocks Square Sydney
Tel: +61 2 9247 8554
Opening hours: Monday to Thursday 11.30am – 8pm, Friday to Saturday 11.30am – 9pm, Sunday 11.30am – 8pm
Licensed and BYO (Wine only)