Update: 4 September 2013: Mr. Wong is awarded two hats and Best New Restaurant in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014.
Rightfully or otherwise, Urbanspoon has recently become a powerful surrogate to traditional food guides and print media. Diners, especially the younger and tech-savvy ones would just hop online or send a few tweets to check out the latest hotspots in town.
So when Mysaucepan suggested we have lunch at the spanking new and funky Mr. Wong, I did some research to check out why this joint has been fully booked everyday for the last two months since it opened.
Although the reviews of many food bloggers and casual diners about this chic Chinese restaurant ranged from very impressed to utter disappointment, I decide to keep an open mind for our lunch this Sunday.
After all, it is Sydney’s bar tzar Justin Hemmes‘ latest addition to his burgeoning collection of chic diners in just about every cuisine. He is cornering the Sydney market with his collection of restaurants from casual eateries to fine diners:
- est. - Modern Australian and fine dining
- Sailors Thai ivy – Traditional Thai
- sushi e – Modern Japanese
- Sushi Choo – Japanese sushi train
- Ucello – Modern Italian
- Felix – Classic French
- Bistrode CBD – Modern British
- Ash St. Cellar – Modern European and Tapas & Wine bar
- Ms. G’s – Modern Asian Restaurant & Bar
- Mad Cow – New York style steakhouse
- The Fish Shop – Fish & Chips
Something must be exciting if $4 million was spent on the fitout alone and the dining room looks like an ancient Chinese brick house with stylish cocktail bars on both levels.
Hemmes’ kitchen brigade is headed by 29-year old Vietnamese-Australian Dan Hong (chef of Ms G and El Loco), Jowett Yu (ex-chef Ms G) and Singaporean Eric Koh (ex-Hakkasan, London)
Because bookings are allowed for lunch, we are greeted with a friendly smile from a Maitre d’ upon arrival.
This sure beats waiting in queue and looking at a frustrated waitress screaming out Cantonese numbers into a microphone at most of the yum cha restaurants in town.
I stopped for a while to think why these roast ducks and BBQ meats on display look so appetizing. After all, they can’t be too different from those hanging in Chinese BBQ shops in Chinatown.
I know!! They bother to keep the glass grease-free and presentable so that it’s easier on the the eyes and also on my camera too!
The open kitchen snakes all around the upper floor and diners can choose to sit at one of the bar counters and observe the chefs at work.
There is apparently a team of 36 kitchen staff at Mr. Wong and they seem to be highly motivated and having lots of fun as they religiously dish out orders.
I guess this small army of chefs and kitchen workers are required when the restaurant has purportedly been averaging between 600 – 800 covers a day for lunch and dinner since it opened.
A quick glance tells me the average age of the entire kitchen brigade would probably not be much more than 30 years old.
Our booking is for 12.45pm this Sunday and when we arrive, the upper level dining area is already almost full.
Our table booking is on the lower level and Mr. Wong’s wine list is no less impressive than its cellar which envelopes the staircase as we make our way downstairs.
Some of Australia’s greatest wines are available including the 1990 Henschke ‘Hill of Grace’ and Penfolds Grange, both yours for $1,500 and $1,850 respectively.
French heavyweights from Bordeaux, Northern and Southern Rhone as well as the Burgundy region are represented too. There is a good selection of reds, whites and blends including a 1983 Château Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac for $2,800.
As you approach the lower level, the stairs provide an elevated view of the entire dining area downstairs where timber floors cut the monotony of jade green tiles.
The earthy and open brick walls create the feel that you might be dining in an ancient village in China.
It seems like a fabulous place to dine and I have yet to even talk about the food.
As we take our seats, I look around and notice something is missing – the hoards of Asian diners and familes that monopolize suburban and Chinatown yum cha restaurants. In replacement, the crowd is an interesting mix of the youngish, hip, older, stylish and suave.
Perhaps Mr. Wong is only two months old and “traditional” Asian diners have not discovered this place yet. Or maybe they have already found Mr. Wong but are not warming up to him.
It is not usual but I find myself increasingly excited because the setting has given me a glimpse of what the food might taste like.
“Shall we order something more exciting as opposed to the usual prawn dumpling that we might get at traditional yum cha?” Mysaucepan suggests.
“Definitely! The decor is screaming out for us to order some interesting stuff” I reply.
Alaskan snow crab, chrysanthemum leaves, nashi pear and ginger $19
Why haven’t traditional Chinese chefs thought of combining the sweet flesh of Alaska snow crab with the distinctively bitter and nutty taste of chrysanthemum leaves (“tong hou” in Cantonese) and crunchy nashi pears? On its own, the delightful orange salmon roe is enough to bring this salad to life.
I presume when Chinese chefs have been stir-frying the entire gamut of Asian greens with either ginger or garlic sauce all their cooking lives, it might be a stretch of the imagination to think of combining fruit with delicate seafood and a vegetable that has hitherto been used mainly for Chinese hotpots and soups.
This Alaskan snow crab with salmon roe is a winner because it has relegated into mediocrity the usual stir-fried Chinese greens in traditional Chinese restaurants when it comes to creative use of ingredients.
Price wise, it is a dollar or so more expensive but hey, I have beautiful things around me to look at while I eat, Ella Fitzgerald singing Berlin and Gershwin classics in the background and lets just leave aside those rude and robotic waiters prancing around traditional Chinese restaurants for now. I’ll get to that issue later.
Lobster Mei Si Roll (3 pieces $11)
Yum cha is really about enjoying a combination of deep-fried and steamed dim sums for contrast of flavours and textures. And our first deep-fried dish is crispy with the filigree of fine noodles on the outside. The small pieces of lobster meat are succulent and piping hot inside. What makes this roll a little unique is the gentle flavour of melted cheese inside.
Foie Gras Prawn Toast (3 pieces $12)
I have read about the foie gras prawn toast and the fuss it has been causing. The golden brown nuggets are piping hot, not overly oily and the paste inside is fresh with beautiful prawn flavours. Sesame seeds add a little nutty flavour and the unexpected twist of foie gras is subtle on the palate.
Abalone Shumai (2 pieces $9.80)
There is no better way to cook baby abalone in Chinese cuisine except to steam it whole or stir-fry thin slices of it.
Head dim sim chef Eric Koh’s interpretation is to steam his abalone over a cushion of chicken meat.
Apart from its subtle fish flavour, abalone is more about rubbery texture and here, it is soft and paired extremely well with a deliciously savoury oyster sauce and broccolini.
When was the last time you dined at a modern Chinese restaurant in Australia that is a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds?
I suspect that apart from the iconic Flower Drum in Melbourne that serves fine Cantonese cuisine with a twist, the rest of the fine Cantonese restaurants are trying to flog their customers with the same old generic dishes like steamed whole fish, stir-fried seafood, crispy skin-chicken and salt and pepper pork ribs.
They are good if you are a traditionalist but my mid-meal instincts tell me these dishes are slightly dated. Being a traditionalist myself, I now want to seek out names of modern Chinese restaurants with words like “Mr.”, “Wong” and “Hakkasan”.
I would still frequent traditional Chinese restaurants and tolerate non-chalant service because lets face it, the food is fairly good and consistent and we come to accept how traditional Chinese restaurants have (or have not) evolved. But the dining scene is rapidly changing and prices at these “older institutions” are also creeping up without any apparent thought going into the equation of providing customers with “a total dining experience” – good food, service and ambience all in one, at a price that savvy diners are able and willing to pay.
Perhaps traditional Chinese restaurateurs are stuck in a paradigm serving customers that do not want or require any change at all. I can see this phenomena in many “old world” Italian and Greek restaurants around Sydney where the menu and decor are as dated as the owners themselves.
Xiao Long Bao (4 pieces $9)
The Xiao Long Bao may not be the best I have tasted but it’s up there somewhere.
The skin could be just a little thinner but I could also be splitting hairs because the stock is piping hot inside and the blend of vinegar and ginger a delightful complement.
Special salt and pepper pork ribs $29
These pork ribs are meant to be eaten with your hands, that is, no chopsticks or trying to saw it with a fork and knife.
I grab a piece of pork rib and as soon as I sink my teeth into the crisp, salty, peppery and succulent meat, I had images of an icy cold beer.
A squeeze of lemon juice cuts through the salty and spice flavoured meat. I wonder what those wilted coriander leaves are all about as I gnaw into this mouth-watering piece of rib in my hands.
Red braised pork belly with fresh apple salad $27
The arrival of this claypot of chunky pork belly pieces topped with a huge pile of match stick green apples is a defining moment of our lunch.
Dan Hong clearly understands the importance of retaining the traditions of a good Chinese style braise because I taste the familiarity of black vinegar, rock sugar, rice wine and Chinese spices.
But Hong is breaking the mould of traditional Chinese chefs by speaking his own language with the tang and crunch of green apples.
The piece of pork belly in my bowl is succulent and tasty but the best part is the julienne green apples wilting under the sauce and I find myself scouring for more.
Should traditional Chinese restaurants introduce a dish like this on their menu? Perhaps so because it tastes bloody good.
But would their “traditional” customers like it? Maybe not, because their tastebuds may not be as young and open as the diners around me today.
Stir fried egg noodles with king prawn and prawn roe (Large $26)
We finish our lunch on dry-fried egg noodles with cutlets of king prawns and prawn roe with sugar snap peas, beansprouts and young chives.
I didn’t detect much of the prawn roe but this plate of noodles is tasty with my fresh chillies and soy. Why wouldn’t I come back just for this dish whilst listening to some classic jazz numbers? I want to eat at the bar and have a few beers with the boys when Mysaucepan ditches me for a girls night out.
Green apple ice, osmanthus jelly, water chestnuts and coconut sorbet $14
I don’t have a sweet tooth but as I spoon some green apple ice and water chestnuts into my mouth after this lunch, I am relieved to not see trollies of wobbly almond jelly and mango pudding wheeling past me every two minutes.
I can forgo the savoury egg tarts at yum cha because I am really enjoying the gelatinous osmanthus jelly dancing with the green apple ice in my mouth. The eastern and western fusion is perhaps complete with the combination of coconut sorbet and green apple ice.
Mr. Wong’s deep fried ice cream served with butter scotch sauce, vanilla or chocolate $14
As I tuck into the deep fried ice cream, the thing that sets this dessert apart from others is the sweet and savoury butter scotch sauce.
The golden brown crust is a little crispy but the ice-cream inside is a treat when scooped with a spoonful of that butter scotch sauce.
There is a hidden tiger somewhere but perhaps it is a crouching dragon that is making all the waves behind the scenes.
I am no Chinese food connoisseur though I know a fair bit about Cantonese cuisine by virtue of my heritage.
Dear traditional Chinese restaurants,
Can you take a look at Mr. Wong’s table setting above and tell me how it is different from yours?
It’s small changes that make a world of difference.
That’s right. You don’t even need to provide table cloths but water glasses are definitely a good idea if you set them on the table. Most importantly, why can’t you provide chilli sauce when you already know damn well your customers will request for it from your waiters that are trained to avoid eye-contact.
The cream coloured hand serviettes are soft but I’m fine with those hard and starched white serviettes that you have. It’s a minor detail but I believe you have more to think about in terms of your menu and service levels.
Our lunch at Mr. Wong is nothing short of spectacular – creative food that tastes good, served in an ambience that cleverly combines tradition with modern sensibility and service that sets the standard for other restaurants, Chinese or otherwise.
Our wait person, Emma is personable, friendly and genuinely showed a great deal of interest in giving us a dining experience that is rather unforgettable.
So here’s my verdict:
Is the food good?
Mr. Wong’s food is a concise list of dim sims that retain the traditions of yum cha favourites but offers surprising twists that hit the right spots on the palate. The mains and specials test the traditional taste boundaries of fine Cantonese cuisine yet executed with subtlety and elegance.
Is it expensive?
A bill that works out to be approximately $53 per head among six diners today includes a $60 bottle of Bloodwood riesling and four beers. Throw in a truly unique atmosphere and excellent table service, I believe it is bloody good value for your money.
Why I like Mr. Wong
- Lunch time booking can be made for yum cha which is almost unheard of in Sydney, especially during weekends.
- Food that respects the essence of traditional Chinese culture yet challenges its tastes and flavours.
- Ambience that reminds and makes me so proud of my Chinese heritage.
- Open-concept kitchen and bar dining where diners have the option to eat and observe the thrills and spills of a busy kitchen in full-throttle.
- Service that is subtle, attentive, non-obtrusive and bordering on fine-dining.
- Wine menu that includes the vintage of each and every wine. The wine menu in many traditional Chinese restaurants do not provide vintages and gives me the impression that it is too bothersome to make changes to their wine menus each season.
- Minimalist table setting with the essential chilli sauce already provided and without the fuss of table cloth that would eventually be stained with the mess of an indulgent meal. Table cloths signify traditional Chinese humility and respect for their customers but if restaurants can dish out awesome food, personally, I am happy for restaurants to ditch the table cloths. It saves a great deal of money on the laundry bill too.
- Fresh red chillies are served with enthusiasm and a smile. Most traditional Chinese restaurants do not provide fresh red chillies during yum cha but do so for their dinner sessions. I believe I understand the logic here but I’m not sure if I agree with it.
- Creative and refreshing dessert menu. Many traditional Chinese restaurants serve the usual mango pudding, black jelly in a giant watermelon, colourful jelly cubes with a little paper umbrellas are really cute. But sadly, that’s just about what they are. Also complimentary orange and watermelon slices with a huge bowl of sweet soup as dessert are fine but are they worthy substitutes for a dessert menu that would appeal to more than just the average Chinese diner? I don’t think so.
- Price tag that doesn’t bust the wallet. On a per head basis, I believe our meal is priced competitively when quality ingredients, service and ambience are taken into account.
- Washrooms and toilets that give diners time to contemplate and reflect upon during private moments.
- Restaurant name that is simply called “Mr. Wong” clearly differentiates itself from blase words like “golden”, “dragon”, “pagoda”, “swallow”, “palace”, “garden”, “river”, “jade”, “court”, “east”, “ocean”, “kingdom”, “emperor” or “bamboo” and the list goes on.
Will I come back?
You bet I will.
I am eager to recommend and tell my family, friends and overseas visitors that Sydney’s Mr. Wong is perhaps the equivalent of London’s Hakkasan and a benchmark for what a modern and world-class Cantonese restaurant should really be.
Mr. Wong is a cutting-edge Chinese restaurant that Sydney needs in order to invigorate the litany of dated and traditional fine Cantonese restaurants. I like Mr. Wong because he has laid down the gauntlet and set a new direction in Cantonese cuisine.
For so long, traditional Chinese restaurants are hell-bent on forcing crispy skin chicken and salt & pepper calamari down the throats of their loyal, albeit aging customers who have no other alternative to choose from. Until now.
Because Mr. Wong has arrived in Sydney, and I think he means business.
Palmer & Co.
After our lunch, our wait person Emma took us on a little tour into Palmer & Co., an intimate cocktail and wine bar just adjacent to Mr. Wong and accessible from the lower level dining area where we were sitting.
Justin Hemmes has obviously thought about a space that is required by a chic and modern restaurant like Mr. Wong.
In the highly competitive hospitality business, profit margins in food are often supplemented by the much higher profit margins of alcohol and cocktails.
And Palmer & Co. seems to be just the place for executives to de-stress with a few drinks in a stylish setting..
So dear readers, what is your view about traditional Chinese restaurants? Would you pay a little bit more to experience something different in a beautiful setting with great service?
3 Bridge Lane,
Sydney, New South Wales 2000
Tel: +61 2 9240 3000
Open 7 days from noon till late. Lunch bookings can be made, dinner bookings only for 6 people or more.
Kitchen opening times:
Lunch 12pm – 3pm
Dinner from 5.30pm
Sunday until 10pm
Monday – Wednesday until 11pm
Thursdays – Saturday until midnight
Credit card payments incur a 1% surcharge.
Palmer & Co.
Sydney, New South Wales 2000
Tel: +61 2 9240 3172
Lunch 12 pm to 3 pm, Dinner from 5.30 pm
Sundays – until 10 pm
Mondays to Wednesdays – until 11 pm
Thursdays – Saturdays – until midnight