“It’s so tasty, I’m digging the crap out of this crab”
It’s a well-known fact that restaurant linchpin Justin Hemmes don’t do things in halves.
He now has a collection of restaurants in just about every foreseeable cuisine in Sydney. From fine dining to casual fish and chips, from French, Italian and Japanese to modern Cantonese, Hemmes is reinventing the flavours of these cuisines with his own brand of flair and panache, offering points of difference that must surely be relegating competitors back to the drawing board.
His foray into Cantonese cuisine, taking on Chinatown heavyweight restaurants, is like Chuck Norris taking on Bruce Lee.
Hemmes’ has drawn first blood though – his modern Chinese restaurant Mr. Wong was awarded two hats and Best New Restaurant in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014 in its first year of operation – quite a feat in itself, let alone in a cuisine completely foreign to his heritage.
His latest venture is not just another feather onto his hat. This spanking new smokehouse and grill is turning Hemmes’ Merivale restaurant stable into a rather unique and colourful piece of headwear.
Papi Chulo smokes marinated meats over wood for at least six hours to create an intense barbeque pit flavour that comes straight from the American Deep South. South American dishes like ceviche and empanadas, charred seafood, fresh summer salads and a killer cocktail list complete the variables for the food and drink equation. But one constant in this equation might be Hemme’s trump card – a tantalizing position right at the edge of the water at Manly Wharf.
Less than two weeks since Papi Chulo opened on 31 December 2013 to a rousing New Year’s Eve party, I planned a surprise lunch for Mysaucepan to celebrate our wedding anniversary and we are about to find out if this restaurant is living up to its hype.
At our table, I peer out the window at the clear blue water simmering under the sun. Sydney has put on yet another one of its awesome days.
And perhaps Hemmes’ being touted for so long as Sydney’s bar tzar knows that 320 sunny days a year in Sydney only calls for one very important thing – alcohol … and lots of it too especially when you are occupying that enviable position right by the water.
A sexy long bar with a stellar list of seductive cocktails is enough to make any girl who loves a drink swoon in glee.
Clear blue skies by the water and a lazy weekend mood are enough to beckon a dry Martini or one of those bloody freaking Mary’s.
Not to be outdone, you can also be sipping on exciting newbie cocktails like Mami Chula, Beso de Fresa or Palomita from the bar.
Hong Island Ice Tea is a homage to Executive Chef Dan Hong’s research visit to the USA where the famous ice lemon tea is bolstered with Bourbon and laced with peach.
A Remy Merivale Pinot Gris from Victoria’s Yarra Valley is crisp with hints of summer stone fruits.
This wine is just the kind of dry style to complement charred seafood flavours from summer barbeques that have become synonymous with Sydney’s hip and cool lifestyle.
Prawns from Crystal Bay and plump scallops, crispy tortilla strips, Spanish onion and micro herbs make up a classic seafood ceviche.
A lemon juice, chilli, mango and coconut cream dressing adds decidedly fresh tropical flavours.
The seafood is so fresh the scallop is raw and transluscent, cooked only by fresh lemon juice, coconut cream and olive oil from the dressing.
I know we are in Sydney but Dan Hong seems to be wielding his magic wand of Asian flavours … yet again.
He has come up with a combination of chilli, mango and coconut. Add some special ingredients like blue skies, summer by the water and a jazzy version of Michael Jackson’s iconic Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough blaring from the sound system and you are now in a party somewhere in Central America, perhaps Havana in the heart of tropical Caribbean.
Baby octopus, spring onions and zucchini flowers are sliced lengthwise and charred with smoky aromas.
The smoky flavours from the octopus and zucchini flowers are unmistakable. But then again, it’s dead simple cooking baby octopus on the barbeque. The trick to getting those smoky aromas is to barbeque the octopus without using olive oil so the fire and heat chars the seafood.
Where this dish falls over is the long strands of spring onions. They are wilted, rather chewy with a jarring onion flavour.
To me, firm and charred spears of asparagus, instead of those pathetic and limp looking spring onions not only add more smokiness but give a bolder attitude to Papi Chulo, especially if he is mingling with an Octopussy.
The heart of Papi Chulo’s menu showcases smoked meats and seafood in all its aromatic glory – pork ribs with special BBQ sauce, wagyu brisket, maple black pepper pork belly, charcoal chicken, whole flounder with seaweed salsa verde, jumbo king prawns with sumac salt and seafood oil, grilled sand crabs with green chilli condiment and charcoal rotisserie Suffolk lamb leg with garlic yoghurt.
Being so close to the beach and the water, the restaurant has a short, mid-afternoon menu (between 330pm and 530pm) with sandwiches and hamburgers.
The influence of Dan Hong (whose string of hits with Merivale include Ms G’s, El Loco and Mr. Wong) is in the form of a smoked pork belly banh mi with Sriracha mayo and a litany of exciting Asian flavours dotted all over the menu.
Our sand crabs is a majestic heap of crustacean grilled to a blistering black and flaky char on the shells. Our hostess Rachel pre-warned these crabs have a good chilli kick.
Slathered with a thick, green chilli paste, it looks devilish but the more I lick, slurp and suck on these crabs, the tastier it becomes despite the spice kicking in.
The texture is very similar to blue swimmers. Green chilli, onion, salt and the tart and sharper taste of freshly squeezed lime juice (as opposed to lemon juice) on charred flavours of crab meat is definitely a winning combination.
For any crab connoisseur, the tastiest part of the crab is underneath the big head shell which is usually full of weird and gunky stuff that might look more intimidating to the less initiated.
Restaurant manager Matthieu comes over to chat with us despite the restaurant now pumping with the excitement of Manly’s weekend crowd.
“It’s so tasty, I’m digging the crap out of this crab” I jokingly tell Matthieu as he laughs and eggs us on.
Our waitress cleverly asks if we like the kitchen to hold off on our pork ribs. Full marks for asking as it is taking us quite a while to navigate the intricacies of these crabs.
I would recommend this dish be shared among at least three to four people. There are sufficient pieces of crab for each diner to get a good taste without the need to over-indulge in the fiddly process.
Sweat and tears are rolling down my face but I don’t give a forck about the mess we are making on the table.
“Would you like a bib, sir”, Matthieu politely asks seeing that my hands are covered with green chilli paste.
“Nah, I’ll be right, I’m a messy boy already” I tell him.
Just as I declined his offer for a bib, he brings one with the words “Tall Papi Syndrome” emblazoned across it.
“Mate, please put that bib on my wife, I think that would really give me some mileage at home”, I tell Matthieu as we laugh and he puts the bib on Mysaucepan.
The American style smoke-grilled pork ribs are wafting with smoky wood aromas.
I have had a few pork ribs at restaurants and Papi Chulo’s version seems to be one without grill marks on top of the rack. This tells me the rack has taken on the slow-smoking process without being flipped over at all. The thick BBQ sauce has been basted and brushed evenly over the rack like beautiful paint job.
In short, this rack of pork ribs seems the most refined just from presentation alone.
The half rack at $34 (full slab $49) is pretty generous in size. The meat is soft and falls off the bone with a gentle yield of my knife.
The winning formula is a combination of the thick, sticky sweet spicy aromatic BBQ sauce and smoky aromas on tender meat.
In terms of taste and texture, these ribs are right up there with the best I have had.
The charred and smoky ends of the rack is one of the best part of these ribs. The meat is caramelized with an intense smoky flavour, yet the inside is succulent and tasty.
Just next to our table, I spot a group of lovely ladies catching up for lunch and could not resist taking a photo of them. They seem to be amused that I am more interested in taking their photo than their friend trying to take a similar one.
This place is obviously popular with locals and tourists alike. But perhaps it appeals to those who simply like their barbeque meats and seafood cooked really well.
Restaurant manager Matthieu is French and he comes around every now and then to see how we are doing. He notices we have been passionately snapping photos so he brings us a complimentary dessert.
“This dessert is my favourite” he tells us.
“Well, I guess we don’t have a choice do we? I tell him.
A disc of warm chocolate chip cookie topped with vanilla malt ice-cream, butterscotch sauce and salted macadamia brittle is simple and well-executed. It’s easy to see why a classic combination of crunchy, sweet and salty bits of macadamia nuts with velvety smooth ice-cream works so well.
As a restaurant, Papi Chulo is rather different from others with its woody, slow-smoked barbeque aromas. Throw in Manly’s water views with some good ‘ole Southern style service and you have it – one of the best barbeque restaurants in Sydney.
As a Latino gentleman, Papi Chulo, as his namesake suggests, does live up to the suave and cool playboy that women might fall for.
Thankfully for my own sake, I’m a man that loves a smokin’ hot barbeque and not a woman that loves a smokin’ hot man.
So tell me dear readers, which do you prefer, a smokin’ hot barbeque or a smokin’ hot Papi Chulo?
22-23 Manly Wharf
Manly, New South Wales
Tel : +61 2 9240 3000
Lunch bookings: YES Dinner bookings before 6pm: YES
Dinner bookings after 6pm: For 8 or more only
Kitchen Opening Times
Monday to Friday
Lunch: 12:00pm – 3:00pm
Dinner: 5:30pm – 10.30pm
Reduced menu available 3:30pm – 5.30pm
Saturday 11.30am – 10.30pm Sunday 11:30am – 9.00pm