If it's not fit for a pig, it's not fit for you!
If it's not fit for a pig, it's not fit for you!
It took China over 4,000 arduous years to have the word ‘republic’ appended to it, so it wasn’t surprising that the formation of this restaurant felt just as long as passers-by would casually stroll past its wooden walls hiding the enduring struggle behind it. Having opened its doors in late November, I wondered along with many others, was it worth the wait? Can it astound us? Will it sensationalise our tastebuds to new heights? Or will it plunge our mouths down to the toilet pan in disgust? Nothing is certain until we try, and that I did.
Approaching the restaurant, you’re already humbled by the towering terracotta warrior standing guard as you carefully tread through the palatial doors and into a dimly lit modern take of the Forbidden City, complete with koi pond and imperial saloon. The only thing missing are rose petals thrown beneath my hooves as I’m guided toward my front-row seat to the cooks crafting my meal as I was tucked in.
When you’re handed about four menus – a Top Ten listing, an a la carte menu, a drinks menu and a cocktail menu made from bamboo slats tied together to form a scroll – you know your wallet is going to hurt.
Besides being the more economical choice, the Peking Duck appears to be a specialty here as a brief glance toward the darkened flaming ovens suggests. Just as Din Tai Fung has taught Sydneysiders how to eat Xiao Long Bao with their instructional pamphlet, so is China Republic with this dish. Scoff if you will, but the duck served here is the modern style served in posh Beijing restaurants rather than the standard old-school style we often see in Sydney. That means, 9 different condiments and ingredients to play with and if you threw away that pamphlet, good luck eating this right.
Served with 2 types of pancakes – flat and pouch-like, along with the ingredients and sauces, it was time to eat. On its own, the skin is a world of its own. To say that it’s crispy is to do it an injustice. The way it crackles and pops with each bite. The way the lipids just melt away as I savour each piece. Coated with a dash of sugar and it becomes toffee without the clinginess. That’s Step 1 and there’s 4 more to go.
Next up is a palette cleanser, as I’m instructed to slather a piece of duck with Garlic Paste. It’s fairly strong nigh on overpowering, and left a tingling sensation on my tongue for the remainder of the meal. I know, you’re probably wondering when will I get to the familiar hoisin-smothered, cucumber and spring onion filled Peking duck pancake. About now, according to the pamphlet.
In my hooves, the Mandarin Pancake felt warm, delicate and gritty as I took my first bite and was placed into an eye-rolling trance. Inherently balanced, I knew what to expect but that hoisin-sauce surprised me and delivered pure ecstasy. A harmony of sweet and saltiness with hints of white pepper coursing throughout giving it a deep and alluring sensation. This is custom-made and would be out of place everywhere else but here. Before I could move on to Step 4, I had to take a detour and try it again with the doughy Pocket Pancake. That sauce just hits the spot.
Something I had not tried before with Peking Duck was Pickled Cucumber and Chinese mustard. A sharp contrast to the dark hoisin sauce, this was tangy and piercing like English mustard with bouts of hidden spices clearing what little gaminess remained in the duck. Eating this was akin to looking at Shanghai during daytime, it’s tame compared to its glittering, neon-fuelled nightlife that is the hoisin-filled pancake.
I didn’t have to yearn for long as Step 5, the last, loomed over with the remaining pocket buns ready to be slit open and stuffed with slivers of red onions, cucumber and a spoonful of that magical hoisin sauce. A touch crisper and sweeter than my detour, I’m back to nearing nirvana.
Like a disciple learning the ways of his master, perfecting each technique, we’re told to go and forge our own ways with the duck – except, there’s hardly anything left to go with it, save for the pancakes. It’s a devilish ploy to pay more for additional sides. One that I would fall for time and again. Who wouldn’t?
Without a doubt, this is the best Peking Duck in Sydney and would rival the finest Beijing has to offer, including DaDong. One could go to China Republic just for that, but it would do the restaurant a disservice akin to reducing Chinese culture to just kung fu and chopsticks. I could go on about how the Chef’s Special Sweet and Sour Spareribs felt like a choir singing in unison, how soothing the Spinach Soup with Enoki Mushroom is, or even how surreal the Kung Pao Chicken with Peanuts was after dipping a piece into a streak of Worcestershire sauce. But those words would just pale next to the perfectionist zeal they show in each and every dish they serve. It is no wonder they took so long to open, and the answer is yes, the wait was worth it.
~ Jambon Cochon
Once the proud site of the mighty Dragon Star Seafood Restaurant and China Grand, it is now home to The Eight Modern Chinese Restaurant. Part of the Zilver Group, an old hand in the Canton-style cooking in Sydney, there’s no doubt that this is the old guard, albeit with some clever makeup. From the auspiciously red lanterns to the white linen that bathe the tables dotting the vast space within, it all felt familiar yet trendy at the same time. For the Chinese restaurant of old, this is classy, elegant even, as the muted sounds of the kitchen fill my ears and the aroma of roasted meats coursed through my snout.
Celebrating a friend’s birthday, we were in for a banquet starting with Peking Duck with Pancakes and Hoisin Sauce. Balancing between soft and crispy, savoury and sweet, while remaining warm yet cool, there was a harmonic beauty to it as the tortilla-like pancake dissolved away, letting me go at the meat, cucumber and spring onions. As its carcass lay bare carted away into the distance, my only lament was that I didn’t get enough of it.
But I didn’t have to despair for long as it was resurrected in the form of Duck Meat in Sang Choy Bow. A smoky and nutty concoction of bamboo, crushed peanuts, deep-fried rice vermicelli with a dash of hoisin sauce on a refreshing bed of iceberg lettuce leaf. It lends a different perspective of what else the duck can be, a counterbalance to the crispy skin encased in that doughy tortilla. Still, I preferred the former than the latter.
Next came the Steamed Scallops with XO Chilli Sauce & Vermicelli Noodles served on the shell of its crowning jewel. Yet it was in hiding. Muddled by the frazzled mess that was the glassy vermicelli, it became clear why it was hiding. Biting into it, I empathized with its sorrow, being overcooked, and becoming a mushy, briny appendage to the whole thing. What once was a sweet and firm delight had been disfigured into a grotesque thing to be hidden away under a thin veil of noodles, piddling spices, and dried-up shrimps.
Painful as it was, the scallop was put out of its misery when the Braised Snow Crab in Garlic & Butter with e-fu noodles came to draw everyone’s gaze. Draped in a milky sheen along its voluptuous contours, we were in awe until we ate it. The sheer richness was obscene as the overwhelmed garlic failed to put this display of opulence into perspective. Eating the noodles felt like eating spaghetti carbonara, with the sweet crab occasionally kissing us with a sea-like musk.
Without much fanfare, the Wok Seared Diced Beef Fillet with Black Pepper Sauce made its entrance and took its place on the lazy susan. Peppery, the cubes of beef were tender and plump, seared just right before letting out its juices to meld with the soy-infused sauce. Onions and button mushrooms provide a vegetarian reprieve, soaking up the sauce to be smeared on my bowl of white rice before I sink my teeth into the marbled bovine wonder that it is.
Buoyed by the beef, I looked toward the centrepiece, the Steamed Live Fish with Ginger and Shallots, for the same sense of wonderment. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Its flesh fatty, descended into a pulp-like state with each pick of the chopsticks. Drenched in an oily light soy broth with slivers of ginger piercing through the fishy and decaying innards, it was a startling and perplexing disappointment since fresh seafood form a cornerstone in Cantonese cooking. Simply put, this was akin to Italians opting for spoiled tomatoes to be eaten in a bruschetta. It’s unthinkable.
Thankfully, the Crispy Skin Chicken with Ginger and Shallots stepped up to the fore, despite sitting in the same puddle of oiled up soy-sauced broth as the fish, it differs with one crucial detail: it doesn’t stink. Instead, its juicy neutral flesh tasted clean, working with whatever flavours present at the time, be it the mild shallots, or the basted soy sauce that roasted into its skin.
Serving as sides were the Braised Mushroom with Vegetables and Fried Rice. Bland and devoid of personality, there was little difference between the Fried Rice and the boiled rice aside from its nutritional value. The Braised Mushrooms looked delectable until bitten into, bursting with remnants of the preserving brine and left a metallic aftertaste scarring my tastebuds for the rest of the evening. Healing my wounds were the bok choy, blanched and sautéed perfectly to comfort me with its crisp liveliness.
After the obligatory cake was served, we were treated to the standard banquet desserts – a fruit platter and Chinese cookies. My pork belly was about to burst like a Monty Python skit unable to fit in another bite, and yet curiosity got the better out of me as I ate and regretted the stale sesame seed cookie.
As the lights were dimmed, and the tables were cleared, we made our way out of the restaurant cracking jokes about our inevitable mortality. Just as many people of my generation approach their mid-life crisis, The Eight seemed to hit theirs, having seen better days and knowing that they could do better yet didn’t. Our strain on its kitchen was showing. For every sublime dish, there seemed a sub-par dish. Seeing The Eight this way was like watching an actor made young again because of some clever CGI: yes, it’s possible but it’s just plain too embarrassing to watch.
~ Jambon Cochon
If you’re reading this, then you should already know Chen Kenichi has nothing to do with this and doesn’t care. Hoarding intellectual property is a foreign concept, as it’s not so much your idea as much as it is ours. Attaching itself to the Stardust Hotel, you have to put up with the stench of beer stains and cigarettes as you patiently await in the lobby for yum cha salvation. The process is fast and impersonal, like many yum cha joints, as numbers are called out in quick succession like a bingo game.
You don’t have to wait for long until a table is given, and no, you don’t get a say in this – just be grateful that you’re sitting and getting badgered by the trolley ladies. If anything, the polite thing to do is look smug as you leave the poor souls behind. Oh, and I don’t have to explain when is the perfect time to go now, do I?
The first order of business is tea (for me, that’s Chrysanthemum), followed by a healthy helping of chilli oil, and then an order of Siu Mai (燒賣). Forget about the folds, what you’re after is the juicy, chunky hunks of prawn, pork and shiitake mushrooms engaged in a battle royale as they vie for your attention in a sweet fight down your belly. Chilli oil lets you best enjoy it as it gives it a little kick. For me, it’s like watching a testosterone-fuelled hockey match behind clear glass. Eating it with chilli sauce often feels like watching the same game through battered Perspex: it’s just not the same.
If you’re lucky, the Paai Gwat (排骨) might actually be on the same steaming trolley, saving you the hassle of looking forlornly later on. A mish-mash of pork spare ribs and taro sautéed with fermented black beans before topped with sliced birds eye chilli. A foolproof delight, you’re guaranteed to have a great time with it provided there’s a healthy ratio of buttery smooth taro and supple chunks of pork. Work it from the bottom up. Bottom is always best.
Sometimes, you just want a big dish to share with everyone so you can concentrate on catching up with friends rather than look incessantly at what the trolleys have on offer. My favourite is the Chai Tow Kway (菜頭粿), stir-fried shredded daikon and rice flour cubes that comes complete with bits of molten egg yolk and shallots. At first, it might seem a bit heavy with the packed carbs and protein, but dip it into the rice vinegar and your tastebuds will be up for more. Do I have to tell you that the most sought after parts are the burnt bits?
Or you could opt for Char Kway (炒粿條) which is similar but doesn’t have daikon nor egg. It feels a little lighter with some bean sprouts mixed in for good measure, but with a darker soy sauce. For the most part, it’s a bit oilier, spicier and generally a bit saltier than the cubes. There’s a hawker charm to this dish as each piece would be a random pick of chives, ham, chilli flakes, onions, and garlic. You can taste the charred heritage (known as Wok Hei) locked deep within the grease covered wok the chef is wielding not too far away from you.
Of course, one of the tragic aspects about yum cha is, the portions are deceptively small and yet you’ll never fit it all in your belly. Congee with Century Egg and Minced Pork will fill all the spaces in between those cracks. But it’s just congee, I hear you say. Wrong! Is pasta just noodles? And pizza just flat bread? Congee as served here is a mosaic work of art – the spring onions, the wonton flakes, the submerged pork, all floating amidst a sea of exploded rice bursts which form to paint a comforting picture. Dig deeper and you’ll find the onyx-like Century Egg soon enough. Don’t be afraid. Eat it. Savour it. It’s one of the most indulgent delicacies to come from China; its milky, buttery, dark green egg yolk is hard to fathom at first, but you’ll get used to it and start snubbing the now very boring white chicken egg.
As you sit there, looking at your sauce stained table with satisfaction and glee, you might be tempted by one last hurrah: Peking Duck pancake. There’s nothing wrong with that dish here, but there’s nothing wrong with cereal either. So, if you’re the type of person that eats cereal for dinner, be my guest. Otherwise, don’t embarrass yourself. Yum cha is a sacred tradition and here at Iron Chef, they uphold that tradition just seriously enough to have glum service. While they might not be as adventurous as The Eight, they have been at least consistent for the last year or so. Now that you’re done, scream out “mai dahn!” and scram! There’s others who want what you had too y’know.
~ Jambon Cochon
With each successive wave of migrants come new ideas, new wealth, and new food. Little attention had been given to the cuisine of Yunnan province in China, but as Sydney continues to swell with cashed-up migrants looking for familiar dishes in cool hangouts they now have a haven in the form of Two Sticks. Clad in a saffron hue, the exposed beams remind me of the insides of a rib cage as I take refuge from the ever-crowded George Street. From our time in the queue to our seat by the kitchen, there’s no denying that it’s busy and bustling with the frantic pace of waiters struggling to meet the orders of a full house, ironing out unforeseen kinks before the full menu is made available.
Before long, my entrée of Yunnan Signature Fries had come before me. Chunky, crinkle-cut, stock standard fries (as if from a frozen McCain’s packet) were seasoned and stir-fried in a Yunnan-style special sauce. You don’t eat this for the potatoes, they’re merely vessels for the mildly numbing chilli peppers that dance on the tip of the tongue while fermented black beans mask the sensation of limp lukewarm fries.
Looking like Hainan chicken dressed in chilli and fried spring onions, the dish was curiously named Two Flavour White Cut Chicken. Tasting cool to the touch, it became an addictive delight of spiciness matched up with the icy whisper of poached chicken. Salty and sweet. Nutty and herby. The interplay of Szechuan peppers, coriander, peanuts and ginger serves as a reminder of what summer is – a struggle between hot and cold. Eating this was akin to sunbaking on the beach and then taking it to the waves of refreshing seawater.
Every region has a dish they can proudly boast about and Yunnan is no different with their Crossing the Bridge Noodles known here as the Yunnan Signature Rice Noodle Soup. Served in a comically sized spherical clay pot with a platter of beef, chicken, bean curd sheets, chives, bean sprouts, pickled vegetables, quail eggs, chilli, shallots, coriander and rice noodles. A veritable grocery list for some, it’s not as daunting once everything is thrown into the pot, slowly cooked by the steaming broth. Taking a spoonful from this soupy roulette and you’ll be comforted by its hearty stock that’s neither chicken nor pork (but both!). Traces of spices, pockets of zest, punctuated by the spaghetti-like slippery rice noodles, it’s a symbol of home for those who truly miss it. For others, it’s an acquired taste, especially if you’re not used to the coarse and firm bean curd sheets cut into thin strands of noodles.
For dessert, my partner opted for the Soybean-Flour Rice Ball, typically a powdery flavourless glutinous rice ball. But what separates this from mochi balls is its warmth and the roasted soybean-flour that it’s dusted in, lending it a crushed peanut-like flavour. Smear a ball with a bit of brown sugar sauce and it becomes a familiar and yet foreign treat. It’s rich without being decadent.
I like Two Sticks. I like that it doesn’t pretend to have a soul – it is simply good food in a comfy setting, done fast. It’s a summation of what we all know what chopsticks to be. A place that accurately marks where China is today – serving up the past in a funky interior. Does that sound like such a bad thing?
~ Jambon Cochon
If there’s one thing I missed while I was in Vietnam over the holidays, it was beef, specifically, Australian beef. Over there, beef is highly regarded, precious, and reserved only for the affluent. Even the bourgeoisie can only dream of eating a steak, let alone treat one for their family. Here, we’re spoiled for choice: having our pick of cut, region, age, diet, marbling and breed.
Jetlagged, I had to work through the menu while trying to catch up with friends at I’m Angus Steakhouse perched by the sparkling waters of Darling Harbour within the Cockle Bay Wharf complex. With the glance of each item, my mouth waters from imagined pleasures, as my throat closes up and my eyes bawl, having cast its gaze on the extortionate prices – I am reminded of the high cost of living in Sydney.
As a teaser, I started with the 24-Hour Slow Roasted Pork Belly, featuring a salad of kale, beetroot and lentils with a healthy drizzle of balsamic dressing. Towering over the salad like a monument of Stonehenge proportions, I was beholden to its beauty: a crackling rind atop layers of gelatinous fat amongst plump flesh just waiting to be bitten into. The taste though was anticlimactic. Boring without a trace of personality. Clinical and lacking a soul. It was as if the once boisterous pig from Babe was lobotomised and reduced to the blank expressions from the likes of Keanu Reeves (or Orlando Bloom). You know something doesn’t feel right when the salad is stealing the show.
Letting bygones be bygones, I moved on to the Cape Grim steak, 250 grams of Grass-Fed Rib-Eye* meat still hanging onto the bone coming from a cow that breathed air as fresh as it was millions of years ago. As the Café de Paris butter melted on top, oozing its creamy and rich garlic flavours across the seared meat, I sawed it open to find that it was cooked closer to medium rather than what I had ordered: Medium Rare. Not a catastrophe, but not a flawless execution either, its only trick was the smoky full-bodied bovine that complemented the buttery mashed potatoes and delicate caramelized onions that garnished my plate. This was good, but could have been better. Much better.
Being part of Nick’s Waterfront dining empire, it’s hard to see why you’ll ever have a spectacular meal unless you are dating and trying to lavish them with a pricy view of the harbour. The dishes are decent, but will never set your tastebuds alight like the fireworks** by the water. I don’t hate the dishes, but I find it hard to like them for reasons other than I paid for them. As a tourist trap, it does well not to embarrass Sydney. As a local steakhouse, you can do better.
~ Jambon Cochon
* Listed as ‘Fillet on the Bone’
** Just in case you missed it