The last time I was in Chatswood for yum cha, it left a foul taste I’d rather forget. Rising to supplant its decrepit rival as the other yum cha restaurant in Chatswood, the Star Capital Seafood Restaurant could not have made its ambitions clearer, proudly declaring to be the ‘best’ before they even opened their doors. Beaming of confidence, like that of a naïve youth ready to change the world, I wondered whether this place was run by a new generation of restaurateurs or just simply part of the old guard defecting to greener pastures.
Keen to find out, my partner and I set about securing a table just before noon on a sunny Saturday to avoid the queues. As we were shown our seats, I felt reassured by spotting Cantonese locals sitting about and enjoying their brunch. Once the tea and chilli oil were prepared, it was time to eat!
First off the cart was the Siu Mai, the golden poster child of the yum cha experience. Without eating this, you truly can’t say you had dim sum – simple as that. Juicy chunks of pork intertwined with shiitake mushrooms and sweet prawns gushing about, all wrapped up in an egg noodle pastry before topped with mellow crab roe just melting off it. On its own, it’s an umami bomb and dipped into the chilli oil, it just whips you into submission demanding you take another bite. Oh yea!
Then came the Har Cheung, prawns rolled within rice noodles then doused in a gentle soy sauce. Like sushi, it’s the container that defines the dish not the filling. Rice noodle that is too soft starts to fall apart before ever reaching your bowl. Too hard and you might as well pick it up with your hands and eat it like a kebab. Here, it wasn’t the luscious affair I was after as the rice noodle barely stretched when picked up, tasting fairly firm and releasing the springy prawns that were radiating its oceanic roots with flashes of soy sauce.
Having found no equal to Mother Chu’s Salt and Pepper Tofu thus far, I was curious how this dish would fare here. Lightly battered then deep-fried to a crisp, the skin was thin but not as delicate as the former and felt like a well-seasoned wafer. It’s not better, but not worse than Mother Chu’s, carving its own take on this delectable morsel of tofu.
Without a dedicated frying cart in sight, I foolishly opted for the Rice Noodle Rolls with Dried Shrimp just as it was about to whizz by unnoticed. Naïvely hoping what I saw was a placeholder, my hopes were dashed when they took it away to microwave it unceremoniously and plonked on my table. Lukewarm and drenched in a light soy sauce, it still bore the marks of crispiness on its pan-fried skin like a worn war-hero knowing its best days were behind it. Eating this, I can only imagine what it was like when it was fresh as I dipped it into the syrupy hoisin and buttery peanut sauce.
For the daring, chicken feet is now passé and for the meek, a somewhat generic offering that provides little reward in the way of floppy skin and forgiving bones. Often overlooked is the Steamed Tripe in Black Pepper Sauce, a pile of stomach lining sitting in a pool of orange sauce while vapours whisk into the back of my head. Here, it’s a soft, melt-in-your-mouth sensation that’s let down by a sauce that packs a peppery punch yet lacks the temerity to match tripe.
Another largely ignored delicacy among the feeble stomached is the Century Egg Congee looking familiar like porridge with bits of spring onions and fried wonton croutons. Served hot enough to sear your tongue, it’s a viscous blend of dissolving milky rice, chunks of pork and blackened eggs that upon first glance, most people recoil in disgust. Forget orange egg yolks, these are dark teal in appearance here but lords it over in svelte, indulgent and ultimately comforting ways. Combined with the pork stock that permeates throughout, it reminds me of home.
If you’re still hungry and need to be going, stuff one of these babies in your mouth: the BBQ Pork Bun. Filled with char siu pork, a sweet and salty saucy meat encased in a fluffy dough that melds unto itself with each bite. Though it leans more on the sweet side, it tastes as good as it looks, that is – bursting of life.
No yum cha sitting would be complete without the siu mai’s partner: the Har Gau. Translucent, glistening, and still steaming, it looked like perfection. The pastry felt delicate yet still firm as I bit and tore a piece out of the naturally sweet and lively prawn. Slivers of bamboo hid away evoking images of spring. It takes a dip into chilli oil to shift it up to summer. This, with near certainty, is the best Har Gau in Sydney.
For dessert, we decided on the Custard Egg Bun and were somewhat relieved it’s made to order. Upon ripping it open, we found the innards devoid of the delicious molten lava-like yolk and in place a starchy, slightly salted and cheesy stuffing resembling a full-boiled egg. With hints of coconut and palm oil, it was forgettable at best and the sooner I do, the better.
Those who are hoping that this would be a new generation of yum cha restaurant, bringing in some flair from Hong Kong, would sorely be disappointed. Looking around, it’s clear who’s running it with the white tablecloths, dated crystal chandeliers, and decorative wooden patterns: the old guard. Is that a bad thing? Should we value innovation over tradition? Clinging onto their cherished ideals, I can definitely taste where they are coming from, even if some of it didn’t quite hit the mark; I can taste why it’s timeless, why these old lions are actually still lions. And they are here to stay.
~ Jambon Cochon