Mr Wong, Bridge Lane - Sydney CBD
The staff took pains to describe this creation to me with a smile.
The entrance is foreboding, the atmosphere darkish and the possibilities naughtily limitless. A light shower had come down in an emptied banking district, so it was with relief that shelter was found in another of the Merivale Group's creative outlets. The maitre'd was efficient, matter of fact and productive. No bookings can be made at Mr Wong's if I understand correctly but the place was chock a block by 8pm. With all our national consciousness of Australian Chinese restaurants and my heritage of southern and central Chinese cuisine, I was obviously curious. Was this going to be a romanticised make up of what China is today, or was in the minds of backpackers and colonials, or will be in the cyberspace-connected generation of the near future?
The delicate porcelain hanging on brick-broken walls under really low lighting provided a startling contrast on arrival. The lady showing the table was smiling friendly even if she had a busy evening. You walk carefully to the basement, laid out more like a drinking bar than a Chinese tea house, even if there are plenty of tea variations, liquor and cocktails to choose from. An unrenovated warehouse atmosphere suggested this was more of a club than a standard Asian restaurant. Music streamed in from above, the level of chatter was relatively high and I felt more like in an Aussie or English pub than in anything else. Were people there to be seen, or to try the food, or just to hang out after a long day at work?
|Preparations in Mr Wong's kitchen are open and sort of a display - especially with the hanging ducks on a rack.|
The menu is rather extensive, with many options for entrees and dessert. Still, somehow, some may feel it can be a place to eat and go, and not to hang out too long, especially at lunchtimes. Others may feel more relaxed and linger on with more drink than food, especially when it does close late near midnight. It may be a place to entertain clients but I would not rather go there to negotiate or lock in difficult deals. Cutlery is optional, as there are chopstick sets, together with Japanese soy sauce bottles, condiment and sauce plates and drinking water bottles. Day or night, Mr Wong's seems to be the only lively place this side of the lane. If people still cannot accept the synergy of Western wines with Chinese food, they should come observe this restaurant - it need not be Tsingtao forever. I appreciated the glass of moscato (AUD11) to down with the dessert.
|A setting of five spiced roast pork belly (siew yoke), accompanied by the must have Cantonese hoi sin sauce, the optional Brit styled mustard and a weaved basket container of steamed rice.|
The offering of items like fried rice, beef in black bean sauce, salt and pepper pork ribs and deep fried vanilla or chocolate ice cream (though with butter scotch sauce, instead of caramel) point strongly to the preconceptions and preferences of the team who dreamed up and actualised the concept and reality of Mr Wong's. These dishes are not in the wish list of serious fine diners in east Asia but hark back to a time when Mr Wong's targeted market of diners first had their taste of a typical Chinese restaurant in some residential suburb. So it made sense when the clientele of Mr Wong's are not your gathering of Chinese family groups, but twenty somethings who do meet up on week nights and have the discretionary ability to spend and soak up a life that is still relatively free and easy.
|Cool, dark and handsome - the bar tender surrounded by diners and a depiction on a bricked wall of a Shanghai woman from the 1930's.|
You may think twice before inviting along children or grandparents, for there are low lit stairs, diners sitting too close together or moving behind your back. The old folks will however acknowledge the extent of the wine list and may relate better to the made up surroundings better than Gen Y or Gen Millennium.
Steamed fresh fish with ginger and shallots and putting delicate shitake strips on steamed tofu are very traditional and obviously can be found in Sydney's Chinatown down George Street, so what do diners find special to try here? I reckon it is the whole package of the experience - so whether some find the prices more suited to corporate budgets or not, whether some dishes are made better elsewhere or whether it reminds one of eating in a bunked down recreation of old London under the German war bombings, it really does not matter. The experience is one of uniqueness, of a performance and of a surprise. It reminds us of fusion, of a bazaar and of all our comfort food Christmases apparently coming all at once, but also in unusual combinations. The use of ingredients like foie gras on prawn toast may seem a mismatch, but any full blooded Caucasian back packer or jet-setting business person or ex-Singaporean would stay loyal to an offering like the Singapore styled mud crab stir fried on a wok with black pepper.
|Somehow the ubiquitous fish tanks of typical Chinese restaurants was mostly empty that evening.|
Fresh fruits are parked ready not for diners but to use in cocktails.
The den of Mr Wong's is really not hard to locate - just stand in front of the rail station exit, at the corner of Hunter and George Streets in the Wynyard precinct of Sydney CBD. If you had been a past patron of the now defunct Tank Nightclub, when the set of pedestrian lights turn green, you would then naturally walk down the slope of Hunter Street on the right hand side and turn on the first lane. This short, unassuming and often darkish lane leads to your food cabaret, a theatre of southern Chinese cuisine mixed with 20th century notions of Shanghai and an experiment of fusing ambiance with an all night bar - whether of tea, alcohol or trendiness.
Would I return? Maybe to tickle my palate with yumcha creations such as pork and pumpkin dumplings. Or the intriguing char siu fish and the abalone shui mai, as my latest visit there was for dinner. I hear that No upright connoisseur of food in Hong Kong would dare to have dim sim dishes after 2pm, just as any full blooded Napoli resident would not even think of latte after 11am.
Outstanding must tries I am told by mates are the deep fried aromatic duck spring rolls and eggplant made with a dash of Chef Dan Hong's magic from Ms G's. Most of all, I would return to soak in a comfortable and relaxed time.