Mr Wong, Sydney restaurant review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Chris Chen
"A reckless friend defines a big city as a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night," writes Edmund White in the opening pages of The Flâneur, his exploration of Paris on foot. Me, I'm increasingly of the opinion that a really first-rate Chinese restaurant is the mark of any truly grand city. That would count Paris out, though, as well as Rome, and quite possibly New York. But Sydney now has a fighting chance.
The Hemmes family have bet big on Mr Wong, investing something of the order of $4 million in what is their biggest restaurant opening to date. In scope, it's very much in line with the Cantonese keepers of the flame in the city's various Chinatowns that count their patrons in the hundreds each service, its halls laid out over two storeys of what was once the Tank nightclub. But in detail, it's more in line with Felix, Ms G's and The Fish Shop, also in the Merivale stable - even Est.
Michael McCann, the designer best known to Sydney diners for his work at Flying Fish, Sydney Seafood School and Pony, is responsible in part for the look (I'm guessing the wine tower is one of his), and stylist Sibella Court also shares credit, along with Bettina Hemmes. Together they've brought Justin Hemmes's vision of a big-city Chinese restaurant to life in a way that both dazzles on first meeting and repays repeat custom and close reading.
Waving cats there may be, but they're offset by acres of exposed brick and textured timber, caged pendant lights and vases of Queen Anne's lace. Downstairs, shelves of Chinese tchotchkes - vases, teapots, jars - underline the fact that you're not in a pizzeria or a bistro, but without quite breaking out the red fans and gold dragons.
There's something very likeable about a restaurant committed enough to quality to have a room just for drying its ducks. Better still, a restaurant with brio enough to glass that room in and make a feature of it. And restaurants that have both a proper Cantonese duck oven and a proper working knowledge of how to intertwine the works of Booker T, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone to make a rocking but not too intrusive soundtrack are rare enough in Hong Kong. Between George and Pitt streets, it's downright exotic.
The feel here is full-service all the way, from the battery of greeters at the door to the substantial, well-run bar upstairs and the platoon of familiar Sydney restaurant faces (Andrew Jones, last seen fronting Felix, veteran charmer Colin Nelson, and toothpaste spokesmodel and former Lotus frontman Johnny "Rockstar" Stubljar among them). It's nattily tied aprons, crisp white shirts and tuxedos all round. The carte, too, follows the more-is-more theme, running to some 80 dishes.
Chefs Dan Hong and Jowett Yu are fresh from Ms G's, but where the Potts Point diner is a goofy, hip-hop-inflected culinary funhouse that owes a considerable debt to Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York, Mr Wong's food is straighter and much more focused in its inspiration. It's a love letter to the great Cantonese restaurants of Hong Kong. And, for that matter, of Sydney, as much Golden Century as Lei Garden and Tim's Kitchen, as much Sussex and Dixon as Causeway Bay and Sheung Wan.
There's joy to be had in the kitchen's less classical constructions, mind you: drunken chicken in little galantine-like rounds, say, or sweet and sour pork done with a crisped-up hock. Their Sichuan tartare would be about as recognisable to the average person on the street in Sichuan province as Vegemite on toast, but the slow burn borne by the finely cut beef is pure pleasure, especially when it's contrasted with the crunch of crackers or cucumber. Staying on the Sichuan theme, mapo tofu is very successfully reimagined as a sort of silky tofu custard with the ruddy, spicy pork mix laid over the top. I haven't seen eel combined with century egg and tofu in any restaurants in China, but the firm preserved egg and beancurd combination here is tried, and the flavours are true.
For the most part, though, the real pleasure at Mr Wong is in seeing familiar dishes done right, elevated to levels seldom seen in Australia by dint of better ingredients and a more careful application of technique. Mud crab fans will be in finger-bowl paradise. The salt-and-pepper number is without equal in this city, and the black-pepper, XO-sauce, and ginger and spring onion versions are just as impressive, thanks in no small part to the quality of the crab itself. I don't love the Peking duck pancakes - the texture is off, somehow - but the duck itself, and everything else which issues from its oven - equates to juicy good times. The vegetable hotpot - so often otherwise an open grave for vegetables which have sinned - is vibrant with Japanese turnips, zucchini blossoms and fresh shiitake. There's bite to the steamed Chinese broccoli, and a voluminous airiness to the fried rice.
Beyond the offer of a fruit plate, dessert makes only a broad gesture at authenticity: Asian flavour profiles, Western technique. The green apple ice, played off water chestnuts and coconut sorbet, is both likeable and forgettable. It also faces stiff competition in the form of the fried ice-cream, replete with butterscotch sauce.
And then there's Team Wong's not-so-secret weapon. Eric Koh was the head dim sum chef across Hakkasan and Yauatcha, the London restaurants considered the gold standard against which Chinese food is judged in Europe. And by golly, the man knows his stuff. The yum cha menu is a strong incentive to bias your visits toward lunch, when the full range is on offer rather than just the selection available at dinner. That way you can know the joys of siu mai made luxe with scallop and crunchy flying fish roe. Another version sees a whole baby abalone set on a firm chicken mousse. Again, though, it's the classics which really pop: prettily pleated har gow, beautifully light cheong fun rolls, unsweet, non-huge pork buns - even the old fried turnip cake becomes a head-turner in the hands of Koh and his minions.
This all comes at a cost. The downlights, bow ties, the bespoke crockery - it adds up, and so does the cost of fresher produce and more hands in the kitchen.
If you're used to rolling out of the Marigold or Sea Treasure without coming within cooee of breaking a crisp $50 a head, the possibility of paying somewhere in the vicinity of double that at Mr Wong might be a deal-breaker. The Hemmes have also elected not to offer bookings at dinner for parties smaller than six. It's good for the buzz, but not great for convenience. On the other hand, though, a table of six means you can give the menu the sort of work-out it's made for.
The other threat to the health of your wallet is the wine list. It's a bit too good. Sommelier Franck Moreau seems to become more gleeful with each new challenge. Here, over the course of a good many pages, he ticks the boxes with well-stocked chapters for "iconic shiraz", enough Rhône to justify separate sections for the north and south, and a riesling selection that runs to 80 labels. It's bracketed by thoughtful non-alcoholic drinks (excellent house-made ginger beer, fine tea), and blow-out bait in the form of Salon Champagne, oodles of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and Yquem to close. You have been warned.
Much of what makes Mr Wong so likeable stems from its grandiosity, the sweep of its vision, and the richness of its realisation. Full marks go to for chefs Yu and Hong, though, for knowing when to leave well enough alone. The humility they've shown in how they've tackled the challenge of yoking the world's greatest cuisine to this project is the central idea that keeps the whole thing real. Rare is the 240-seat restaurant that gets it right straight out of the box, but Mr Wong is nothing if not surprising, and to date it's been very much more hit than miss. Just think what it'll be like once it's had time to settle in.
3 Bridge La, Sydney, (02) 9240 3000, merivale.com/mrwong
Open Lunch noon-3pm, dinner 5.30pm-11pm (till midnight Thu-Sat, till 10pm Sun).
Cards AE D MC V.
Prices Entrées $10-$19; mains $24-$45; desserts $14.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Vegetarian Plenty to choose from.
Plus A Chinese restaurant which ticks all the boxes.
Minus Can be pricey.