Waitan Restaurant opened in the heart of Sydney's Chinatown in October last year with an all-out launch showcasing the restaurant's luxe multi-million-dollar fitout, which includes massive double kitchens, a $350,000 custom-built duck oven, and multiple venue spaces over two levels of a refurbished Sussex Street building, including a 30-seat round table in an upstairs private room.
We attended the lavish launch party in October with a small sampling of food from what was pitched as an East-meets-West Chinese menu. What ensued in weeks following could be described as a mixed response; much of it at the harsh end of the review spectrum.
|Dining space at Waitan Restaurant, Sussex Street, Haymarket|
There's a greater focus on a modern Chinese cuisine approach, which I think is something Sydney is still learning about.
As spoilt as we are for really good traditional Cantonese food in Chinatown – and increasingly traditional northern Chinese food in suburbs like Ashfield – modern Chinese is a new style for us that isn't necessarily focused on low costs and speedy service. I mean, I don't know of too many Chinese restaurants that have a range of David Blackmore's wagyu on offer.
|David Blackmore wagyu beef on display in fridges|
Waitan no longer offers a set banquet, following diners' preferences for selecting their own dishes from the relatively small (for Chinese, at least) but still expansive pages of the menu.
We had that task done for us by Waitan's sales and marketing manager, Amy Xu, who picked menu favourites and other dishes which showcase the updated menu that's more traditional than fusion, but leaning towards more modern than traditional.
|Lettuce roll with sesame dressing|
The only real flavour came from the thick, spiced sesame dressing which made the dish. As healthy as the lettuce roll was, it wasn't here nor there, and certainly not what I had in mind as modern Chinese.
|Sichuan poached chicken, chilli oil and sesame dressing|
Propped up by bean sprouts that adored the spicy, oily dressing, the delicately poached chicken thigh had a smooth, sensual texture, particularly the silky skin; making for an excellent contrast to the slow-burn heat of the dressing.
|Duck breast, preserved egg yolk terrine|
|Black fungi marinated with onion and wasabi oil|
This was an utterly surprising offering in a small glass with a smattering of Spanish onion slivers offering a contrasting texture to the slight crunch of the black fungi.
|Sweet and sour prawns with mango|
The plump poached prawns were coated with a glossy sweet, slightly sour sauce; sort of complementing the sweet mango but probably better with the cucumber and crunchy walnuts.
|Dry scallop with tofu & tomato consommé|
Despite being transfixed by the tofu anemone, I did eventually polish off the bowl of a very clean, deeply-flavoured broth with the softened luxury of gong yuw ji dried scallop and a skinless cherry tomato upping the umami count.
|Imperial Peking duck – half duck breast with skin, pancakes, traditional black bean sauce, leek, cucumber|
I'm not entirely sure how ducks are roasted in the rest of Chinatown, but at Waitan they are hung and covered in a special syrup, before being baked in an open oak and cherry wood-fired oven for 60 minutes.
I found the duck to be less sweet and seasoned than what you get in Chinatown, and also less fatty – which I like. I didn't get the intended smokiness of the duck, but smothered in the sweet black bean sauce inside a thin, chewy pancake with white leek strips and cucumber sticks, it didn't really matter.
The half duck provides for at least eight pancakes in DIY style – a generous serving between three, but gleefully wrapped and scoffed anyway.
|Sautéed chopped duck with bamboo shoots, water chestnut, served with iceberg lettuce|
|Duck san choy bow|
|Singapore styled chilli prawns with grissini|
It's worth ordering the Singapore chilli dish for the jar of the black sesame-topped man tou sticks alone.
|Dessert tasting plate: Mango cream with sago, lemon curd pavlova, green tea macarons|
|Mango cream with sago (left) and lemon curd pavlova (right)|
Much less Asian were the macarons, strong with green tea flavour and filled with cream, and the lemon curd pavlova which featured an array of meringue varieties, blueberries, cream and tart lemon curd.
|Lemon curd pavlova|
The full dining room can get loud above the selection of lounge music that's a little unsure of itself but granted, it's new ground for Chinatown and Waitan is at the (sometimes scary) forefront.
Certainly, it's a more expensive dining experience than you'll see in most of Chinatown, but keep in mind it's also a fine dining approach. Peking duck pancakes aren't frisbee-ed across the table to you; ageing crockery isn't clattered noisily onto the table next to you; there's a proper cocktail list and bartender; and the fancy fitout is more than overdue for Chinatown.
It's good to see Chinese cuisine, and Sydney's Chinatown, finally move into a newer era that can work with fine dining and it looks like Waitan is getting its early second lease on life.
Food, booze and shoes dined at Waitan Restaurant as a guest.