Monday, December 8, 2008

Finally, some food

For something that started with the idea of a food blog, there's been little food to look at. I know, I've been remiss. I've certainly been eating, but there's just a certain level of consciousness that one needs in remembering to take a photo before digging into a dish, or trying to identify ingredients rather than scoffing and just saying "Delicious", or most difficult yet - going to a restaurant where you're a regular and trying to find a name for that "yummy dish I always have".

Anyway, Monday night finds me at Sydney Madang Restaurant - my favourite Korean BBQ restaurant where, surprisingly, I prefer not to BBQ. It's at the end of a little laneway off Pitt St near Liverpool St, and it's the one where there are people waiting outside - not the other one. The couples, triples and quads waiting out the front can be a turn off for most people, but on this Monday night when I'm not starving, the wait isn't too bad. Just grab your raffle ticket from one of the black-clad waiters, and sit or stand around until luck turns your way and your number is called.

Service is quick and efficient, aided by the doorbell-like device at the corner of every table. Ring the bell and a waiter will be at your table within moments (sometimes seconds, so don't ring it until you're sure you're ready). I tend to have my favourite dishes when going to a regular haunt, even if I haven't tried all the menu. The starters vary but there's always the good ol' kimchee - here, fairly restrained on the chilli factor - yes, it's hot, but I'm not going to cry over it. A favourite is the grated radish on lettuce: simple, fresh and refreshing, especially after some of the hot and spicy dishes, and the potato in a sweet, cloying sauce (tonight with the peel on - a first in my experience). As always, you're free to request refills of your favourite starters throughout the meal.

Starters (clockwise from top left corner): potato, radish and lettuce,
kimchee, some (single) pickled chilli leaf, bean sprout salad

We tend to favour the 'entree' menu, simply because we're not doing the BBQ or steamboat menus. Plus, there's so much to choose from in the entree menu anyway, and they're all superbly tasty so it's hard to go wrong. First up is the tofu, which arrives a few minutes after our order is put through.

Tofu entree with cucumber and bonito shavings

It's a delightful dish of fried tofu with a crunchy skin and softly firm inner, with a sweetly tart dressing, the fresh green-ness of cucumber and hidden under a pile of bonito shavings. It's light and perfect to get the palate ready for more intense flavours to come.

Next comes an ideal summer dish, the raw beef salad. Now in written or spoken word, this dish may not sound all that appealing - but you'd have to admit that it looks good and sounds intriguing - and for me that would be reason enough to try something.

Raw beef salad

It consists of thinly julienned slices of - wait for it - raw, frozen beef. A dining companion unacquainted with the dish saw it arrive on the table and said: "It looks frozen." There's a dressing mixed through the beef - mildly sweet, sesame and a few other flavours that I can't quite identify. You mix in the raw egg yolk along with the thin cucumber and radish slices, and try to eat it before the beef thaws. It's still edible after, but it just lacks that almost whimsical feeling and texture. It's really quite good after something that hits the chilli sense a bit too hard.

Following is our third entree and my absolute favourite - the seafood pancake. I joke with the table (four of us all up) that we should order the large, just to see how big it really is. The small size is ludicrously big; more than adequate for four and it makes me wonder about the size of their frypans. I will attempt the large one day; probably will have that and nothing else.

Seafood pancake

It's not doughy or raw like some of the other pancakes I've tried, and always comes out crisp but not oily - very important in my books. Delectably tender bits of squid and prawn are scattered among the green shallots; the chilli sesame dipping sauce adding another dimension of flavour. The pancake can be quite filliing but I can't help it - it's my favourite and I especially love the end bits.

On to mains! I might add that these all come out in quick succession, so there tends to be many dishes on the table at any one time: four small dishes each; five for the starters; the tofu; the beef; the pancake; cups and bottles; two metal bowls of rice - oh, and we've got a gas stove addition for a hot pot dish that arrives steaming, massive, red spicy, and smelling so good.

Pork bone and potato hot pot

Not recommended for a hot summer's day, but it's a windy, cool night so we're not getting too much of a sweat up. The green leaves on top (not 100% sure what they were - but not like any Chinese vegie I've tried; a certain spicy flavour - and it wasn't the soup) get doused with the red hot soup - a steam/boil cooking technique. Underneath there's an abundance of shallots and bits of pork bone, with meat softened to a tender, almost falling off point. Keep it on the boil and it will fall off. Dig further and you've got potato hiding underneath it all. For the sensitive tongues, ladle some of everything into your dish once the vegies are ready and give it a good few minutes cooling. So as I sit patiently waiting for it to cool, picking at some lettuce and bean sprouts, others jump straight into the soup (not literally). There is no sense of taste bud conservation here.

It's spicy but not overly so, but there's rice to help conceal the chilli if necessary. There's not a lot of meat on the bones, but the flavours really seep in to justify sucking on bits of bone. The potato also acts to tone down the chilli as do the leafy greens and other vegies. And it's a seriously-sized pot, nothing delicate or petite. Last, but by no means least, the bibimbap.

Bibimbap (mixed - friend got to it before the camera did)

We always order the special one in the hot stone pot: a mixture of rice, spinach, zucchini, carrot, bean sprouts in a heated stone pot with a raw egg yolk on top. The idea is that you mix it all up so the hot stone cooks the egg and gives you crunchy clumps of rice. We usually have the pork mince add-on and always add the chilli (?) paste to it - it's very mild so be liberal. Let it sit awhile and then try and be the first to hog all the crunchy bits - if you're so inclined.

At this point you can imagine that the four of us would be quite stuffed. Conversation turns to how we're so accustomed to overeating that we all think our stomachs are much expanded from what they normally should be. I get another ladle full of the hot pot; the bibimbap gets finished across the table; and another round of lettuce with radish is ordered. It's not that we're insatiable - it's just a weakness for all things yummy.

A final ring of the doorbell contraption brings the bill to a very, very reasonable $25 per head (including two beers and a Coke). We walk out to pay and leave passing some ten or so hungry-looking patrons waiting outside the restaurant (yep, on a Monday night). It's still a cool, windy night so I take the opportunity to shake out my BBQ-smelling hair and self. It can't be helped so I can only advise that one doesn't wear a thick woollen or any other smell-sensitive item of clothing. On the way home I can actually smell BBQ on/in my skin - first stop is the shower.

Sydney Madang on Urbanspoon

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