Thursday, April 10, 2014

Waitan for a second chance

Food, booze and shoes dined at Waitan Restaurant as a guest.

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
Five months in and changes are afoot, with particular focus on the menu. Taking into account constructive criticisms and suggestions for improvements, and with new chefs brought in from China and Singapore, the Singapore-influenced Chinese menu has been revived and re-thought with a lot of the fusion stripped out.

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
And it's not to say the service at Waitan wasn't quick. As one of the earlier tables of the night, we were bombarded with starters almost all at once, which I suppose really is the Chinese style of eating; that is, courses all at the same time as opposed to staged courses, one after the other.

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
It was an interesting start with a zen pebble garden presentation for the lettuce roll – an unusual cold starter of butter lettuce and red capsicum tightly rolled within cucumber ribbons and placed sprawlingly onto a tray of polished river pebbles.

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
One of my favourite dishes of the night was the cold poached chicken, which arrived in a veritable pool of sauce: a spicy Sichuan offering with plenty of chilli oil floating above a nutty 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
Next were thin, rounded slices of firm duck breast meat and skin, wrapped around a salty preserved egg yolk in a clever take on a terrine. Decorative squiggles of what seemed to be caramelised balsamic vinegar brought sweetness to quite a savoury, protein-packed roll.

Black fungi marinated with onion and wasabi oil
Woodear mushroom goes under a number of names but I think it's never been as delicious as when very lightly pickled in a tart dressing spiked with 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
Still on the starters menu, the sweet and sour prawn dish was served cold with ripe mango cubes and cucumber slices in a fruit salad-like composition.

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
If you don't swoon at the tofu and dry scallop soup at Waitan, you're not a swooner. Intricate cuts into a cylindrical silken tofu portion formed a sea anemone-like creation that swayed with the movement of the 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
To the main event of our dinner, Waitan's Imperial Peking duck which is now served in two courses: traditionally with a steamer full of thin pancakes and as a san choy bow lettuce cup course.

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
The second duck course is also served DIY style, with daintily cut iceberg lettuce cups and a chopped, sautéed mix of duck meat, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, garnished with gari Japanese sweet, pickled ginger.

Duck san choy bow
The ginger somewhat overpowered the rest of the duck filling, but without it and topped off with puffed, fried vermicelli noodles, it was satisfying lettuce wrap action overall with lots of flavour, duck meat and a variety of textures.

Singapore styled chilli prawns with grissini
Finishing off our savoury courses was the much-anticipated Singapore chilli prawns: huge specimens of the crustacean with their shells, somewhat protecting them as they swam in a thick, spicy sauce of chilli, tomato and egg.

Easy enough to peel and eat with a fork and spoon, the large prawns took on a texture not far off lobster, while the sauce provided serious chilli heat to be mopped up by the fabulous "grissini" sticks of deep-fried man tou style sweet-savoury bread.

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
While Asian desserts aren't particularly well-regarded, Waitan's dessert tasting plate is worth a gander if you want to share a sweet finishing note.

Mango cream with sago (left) and lemon curd pavlova (right)
My favourite of the trio of desserts was the sago pearls in a moderately sweet, fresh mango cream in a wide-bottomed glass.

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
As we finished up, there were several tables still going strong on the seafood (crab, lobster and pippies for one table of guys) and wines. On an early weekday evening the dining space was filled with a mix of couples and groups – family celebrations, corporate dinners, lavish girly catch-ups, boys nights out and hospitality types.

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.

Waitan Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Helen (Grab Your Fork) said...

The knifework on that silken tofu is super impressive!

Padaek said...

This place looks wonderful - yes, that dry scallop with tofu & tomato consommé looks superb, and surreal! :)

Annie said...

been hearing some mixed experiences as well. should check it out though since i really enjoyed the peking duck pancake when they were appeared at the Chinese New Year markets at Belmore park a while ago.

Tina said...

Hi Helen - I was in awe of the tofu :)

Hi Padaek - Worth a try for something a little classier in Chinatown :)

Hi Annie - Yeah, I really liked the duck pancakes but then, it's hard not to like them generally...

hou said...

The only real flavour came from the thick, spiced sesame dressing which made the dish.
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