After one failed attempt to get a seat at celebrity-chef Kylie Kwong’s wildly popular Surry Hills restaurant two years ago, I had done my homework to ensure that upon my return, I would be able to dine at what is arguably the pinnacle of Modern Chinese dining in Sydney.
Billy Kwong has a no reservations policy (excpet for one large table that seats 6-8), so my dining partner and I headed to Crown Street about an hour early to stake our claim on a spot in line. We perched ourselves at a pub across the street where we could keep an eye on the front door and make our move once the line started. About 20 minutes before the doors opened at 6 p.m., people started queueing, so we hustled over.
There were about 16 people ahead of us in line and I looked through the large plate glass windows and saw that Billy Kwong could hold about 40 diners, so we were in! While we waited for the doors to swing open, I watched the kitchen, which was buzzing. Ms. Kwong was at the center of the activity– a reassuring sight in this day of absentee celebrity chefs, their presence only felt in the name above the door.
While I’m on the topic of Ms. Kwong, I want to address her detractors who seem to have a small, albeit outspoken, presence on the internet. Some deride her for pretending to be something she’s not: Chinese. Personally, I don’t believe she’s a pretender at all. From everything I’ve seen, she’s very upfront about being 100 percent Australian and that her food is inspired by her Chinese heritage, but is, for all intents and purposes, culturally Australian. So before I go any further, the evaluation of this meal is not meant to judge the authenticity of the meal’s “Chinese-ness”. My main concerns are: was it delicious; was it satisfying; was it good to think? The answer to all three of this questions is definitely, yes.
When the doors opened, we were seated quickly and efficiently, which was an overriding theme for the evening. Dishes were served with very little wait in between. Plates were cleared swiftly, but not before we had finished. The efficiency was noticable, but not robot-like. Even the furniture and decor was sleek and efficient giving the intimate space the feel of a modern Hong Kong loft. The centerpiece of the space, though, is a massive lantern that clings to the ceiling with a moon-like luminescence.
The degustation menu is the ideal way to gain an understanding of the thought that Ms. Kwong puts into her ingredients and menu. Her focus is on organic and biodynamic produce which are accentuated by the clean simplicity of every single dish.
We began the journey with Kumamoto oysters. These dainty oysters originated in Japan but eventually became extinct in their indigenous land. Through a bit of luck and responsible farming, these oysters have made a comeback and are popular for their flavor, small size and the fact that they can be harvested in the summer months. Kwong’s treatment with soy sauce and cilantro highlighted the freshness and sweetness of the oysters.
Next came a sashimi of Petuna Ocean Trout and Hiramasa Kingfish. Again, the fish was fresh, clean and served with a light soy sauce. These first two dishes make a statement about Kwong’s philopophy. She will only use the very best ingredients and she’s not going to muck around with them.
The following two dishes came in very quick procession as if to prove a point. First was the crispy prawn wanton with a sweet chili sauce. No sooner had we finished it then out came the steamed prawn wantons with brown rice vinegar dressing. This was the most brilliant moment of the meal because it showcased culinary alchemy. The same basic ingredients– prawns and wanton wrappers– were turned into two vastly different dishes just by the way they were cooked and dressed. The crucial Chinese concept of Yin and Yang played into this pairing, too. One minute we were enjoying crispy, sweet and spicy, the next silky and savory.
These days everyone serves lettuce wraps (also known as Sung Choi Bao in Chinese), but at Billy Kwong they are given context. The pork, ginger and mushroom filling was a good follow up to the previous dish, and the crisp cool lettuce was the Yin to the filling’s Yang. It helped cleanse our palates and readied us for the main dishes: line caught bass with ginger and shallots and crispy skinned duck in an orange, cinnamon and star anise sauce.
The broth on the fish, flavored with soy sauce and sesame, was the perfect example of those who are shaky on the concept of umami. It was so delicious I wanted to take my clothes off and roll around in it. Fortunately for the other diners, I had plenty of rice to spoon it over until every last drop of sauce had been soaked up. The duck was simple, crisp and not at all greasy which can happen when mere mortals try to cook it. The sweet and tangy sauce, which complemented the rich duck, was almost like a dessert, which I thought had to be coming next.
Instead, our server asked us if we could handle something else. Silly question. She brought out a colorful dish of dry fried Hokkien noodles with homemade XO sauce, a spicy fish-based concoction popular in Cantonese cuisine. The noodles were lightlly coated in the addictive sauce and studded wtih crisp bean sprouts, green onion and red pepper.
If you live for a flourless chocolate torte at the end of a meal, dessert may be a disappointment. However, a dish like that would have been utterly out of place in this meal. Initially, I felt some disappointment when we were served a plate of flawless organic bananas, strawberries and kiwi. But it struck me as we ate, that this fruit was as fresh, clean and perfect as the oyster and sashimi at the beginning of the meal– providing a most appropriate puncutation mark for a meal of such beautiful simplicity.
355 Crown St.
Surry Hills, NSW