"Do you mind if you sit at the bench?" the waitress asks apologetically.
Of course we don't. In fact Billy
and I break out into huge grins as we realise we'll be seated with a birds eye view of the action, a glassed-in kitchen that is more akin to a noodle-making arena.
Chef's Gallery is the newest dumpling house in Sydney, executive chef Edward Zhao taking up residence on the Regent Place site formerly occupied by Bonta Vita. With its dark timber tables, regal surrounds and open kitchen, comparisons with Din Tai Fung are immediate.
We notice the mouth-guards first. Each and every staff member is wearing them inside the kitchen, a plastic shield that has a chin guard on the bottom and elastic loops hooked over each ear. We presume they're meant to reassure us of their commitment to hygiene, even if they do look like surgeons on a lunch break.
Billy and I are seated in front of the wok station, the chef before us delegated with cooking fried rice and vegetables. The rice is literally tossed in the wok until golden, the rice flying upwards in a Chinese mosh pit - the limited use of a spatula means the rice stays fluffy.
But it's the noodle show we're more interested in. Great lumps of dough are kneaded into thick ropes, then swung up and down to allow gravity to stretch them into a noodle skipping rope. The ropes are looped back onto themselves, twisted into plaits and then swung up and down again. The process is fluid and looks amazingly effortless. Spinach noodles, in a vibrant green, are a surprise display of colour in the otherwise grey and white kitchen.
Stretching noodles mid-air
Protective chair covers for jackets
The calligraphy on the walls says "the skills of the chef are equally as important as the quality of the ingredients". Customers are looked after too. I place my jacket on the back of my chair and within minutes, a chair cover has been placed over the top, presumably to protect customers' clothing from accidental spills.
Fluffy Chinese roti served with pork floss $5.90
Shou Zhua Bing
We start with fluffy Chinese roti served with pork floss, a dish we'd only thought to order when we spotted it at the table next to us. Its arrival in a wicker basket adds much to its presentation, the flaky pastry disc scrunched up and garnished with a generous handful of salty pork floss.
Although we don't spot anyone making this in the kitchen, the menu says the roti is handmade daily by their pastry chefs. It's deliciously addictive, and impressive in its non-oiliness.
Pork belly roll $8.90
Thin slices of boiled pork belly wrapped around carrot and cucumber constitute the pork belly roll. The pork is soft and tender and the garlic dressing on top packs a wondrous garlicky punch. I love the contrast of the fatty tender pork against the crunch of the vegetables - it's easily my favourite dish of the evening.
Chef's own handmade egg tofu $15.90
A square platter holds our next dish, the Chef's own handmade egg tofu. This is a large dish to share between two, with eight blocks of tofu that look more like deep-fried mah-jong tiles.
We bite through the golden skins to find a satiny-set custard that tastes like a cross between silken tofu and chawan mushi Japanese custard. The insides are quite firm, almost like an agar jelly, the green hue coming from the incorporation of chopped spinach. A fine dice of preserved pickled vegetables on top adds salt and acidity.
Zha Jiang handmade noodles with finely minced pork $11.90
There is one page dedicated to handmade noodles, served dry, with soup or wok-fried. We opt for the zha jiang noodles which come doused with a sweet soy bean sauce that is studded with pork mince and tiny cubes of tofu.
The noodles are slippery, smooth and uniformly thin and yet somehow I'm left longing for the thick uneven strands you find at other handmade noodle houses, the ones with bumps and curves and fat with chewiness. If high class dining is more your style, on the other hand, these will be right up your alley.
Jia Bao Zi lightly pan-fried pork buns $9.90
Pan-fried pork buns are a must in our books. We had forgone the steamed dumplings, and felt the better for it when we notice the dumpling skins used are from a packet, and not handmade.
The buns take the longest to arrive, delivered twenty minutes after the previous dish. These look more like traditional Chinese dessert buns, rounded on top with a thin skin, not the usual chunky buns pinched together at the top.
Bottom of the pan-fried pork bun
The buns have a very soft and fatty filling of pork mince inside although find the bun a little chewy with a slightly tough skin. The bottoms aren't as crispy on the bottom as I'd normally prefer, although again, they're not overly greasy either.
Baked walnut pastry dumpling $5.90
"We have to get the piggy buns, and the walnuts! They look like walnuts!" Billy had said as we perused the dessert menu.
"Oh and the pumpkin. It looks like an actual pumpkin!" His excitement is palpable.
And lo and behold the walnut pastries
do look like walnuts! Two halves of a hard pastry shell hold a filling of crushed walnuts and sugar between them, a crumbly mix of nutty and sweet.
Steamed pumpkin pastry $5.90
The steamed pumpkin pastries are also pretty, presented in a bamboo basket and the lid whipped off with a flourish. A happy shade of orange, the pumpkins are scored down their sides just like the real thing, and the black stalk is not a clove as we'd first presumed, but coloured glutinous rice dough so the entire thing is edible.
Lotus paste inside the pumpkin dumpling
The pumpkin dumplings are filled with a smooth sweet lotus paste, and I relish the starchy glutinous package which is thick and stretchy.
Steamed sesame 'piggy face' bun $5.90
But the overall cuteness prize goes to the steamed sesame 'piggy face' buns - Billy and I are both a picture of smiles as well lean in for a closer look.
Usually patrons receive a boy pig and a girl pig but today we receive two females. Neither of us are complaining as we marvel at the intricate detail of the hair bow and adorable snout. Even the two black sesame seeds for the eyes have been perfectly positioned.
We pull off each part and chew them thoughtfully and funnily enough we both save the snout for last.
Black sesame paste filling
Inside the bun is a black sesame paste, one of my childhood favourites, with a nutty, almost smoky flavour.
The dessert menu is surprisingly comprehensive here, with five hot desserts and eight cold desserts listed. The osmanthus and goji berry jelly is another signature dish.
Still new somewhat hidden from passersby, I expect Chefs Gallery will only get busier as word spreads around. Get there now and beat the queues.
Shop 12, Ground floor
Regent Place, 501 George Street, Sydney
(between KFC and the Lumiere building,
main entrance on Bathurst Street)
Tel: +61 (02) 9267 8877
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