Why does sitting near water make a meal feel so good? The clip-clop of heels on a wooden pier, the sight of boats in the distance and an abundance of natural light and space could easily trick you into thinking you were still on holiday.
Last night we headed to China Doll to bid bon voyage to Lex, chef and food blogger, who will be heading off to Canada shortly on a working holiday.
It was fascinating to dine with a chef at the restaurant he was working in only a week before. We got the lowdown on how each dish was made and constructed, and management and floor staff pulled out all the stops to make his farewell a memorable one, sending us extra dishes and drinks on the house.
China Doll is the third restaurant along the glamorous Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo, headed by Chef Frank Shek, born in Scotland to Hong Kong parents. According to the restaurant website, China Doll promises modern Asian dishes that "is not fusion" but "true to its roots", combined to "suit the Western palate".
Sparkling glassware, soft lighting and helpful accommodating staff remind you this is not your average Chinese restaurant. The back wall of the dining room is covered with an enlarged scene from a blue and white China plate. In the bathrooms, the cubicles are covered wall to wall with a striking repetitive cherry blossom print that will make you feel like you've been swamped in the folds of a Japanese kimono.
An open kitchen runs down one side of the room, the bar area down the other. The kitchen offers a reassuring glimpse at the wok station, busy but relatively quiet, without the usual clashing soundtrack of metal striking iron.
Younglings non-alcoholic cocktail $8
Young coconut juice and raspberries shaken with lime juice and coconut flesh
Sashimi of hiramasa kingfish and ocean trout with blackened chilli dressing $26
Sashimi of hiramasa kingfish and ocean trout is first to arrive. I'd been worried that the fish would be overwhelmed by the blackened chilli dressing, but it's light and zingy. A bed of granny smith apple batons provide refreshment and textural contrast too.
Crispy school prawns with lime mayonnaise
We crunch down school prawns dipped in lime mayonnaise, deep-fried to a crisp so you can eat them whole: head, shells and all.
Kurobuta pork and peanut san choy bau $18
Kurobuta pork and peanut san choy bau is tender, but a little too sweet and saucy for my liking, and missing the crunch I relish in the usual pork mince version, obtained from water chestnut slivers and deep-fried vermicelli noodles.
We move onto the white cut chicken salad, reminiscent of Vietnamese chicken salad with the inclusion of mint, but given a heavier twist with a peanut and sesame sauce.
Prawn and mushroom steamed dumpling with tobiko and red vinegar $20
Prawn and mushroom steamed dumplings may seem expensive at first sight, but their swollen pouches are packed tightly with chunky prawns, and topped with a generous spoonful of tobiko. Lex explains that the pastry dough is made with tumeric.
It's hard to keep food bloggers quiet, but the Alaskan king crab reduces us to a hush of concentrated nibbling. I say nibble because the best part to this dish is stuck to the shell, a wok-fried dusting of tapioca flour, black pepper, sesame, bonito, chilli and lime that is salty, sticky, spicy and sweet.
The kitchen has thoughtfully cut into each leg down the middle so the crab flesh is easy to extract, the meaty reward after extricating every bit of batter from the crustacean lollipop.
What are the most popular dishes at China Doll, I ask Lex. He says the crispy pork belly and the tea-smoked duck are the biggest sellers by far. It's no surprise that these both figure in my favourites of the night.
I love the pork skin the most, caramelised to a tacky chewiness, although I find the accompaniment of nam pla phrik (Thai chillies in fish sauce) hard to taste when the pork is already so sweet and rich.
Tea smoked duck with tamarind and plum $38
The tea smoked duck, Lex explains, is smoked in a wok with tea leaves, steamed, then cut in half and deep-fried to order. The duck is amazing, heavy with smoke, the tender flesh protected by a parchment of skin that shatters in the mouth. As a lover of sauce on rice, I find the tamarind and plum sauce beneath the duck overly thick and sweet, and probably too generous on the plate given its strength.
Whole spiced crusted baby barramundi with Thai flavours $42
What dish takes the longest? I ask Lex, and he says the grilled seafood is always the slowest to get to the table, as it can't be rushed.
Tonight the fish is baby barramundi, the skin deliciously blackened and charred on the grill.
Banana pudding with chocolate ice cream and feuilletine
We finish with several desserts to share. Black glutinous rice with coconut milk is heady with spices, cooked with lemongrass, star anise and cloves, Lex explains. I find the delicacy of sago pearls with coconut milk and passionfruit is interrupted by the crunch of passionfruit seeds, and we all dip our spoons into the trio of gelati: strawberry, apricot and white chocolate.
Banana pudding is warm, soft and comforting, slices of caramelised banana arranged on top to resemble a flower. A quenelle of chocolate ice cream is perfectly formed but we all find ourselves fighting over the feuilletine, delicate flakes of oven-baked crepe.
Condensed milk tart with white sesame ice cream and salted peanut brittle
Condensed milk tart is happiness on a plate, a crisp tart shell filled with a mixture of creme anglaise and condensed milk and garnished with pashmak. The white sesame ice cream has an intriguing clean nuttiness, and we relish the smithereens of salted peanut brittle.
Happy travels Lex, and thanks for a fantastic night!
View Larger Map
19 comments - Add some comment love
1/06/2011 03:12:00 a.m.