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Thursday, January 06, 2011

China Doll, Woolloomooloo, Sydney

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".

Inside China Doll

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.

White cut chicken salad with watercress, cucumber and sesame dressing $18

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.

Alaskan king crab $60

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.

Crisp pork belly with chilli caramel and nam pla phrik $33

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
China Doll on Urbanspoon

Shop 4, 6 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9380 6744

Opening hours:
Lunch 7 days 12pm-3pm
Dinner 7 days 6pm-10.30pm

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Woolloomooloo - Aki's Indian Restaurant
Woolloomooloo - Harry's Cafe de Wheels
19 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 1/06/2011 03:12:00 am


  • At 1/06/2011 4:08 am, Blogger Sydney Shop Girl said…

    Looks gorgeous!

    I've always wanted to go so thank you for your wonderful review.

    Happy New Year!

    SSG xxx

    Sydney Shop Girl blog

  • At 1/06/2011 6:16 am, Blogger Maria said…

    I'll have to add this place to my list of restaurants to visit, I'm loving the sound and look of that dessert!

  • At 1/06/2011 7:33 am, Blogger joey@forkingaroundsydney said…

    I've always wanted to eat at China Doll, but have never got around to it. I think the pork belly and duck dishes may change my mind.

  • At 1/06/2011 8:13 am, Blogger foodieandthechef said…

    This restaurant looks incredible - I love how delicate all the elements are. My blogging counterpart is visiting Sydney in March so I think this will be the place for us to go !

  • At 1/06/2011 9:03 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    hey your pic of the banana pudding is schexy! schexxxxxy

  • At 1/06/2011 9:27 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    I agree there is something quite special about eating by water - and that tea smoked duck sounds absolutely divine!

  • At 1/06/2011 10:30 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    I absolutely love China Doll! I've been a regular there for quite a while. Great write up Helen...all their dishes are fantastic!

  • At 1/06/2011 11:33 am, Blogger Stephcookie said…

    Definitely agree, the duck and the pork belly were my favourites of the night. Though the sashimi was delish, could have eaten a lot more of that!

  • At 1/06/2011 11:44 am, Anonymous sara @ Belly Rumbles said…

    I really do need to get to China Doll, should done so when Lex was still working there! Food looks wonderful and is a great setting.

  • At 1/06/2011 12:18 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    I just want to skip straight from the sashimi to the desserts and eat them forever and ever amen.

  • At 1/06/2011 1:05 pm, Blogger Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said…

    Oh that crab! And the condensed milk tart - so simple yet so tasty...

  • At 1/06/2011 1:25 pm, Anonymous Steph the Chef said…

    That sashimi dish looks absolutely delicious! The warmth from the chilli would be a nice change from the usual wasabi heat, yummmo!

  • At 1/06/2011 2:10 pm, Blogger Karen | Citrus and Candy said…

    I LOVED the sashimi, I could've eaten my whole weight's worth! And surprisingly, I loved the sang choy bau filling. I found myself eating the remainder out of the bowl hehe. It was an awesome meal to farewell an awesome dude.

  • At 1/06/2011 5:53 pm, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Can just imagine the aroma of the tea smoked duck just looking at it. And everything looks and sounds amazing, will have to stick this on the places to (eventually) try one day hehe =)

  • At 1/06/2011 10:52 pm, Blogger Jen said…

    Everything looks divine! I have to get here ASAP, I've wanted to go for a while and it's such a nice spot in summer.

  • At 1/06/2011 11:34 pm, Blogger thang @ noodlies said…

    Last time I was here, I remembered the food was really, really top class, but the memory has faded because we had way, way too much to drink!

  • At 1/10/2011 9:44 am, Blogger susan said…

    Wow all that food looks gorgeous. I don't know if I could pay $20 for four dumplings though...

  • At 1/18/2011 10:24 pm, Blogger Gianna@TheEmptyFridge said…

    Hey Helen - just catching up on all the GYF posts i missed while away!

    Seeing "China Doll" definitely caught my eye - the tea smoked duck has to be one of my favourite dishes ever. It truly great place for a meal and just an awesome view. I always like looking at the city skyline from that side. Demosand I go there every year for our anniversary and I cant wait to try the alaskan king crab...mmm

  • At 11/03/2011 11:51 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    My friends have raved about this place for ages! No food images on their webstie but yours are amaaazing!!!!!! I'm going on saturday night. Im hungry just thinking about it!


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