You know those Chinese diners in coastal towns – unchanged for decades, brash gold furnishings and laminated menus... Well Sydney hospitality juggernaut Merivale has flipped this tacky trope into a dining destination with the opening of a high-end Cantonese restaurant that isn’t so much waterfront as it is launched out over the water on Manly Wharf.
You’ll find dumpling steamers and glossy ducks where Papi Chulo’s smoked meats once hung. Head chef Patrick Friesen and rising talent Sam Young have transplanted the dining concept that worked so well at the Queen’s Hotel in Enmore, and replicated it in sunny Manly, replete with A3 laminated menus that boast sweet and sour pork, and salt and pepper squid. But to elevate it from suburban Chinese you’ll also find tanks of live lobsters, cleverly reduxed retro dishes and excellent dumplings.
Start with the plump xiao long bao – the exterior is more sturdy and practical than dainty and delicate, but neatly folded to capture a nub of ginger flecked pork and plenty of soup. Sui mai have the requisite bounce-back-on-bite that’s straight from the dim sum handbook; and the finely diced contents of the wild mushroom dumplings offer an vegetal freshness that contrasts nicely with the pork numbers. Each basket of dumplings cost $12 and are a little larger than your average yum cha size, and while they come in fours on the menu, they’ll add extras depending on the size of your party, so no one has to go full Battle Royale for the last one.
If you’re not on a lobster budget consider Moreton Bay bugs as a way to fulfil your tasty crustacean quota. $42 gets your five half bugs slicked in a Singaporean-style, peppery gravy spiked with soy, garlic and ginger. We just wish it was served with some mantou fried buns to lap up the remainder.
For more proasic eats, simple wok tossed pork with a numbing hum of Sichuan pepper and al dente eggy noodles are a gentle primer for the three-meat plate. This carnivorous platter is the antidote for anyone missing the smoky meats of Papi Chulo’s days: blistered duck skin clings to buttery rendered fat and soft, gamey meat. The chicken is fried crisp but the meat needs a little dunk in the gingery garlic shallot relish to really shine. Just because you didn’t fight over the dumplings, don’t expect the same equanimity when it comes to the slices of the tender char sui – chew fast to get your share. The wine list favours buttery chardonnays and crisp rieslings, with a page devoted to each, but there are naturally leaning drops too, like the Brash Higgins zibibbo.
The simplest dish of all is the one that’ll take you right back to those retro Canto diners – the fried rice. Reminiscent of a quick Sunday night meal, the well seasoned fluffy grains are paired with sweet corn kernels, scrambled egg, slices of bacon-like pork char sui and shallots. It’s uncomplicated, nostalgic and filling. Same goes for the fried ice cream – a crunchy orb wears chewy shreds of coconut, with the crisp shell encasing vanilla ice cream. Caramel-flecked butterscotch sauce completes this milk bar meets yum cha treat.
The room is opulent but inviting, the servings are shareable and generous, the service is slick and the tables are big and round. It takes all the good parts from the Chinese diners of your youth and adds some Merivale magic (and decorating budget). This is the sort of place you want to go with a big group for long lunch, to make the most of some awesome seaside Australian Chinese, because there’s nothing tacky about being fun and delicious.