If I asked you how many fine dining Chinese restaurants you know of in Sydney you may be able to come up with the obvious answer – Spice Temple (which much to my chagrin is still a place to which I’ve yet to go). Any others? Zilver? The Eight? Lynn’s Shanghai? Perhaps, but they’re more ‘premium’ Chinese restaurants rather than fine dining. Not that they’re inferior – just different.
For something that resembles fine dining like one is so used to with French/Italian/Contemporary cuisine one need to look no further than China Doll. Situated on the charming Wolloomooloo finger wharf, it’s sure to delight.
Name: China Doll
Date Visited: 06/09/2012
Address: 6 Cowper Wharf Roadway, Woolloomooloo
Good for: Alfresco dining, Chinese fine dining (they’re rare!)
Not good for: expecting a massive departure from well known Chinese establishments in the city
Go-to dish: Penang Curry of Slow Braised Wagyu Beef Shin
I should mention though – China Doll isn’t 100% Chinese. Like almost any great restaurant of our times, elements of cuisines from other cultures make their way in here as well. It doesn’t go so far as fusion, rather just dishes that have had non-Chinese origins have made their way here.
I wish I had some shots of the restaurant itself but I had not taken any (back during the n00b era of food blogging photography). You can check the website for that 🙂
China Doll does not offer a degustation menu but does offer a banquet menu. Unfortunately the banquet menu is only available to groups of 4 (sigh) so we had to go for a chef’s recommendation of a ‘makeshift/faux banquet’ which had to skimp out on some higher-quality stuff like the king crab. But, considering what we did get presented with – I’m hardly going to complain. Let’s begin.
Sigh. Okay so I flopped with the photo on this one – the ginger is in focus while the kingfish got relegated to the background. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “my bad”. Well, that’s some damn fine looking pickled ginger 😉
True Hiramasa Kingfish (otherwise known as yellowtail amberjack) is actually pretty rare these days as it’s being overfished (atm, it is not being fished sustainably). I’m still glad it’s on the market as its taste is king of kingfish, but I wonder if our children/grandchildren can enjoy the same?
For a bit of a Japanese-influenced dish…
Well, in any case, as expected, the sashimi was very well prepared. The kingfish is as oily as it should be (just around under the oiliness of chu-toro) and has a firmer texture than tuna as expected. The chilli dressing (the Chinese influence!) imparts that level of spiciness that’s usually not associated with sashimi (wasabi is a different beast folks!) but still delivers the requisite punch of soy.
It’s a great beginning – I did not even want to eat the ginger because I didn’t actually want to get the taste off of my palate!
Our next dish arrives and it is indeed true to traditional Chinese form. Nobody, and I repeat nobody worth their Chinese salt has not had spring rolls before. The downside to this of course is that it’s so mainstream it’s hard to appreciated it being served to you with just one piece you thinking of it as a fine dining component.
Still, wherever your thoughts are on this rather divisive topic, it doesn’t detract from the taste of the spring rolls. The aroma of Shiitake (Chinese: 香菇) wafts out when you take your first bite and doesn’t leave you as you make your way through the innards – pork mince? Check. Be sure to have it with the vinegar dip – there’s a reason why it’s there.
There are better spring rolls out there for sure (East Ocean, Golden Century, Marigold Restaurant have better tasting insides) but this offering stands its ground with them all and will not disappoint.
Crucially – it lacks that slick, oil soaked texture you get with many poorly made spring rolls which attempt to hide poor quality construction/ingredient choice by excessive deep frying. Yet the skin is still as crispy and golden as ever. Thank goodness.
One comfort food that I could eat forever and forever (and indeed I kind of do this already at Yum Cha) is steamed dumplings. There’s just something amazing about these bite-sized pieces of steamed awesome that just gets me going non-stop. Seriously, if I had my way, I could eat 40+ of these things in one sitting.
No I don’t do that anymore. I’d like to keep my belly at a size where I’d still want to see my feet.
Prawn dumplings are my favourite type of steamed dumpling. It’s probably got something to do with the fact that I’ve been eating them since I was a kid (childhood flavours, that kind of thing) so imagine my level of keen when this came onto our table. Sure, arguably a ‘low-class’ dish but whatever, people read way too much into that anyway.
When it comes to taste – it surely does not disappoint. The skin is soft and chewy, and the filling dipped in the red vinegar (upper left corner if you can see it OOF) brings out that sweet ‘n’ tangy aroma which is just…
20 more, please.
Where would a banquet/deg be without some kind of seafood component such as scallops.
Actually, these were not too impressive – China Doll went super conservative on the dressing and cooking style, preferring to steam them (this part I like) but only garnishing it with common herbs and a tangy vinaigrette-like condiment (not the good part). It didn’t really fit the scallops too well, and you’re kind of tasting sour mush. I’m making it sound quite bad but that’s the only surefire way I can describe it.
Oh well, we were only served one each, and it simply made us eager for what was coming next.
This looks extremely familiar! If you’ve been to any of those classy Chinese restaurants in the city you’ve probably had it! The idea is simple – put what’s on the right into the left, wrap it like like a taco/burrito and off you go! That is San Choy Bau.
The chicken is sautéed with cut up green snake beans in what I believe is some type of XO sauce – pretty much the go-to sauce for these kinds of Asian stir-fry sauces (an argument could be made for oyster sauce/kecap manis though). The result is a delicious, albeit unsurprising flavour. It’s good, but it’s just as good as you could get at your local Chinese establishment.
I actually prefer not eating the lettuce with it – I’d rather eat it separately. It’s a tough one getting your head around cold raw lettuce with a hot filling.
What a classic – salt & pepper prawns Sichuan style. I could immediately tell they dumbed down the “Sichuan” part of it as it was barely spicy to my super-spice-loving palate. It was probably done with good reason though – more Westerners frequent this place than Asians and they’re generally not as good at taking chilli…
Nevertheless, this does allow the other aspects of the seasoning to show itself off which is a very nice salty crumble for the batter. The flesh ain’t too bad either – firm but not tough, with a consistent chew-through consistency. If that even made any sense. Sure does get dry after just a few though. Drink up that water!
The veggies were actually very delicious – I wasn’t sure what the sauce was but it definitely had cornstarch in it. That divides some people, not me. I love my veggies but I’m not a fan when restaurants simply just make one dish of one type of vegetable. This dish violates that rule of mine – I could not help but clean the bown!
We finally move on to the main (it took awhile didn’t it!). But boy, what a main it is. Showcasing Thai at its best we have the pièce de résistance – the penang curry. A milder curry than most, this one won’t burn you for its flavour, but rather it astounds you with its depth of flavour. Oh man I have not actually had a better curry since. Um sure…I haven’t actually had many curries since but that’s besides the point. Where to start…
The beef – so soft and tender, yet not mushy at all. It’s almost got the consistency of pulled beef. It’s bloody fantastic. They must have slow-cooked this because I don’t see a way they could have done it otherwise. The texture is just fantastic!
As for that taste…sweet, salty, tangy, creamy. It is all and it is none. The depth of flavour here is remarkable. You could taste the garlic, you could taste the fish sauce, you could taste the shrimp paste. The spices – cumin, coriander. It comes together in a curry that pleases every aspect of your tasting senses. The only bad thing I could say is that it’s leaning on the sweet side a bit, so be warned of that – you won’t like it as much if that’s a turn-off.
But for me, this curry is a godsend. I usually don’t eat rice due to the carbs (unless it’s in sushi) but for this – I was very, very tempted to order more rice just so I could mix the curry in. Yeah, damn.
And we have arrived at the dessert. It is an assiette of desserts, as seen in the cover photo for this post. First up we have the pudding. Sago is a very predictable element – it has the squishy taste and texture that is reminiscent of milk tea pearls. It’s quite yummy, as long as you combine it with its natural partner – condensed milk (or any variety of such or emulation). As you’d expect, China Doll has it right.
What it then adds to this pudding (let’s face it you can get this pudding as is even in convenience stores) is the passionfruit coulis. It definitely adds a sour/tangy counterpart to the dessert which you can pick away at whenever the general sweetness of the pudding becomes too much (though honestly, it never really does). It’s a nice touch, though you gotta like passionfruit, of course.
I absolutely love sorbet, and almost all places that sell it pretty much do it right. You can’t really mess sorbet up. Thus, I was summarily impressed by the trifecta of sorbet that was presented to us on our second dessert bowl.
The mango one is easily the best. This is mainly due to a personal bias of mine – I <3 mangoes (one of my favourite fruits I gotta say) and put that into a sorbet and you will control me forever. Cool and refreshing. Like real mangoes are.
The raspberry one as usual is just that wee bit too sour for me (think of the sugar hit at the Sebel Pier One restaurant) but that’s again due to the slight bias I have /against/ raspberry. Still, ’twas quite lovely and I definitely appreciated it in a palate-cleanser kind of way.
Lychee sorbet never, ever goes wrong. I like lychee sorbet more than the fruit itself and it is a great third choice. The lychee flavour comes through easily through the ice and makes no misdirections in hitting you right in the face with it.
This would be so nice to have on a hot summer’s day…
Going back to a dessert of Asian origins and something that I’ve rarely had – black rice! You’re liable to draw comparisons with the sticky mango rice at Home Thai, but this is quite different. Black rice has a more nutty taste and a coarser texture which will taste quite different in your mouth. Whether this is to your preference is up to you though – I like both. The crisped corn and coconut milk add a crunchy and a sweet, creamy texture/taste respectively, while the poached pear is kind of left there wondering what its part in the dessert is.
It’s something that feels familiar yet different at the same time. Boy, have I had a lot of rice tonight :O
China Doll – for when you want your Chinese to be just a little bit fancy (and not strictly Chinese either, LOL).
Oh and I guess I’ll mention this: cost. Between me and my friend, we paid $77 per person. Not expensive by fine dining standards, but not cheap by your normal Asian restaurant standard either. Worth it? I think so. For you? That’s for your wallet and taste buds to decide 🙂
The Good: top-notch Chinese, alfresco adds to it if you care for it
The Bad: some of the dishes could essentially be had at any Chinese joint, for much cheaper (this is one area where value comparisons between fine dining and normal dining is viable – as the dishes served are essentially the same)
I give China Doll a grand total of eight Caesars out of ten – 8/10