Right next door is Cho Dumpling King, where we fill up on what could be called Taiwanese tapas: small, cold, chile- and scallion-laced salads, built around seaweed or fried tofu or tiny dried fish. Michael, whose attraction to odd animal parts makes Anthony Bourdain’s seem finicky by comparison, convinces me to try a serving of his beloved pig’s ears—pale translucent strips that I mistook for sliced onions. They become my new obsession: we’ll return three times this week for more. For the finale we head up the street to Tai Wong, a decade-old barbecue shop with a windowful of lacquered ducks, geese, and what Michael calls dancing quails, lined up like Rockettes on skewers. I’m entranced by the burgundy-hued, crackly skin on the char siu—the Hong Kong–style pork that is to a Chinese barbecue joint what roast chicken is to a French bistro; if they can’t do that well, they probably can’t do much else. Tai Wong’s char siu is extraordinary, with a brittle exterior—drizzled in duck fat, if you really want to know—giving way to juicy and tender meat.
The Other Kylie
You might know Kylie Kwong from her TV series on the Discovery network. Billy Kwong, her chic storefront space in Surry Hills, is one of Sydney’s most popular restaurants—on a Monday night we wait two hours for a table. ("Billy" is former co-owner Bill Granger, another Sydney superchef.) Dressed up in glossy black lacquerwork, with Chinese screens and antique armoires, Billy Kwong could not be further from Chinatown’s rough-and-tumble milieu, and it draws a stylish crowd, equal parts Asian and gwei lo (Caucasians). Chef Kwong specializes in Chinese comfort food, going all out for maximum richness while favoring organic and sensitively raised ingredients. This is perhaps the only Chinese restaurant on earth that makes a point of serving biodynamic eggs, which are twice-fried in wok oil to create flaky tendrils of white and velvety-soft yolks. Scattered with chiles and scallions, seasoned with powerful XO sauce, they’re incredibly satisfying. So too is Kwong’s smoky, crisp-skinned duck, flavored with cinnamon sticks and mandarin-orange slices; and her take on the classic Cantonese sung choi bao: tender morsels of Bangalow pork fried with strong ginger and earthy wild mushrooms, folded into crunchy leaves of lettuce. "Wish I had a hangover," Michael says, sipping a spicy Tasmanian Pinot Noir. "This meal would be the perfect cure."
You Say Dim Sum, They Say Yum Cha
In Australia, Sunday-morning outings for dim sum—here called by its other name, yum cha—are as routine as eggs Benedict brunches in America. It’s usually eaten at aircraft hangar–size palaces such as Marigold Citymark, in Chinatown, which accommodates about 800 diners on multiple floors (inside tip: the fifth floor has better service and a broader selection). Waiters in tuxedos pour jasmine tea with great flourish while dour-faced ladies circulate with steam trolleys, trailing wisps of fragrant vapor. Many in the crowd are Australian-born Chinese (ABC’s) celebrating weddings or anniversaries. CONGRATULATIONS GLADYS & PHILIP CHEN! says a banner over the next table.
We’ve come with Michael’s parents, spirited octogenarians with voracious appetites; they polish off the fung giau (chicken feet) with a few deft strokes of their chopsticks. My attention is fixed on the caramelized grilled squid brushed with chile sauce, and on the lo mai gai, moist parcels of sticky rice, eggs, chicken, and pork wrapped in lotus leaves. This is nothing like what we’re used to back home. "Dim sum in Sydney is generally more savory than sweet, and instead of a cluster bomb of tastes, each ingredient comes through," Michael explains. He’s right: I can parse out the garlic chives, bamboo shoots, and even pork fat in the delectable seafood dumplings.
Marigold is hard to top for quality of food, but the spin of lazy Susans and the crush by the door can be overwhelming. So the following Sunday we get our yum cha fix at Manly Phoenix, in the coastal suburb of Manly. The restaurant sits right beside the ferry pier, and the light-flooded room is a welcome departure from the windowless fortresses of Chinatown. Sunlight?In a dim sum place?But yes: it reflects off the water outside, the glossy blond-wood paneling, and the shiny glaze of the pork buns. Here, we’re smitten by juicy fried pork ribs, translucent shu mai dumplings, and cheong fan (steamed rice-noodle rolls filled with prawns and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds). But the real shock at Manly Phoenix is the excellent cappuccino. Try finding that in your local dim sum joint.