An evening at:
Newly opened at the Chinatown end of World Square (it's easiest to locate by heading to the corner of George and Goulburn Streets, the escalator takes you right to the entrance and makes you feel like royalty!) the highly anticipated China Republic (it was two years in the fit-out) is a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach.
Once you enter the authentic metal studded doors guarded by a 4 metre tall replica of an entombed warrior harking from Xian, you leave Sydney behind. While atmospherically dark, the spot lighting, with an array of fittings ranging from elaborate to sleekly modern, and light projections, create pools of warmth, highlighting specific architectural features.
The restaurant spans two levels. The lower level is a shallow U-shaped dining room wrapped around a drinks bar and two bar-like showcase food preparation areas ...
... surrounded at floor-level by a metre-wide koi pond, keeping the curious from getting too close while adding its own charming element of feng shui. Keeping the dining room narrow with partitioning maintains intimacy and you can easily forget that you are dining with up to 260 other patrons.
The upper level, while providing an overflow general dining area, also houses the restaurant's four private rooms, seating variously from 6-7 and up to 18 patrons in the largest.
Each room has its own subtle variation on the theme, the smaller rooms allowing grander chairs.
The piece de resistance, however, is the Emperor's Room or, as we called it, the "throne"room.
Accessible via its own private entrance, and with plinths for your feet, the starting price is a $10,000 membership, already subscribed and plans are afoot to introduce $20,000 and $30,000 memberships. Imagine walking in, ordering whatever takes your fancy and leaving without being presented with a bill. Yep, in my imagination too, but we can dream!
The fittings, from the stacked roof tiles which make up an entire wall of the restaurant, the open bricks which make up another, the display cabinetry, the teapots which form part of a display wall (at least 140 of them - but who's counting? - hand-made and unique), the multiple scale bamboo replicas of the Imperial Palace which take pride of place in each private and the main dining rooms, were all imported from China. As a result, the authenticity of the restaurant is a given.
(Even the unisex toilets, each an ensuite complete with basin and hand towels, are worthy of a visit!)
This dedication to authenticity flows through to the selction of Executive Chef and co-owner Mayson Yu and his team. Harking from Beijing and with an impressive folio of previous engagements behind him, his vision for China Republic is to take traditional Chinese flavours and present them in a modern way.
Decadence aside, although the dishes aren't as massive as your normal cheap and cheerful, with the arguable exception of the Peking Duck, the prices certainly aren't exorbitant for the setting and the presentation.
Whilst not billed as the signature dish, (indeed, it doesn't even make the Top Ten menu, and Executive Chef Yu declaring that, having personally developed each of the dishes, they were all his signature dishes), the Peking Duck bar has certainly been raised a notch and if you really want to know how it's done, click on the following link: How do you make Peking duck? (courtesy of Fairfax Media). This 3 1/2 minute clip, featuring Chef Linyi Yuan of China Republic, takes you through the process and helps you to appreciate the Duck just that little bit more.
Dining as guests of World Square's PR company, The PR Partnership, our menu was chosen for us and showcased key dishes, but the main menu and the Top Ten menu teased us with many more, providing an incentive to return another day. And so we ate:
White Cut Chicken with Spicy Lemon Sauce - smooth-as-silk chicken served cold as an appetiser with a lemony wasabi-infused emulsion. Whilst the flavour was lovely, I would like to have had less sauce overall, some for presentation but the rest served on the side. This would allow those who want less of the condiment to take as little as they wanted.
Sauteed Eggplant served with a bean sauce - never have I been served eggplant so delicately prepared and presented. The flesh was smooth and melt-in-the-mouth yet held its shape.
Chicken Broth with Seasonal Mushrooms - a wave of umami with every spoonful, my dining partner declared it the dish of the night. My only reservation had to do with the fact that I had so much of the wasabi seasoning in my bowl from the previous dish, that I didn't really have a clean taste of the soup. That said, I can say it was very rich and satisfying, main meal worthy!
Spicy and Sour Cucumber - palate cleanser!
Spicy and Sour Cucumber - palate cleanser!
Carving and presenting the Peking Duck - this personalised service is understandably reserved for the private rooms only as, given the number of ducks served each day, service would be greatly delayed if it were offered to the general dining rooms. Mention must also be made that unlike previous Peking Duck meals I have had, no additional courses are offered, the flesh of the duck is served along with the skin.
$2 Condiment dish (per person) to accompany the Peking Duck - it was a curiosity when I read that there was a separate charge for this and you could be forgiven for thinking that it's a little rich when the duck itself is $88.00, but when you experience the flavours together, you just get it. Much thought has gone into the provision of the elements, right down to a beautifully printed brochure given you "eight" ways to enjoy your duck, the eighth being your own combination of flavours!
Traditional pancakes to accompany the Duck and less traditional Pocket Pancakes - Not quite David Chang marshmallow-smooth but an innovative alternative to the flat wrap. I personally preferred the traditional pancake but that may have been because I only tried the pockets towards the end of service and they were a little steam weary.
We were fortunate enough to be served a second, flaming, Peking Duck! More theatrical than flavour enhancing, the flame purportedly delivers a crispier skin.
Sweet and Sour Pork Spareribs - melt-off-the-bones tender and with a sweet but not too syrupy sauce, these bite size ribs were easily the feel good dish of the night.
Kung Pao Crispy Prawns - done the Asian way, with shell intact, fussy eaters might find the mouthful of shell something to contend with but they undoubtedly add to the flavour of the final dish and again made this very moreish. The prawns were crisp and the sauce well seasoned.
Dumplings - whilst not one of my favourite dishes, the flavour of the chive and pork filling was true to the traditional though the pastry itself was a little gluggy. This might have been due to the fact that we were seated around a large table and by the time the dish reached me, it was slightly on the cold side. I would definitely give them another go.
Spicy Seasonal Mushrooms - my puzzlement at being served a second mushroom dish was tempered with the reminder that I was likely at fault! Before the banquet was delivered, we were asked if we had any dietary restrictions. China Republic (as any good restaurant should) takes its responsibilities to potential allergic reactions seriously. As I claimed an egg and peanut allergy and another diner expressed a preference for not eating red meat, it is my belief that at least one and perhaps two dishes were substituted to cater to our dietary leanings. I thought this both unusual (as I'm used to being the odd one out) but also disappointing for the remainder of the group who possibly missed out on some great dishes as a result. I only anticipated being unable to eat part of the meal and I'm comfortable with that. It is one of the unexpected setbacks of shared dining BUT back to the mushrooms! Despite the fact that we had already eaten a mushroom soup, this was a very pleasant albeit spicy variation on a theme.
The attention to detail flows through to the Top Ten menu, which is presented in a beautifully bound and illustrated book, providing a description of each of the dishes and, where suitable, its origins or benefits.
Time for a short recess to admire some of the restaurant's interiors, allowing the staff to clear and reset the table for desert!
Above - Bird cages overhanging the stairwell to the second floor, not unique to Sydney but a beautiful use of the space nontheless. Below - Two of the myriad light projections creating ambience on the internal walls.
Gone are the days when dessert at a Chinese restaurant consisted of tinned lychees and icecream, banana fritters and icecream and fried icecream (thankfully not extinct but somewhat less prevalent!). Executive Head Chef Yu (through a translator, he doesn't speak much English) says that he doesn't believe he has perfected the desserts on offer at China Republic yet. We beg to differ. The dessert selection, for 2 to 8 people, is a cornucopia of flavours and textures while remaining thematic throughout. Sweet without being overtly so, it might disappoint your genuine sweet tooth but, for an authentic taste of the Chinese palate, it is worth sampling at least some if not all and given the very reasonable price of the desserts, it would not be hard to do. More petit fours than full on dessert, they are light enough to enjoy without making you feel like the Michelin man after the meal!
Our selections were served on a wooden ornament stand, each shelf lined with a fresh bamboo leaf. It was hard to know where to start and was like eating an artwork, knowing that once you began, it was gone forever. We were hesitant to destroy the beauty but alas, there was no other way.
Clockwise from top left: Glutinous Rice Ball with (seasonal) Mashed Fruit - (ours was banana mashed with banana liqueur and sprinkled with sesame seeds); Black Sesame Jelly; Steamed Rice Cakes with Sweet Stuffing - Mochi style with red bean filling; Glutinous Rice Cake served with rose jam; Kidney Bean Cake - taking beans to another level as the beans are served both "dry" as the base and "wet"in the form of icing then filled with rose jam; Glutinous Rice Roll with Waffle Cookie - crisp inside and out and dusted with a fine sprinkling of sugar, I'm not sure how Chef came up with this one, but it is aesthetically pleasing and tasty to boot; Sweet congee, just enough rice texture to avoid being gruel-like, perfectly white and nothing like your granny's rice pudding!
And the winner is ... the Glutinous Rice Ball Wrapped Around Seasonal Fruit - delicately glossy with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, I could have eaten an entire plate of these and suspect I will on my next visit!
For an evening (or even a lunchtime) of food and culture, you cannot go past China Republic. The staff are well-versed and happy to enlighten you about the traditions and significance of your surroundings and you can't help but feel as though you have walked into a major tourist attraction in China and been invited to dine with the Emperor himself.
I look forward to returning to sample more of the menu and perhaps even to try the forthcoming Bar Menu. I'm sure Executive Head Chef Yu has plenty more to offer, after all, asked whether he had been influenced by anyone, he laughingly said, "5,000 years of Chinese tradition!"