Australians love Chinese food. And I mean all kinds. This includes the classic two choices with rice at any shopping centre food court, the white tablecloth and jasmine tea restaurant and the corner takeaway noodle shop. Chinese food is arguably as Australian as the meat pie.
Waitan, situated in Chinatown, is part of a new breed of Chinese restaurants hitting the streets of Sydney. Instead of the cheap and cheerful model, Waitan oozes extravagance and wealth. Perhaps to cater to the high rollers after a session at The Star, Waitan carries a rumoured $10 million fit-out and a huge weight on its expensive shoulders.
With such a flashy background, you would think Waitan would be more noticeable from the street. The main dining room is tastefully modern with hints of traditional decorations. There seems to be an army of staff working the floor and the kitchen. Some of the staff are dressed in suits, which is slightly off-putting but perhaps it's more suited for the aforementioned target market.
To the food. The waiter makes some suggestions and first up is the Asian tapas plate ($24). I can’t get past the name of the dish. Why confuse something Chinese with a Spanish term? Anyway, the eight pieces of 'tapas' (essentially small bites such as dumplings and spring rolls) are presented elegantly on a wooden board. It’s all very interesting and, dare I say, 'fusion'.
The prawn spring rolls are not the usual thick cylinder shape, but thinner and longer. The Waitan har gau is wrapped in black dough, which the waiter says is squid ink. The best offering in the tapas plate is the smoked pork shumai, which is delightfully smoky. However, Mr Wong in the CBD is certainly the benchmark with its dim sum platter.
Plenty of noise has been made (mainly from the restaurant’s owners themselves) about the quality of its Peking duck (half $47, full $88), but it wasn’t anything special. The duck skins dipped in sugar were a nice change, but the buns served in the second course were dry and bland. Although the Peking duck was cooked well, it wasn’t the quality expected for a signature dish.
The five-spiced tofu with bamboo shoots and water chestnut salad ($16) is equally as disappointing. The tofu is bland and overcooked, and while the dish is supposed to be fresh and light, it didn’t do much else in the way of taste.
The wood-fired chicken with five-spice salt ($27 half bird, $45 full bird) is much better. It has a gloriously smoky flavour and the chicken oozes its own juice with every bite. Dipping the chicken into the salt adds another dimension to the dish.
The best dish of the night was arguably the most simple. Spicy and sour cauliflower ($15) has a thumbs up icon on the menu and it gets the thumbs up from me. It’s stir-fried and hit with a splash of sour and spicy tones. It’s no surprise the tastiest dish of the night was a fairly traditional offering.
Waitan is an example of a restaurant trying to reinvent classic dishes, but it misses the mark on a few occasions. It’s hard to get your head around the extravagant decor of the restaurant, but the food is definitely interesting. With that being said, it is a welcome change from the stagnant and repetitive offerings of Chinatown. It's encouraging to see someone thinking outside the box.