Luke Mangan is a pan-Asian, Australian-born success story, with restaurants in Singapore, Jakarta and Tokyo, glass brasserie at the Hilton in Sydney, grills on board three P&O cruise liners and tightly packed business-class meals on Virgin Australia flights.
Which is why it's surprising that his new headquarters in Danks Street in Waterloo is so unassuming. It's a converted warehouse space with an office and adjoining wine bar, the inauspiciously named mojo. The concrete walls of the cavernous space aren't the flashiest environment to be in — imagine the front space of Fratelli Fresh's HQ (just across the road) with bar stools and tables and you get the picture. It's not the most inviting space initially on a freezing winter afternoon, but then New Yorkers don't have a problem with eating in a warehouse in Tribeca, so man up, Sydney.
The word 'mojo' has been associated most with Austin Powers' sexual libido in popular culture, so anyone expecting the obvious images of throwback shag-adelic carpets and furnishings will be disappointed by the cold and functional interior. Imagine crates and industrial spools for tables and you get the idea. To alert diners that they are in the near presence of a celebrity chef and not just sitting in a large factory space, there are photos on a wall of Mangan with famous folk he has cooked for, such as Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver and, oddly, Ben Affleck.
Mangan has been plugging this recent opening as casual dining, which it is, and not fine dining. But the prices reflect the higher end of the market for what is essentially a tapas bar menu. A lobster and Vietnamese salad bun, and a small one at that, is tasty and more finessed than the pork belly bao at Ms G's, for example, but it's $19.50 for one. That's $19.50 — which is a main course in nearby eateries, famous chef or not.
The rest of the menu is shared tapas. A beef tartare with diced tomatoes and jalapeno ($13) is served with what's described as a crisp corn tortilla but is more texturly similar to a samosa without the filling. Next up is a pork belly taco with pickled cucumber ($14 for two pieces), which is pleasant, and devilled snow crab on thin garlic toast ($5 each), which is the best of the smaller dishes, if unlikely to fill the smallest of stomachs. It's clear that mojo is primarily a wine bar with sophisticated nibbles as opposed to a dining venue, and as one of a few lonely places to drink at night at this end of the city, is no doubt a blessing to the apartment dwellers nearby. The main of this day was a lamb tagine ($28) with a spot-on couscous, while the dessert selection is pretty perfunctory, with vanilla ice cream and lamingtons hardly setting the imagination alight.
There's a fair amount of novelty as yet to be having a drink in a warehouse in Waterloo, and as Danks Street is evolving and losing Cafe Sopra, Mangan may be the mayor of the strip for a while. But the headquarters of his business isn't a barometer of what the rest of his empire offer — it's promoting the brand, as evident in his products and cookbooks on offer, and is a minor addition to his existing venues.