Lotus ventures east to Double Bay
It has been the year of the unexpected. Who knew that we would be able to order takeaway food from a three-hatted restaurant (Sixpenny)?
That a restaurant would open in Coogee calling for $35 caviar bumps and $180 salt-baked mud crab (Mimi’s)? That Neil Perry would turn left from his legendary Rockpool group to cook for a not-for-profit social enterprise (Hope Delivery)?
Now, Hamish Ingham of Barangaroo’s vermouth-inspired Banksii has been appointed general manager of the eight-strong Lotus Dining group, without the raising of an eyebrow.
Ingham has often taken the road less travelled, from head chef at Billy Kwong to his pocket-sized, pioneering Bar H.
He’s been busy working with chef Chris Cheng, opening a new “Chinese tapas” diner called Chi By Lotus in Barangaroo, as well as Lotus Double Bay with Lotus Dining head chef, Chris Yan, within weeks of each other.
Double Bay is an interesting choice as it emerges from a sleepy decade, woken by the kiss of Woolworths on one side of New South Road, and the $200 million Cross Street redevelopment on the other.
Slipped in beside Sake in the retail space of the Hotel InterContinental, the restaurant looks like a steakhouse with added chinoiserie.
Now not being the time to throw everything out and do a $2 million fitout, clever designer Melissa Collison has gently inserted cane, lanterns and deep reds into the dark wooden colonial decor of what was Mr G’s.
Yan, who grew up in a small village outside Shanghai, says he wants to give Double Bay an authentic Shanghainese dining experience, so the menu carries regional classics such as pig’s ear salad, jasmine tea-smoked duck and kung pao chicken.
It being Lotus, there are dumplings – pretty ones – along with cameos from indigenous ingredients (possibly an Ingham intervention).
The duck, for instance, comes with a Davidson plum sauce reminiscent of Billy Kwong, and jasmine tea and ginger cheesecake is topped with finger lime.
It’s been a long time between dumplings, so I order as many as I can fit. Xiao long bao pork soup dumplings ($12) are thin-skinned and well-made, and bright spinach-green dumplings ($14) have a lovely mossy mix of spinach and warrigal greens.
Pork and garlic chives dumplings are a bit dull and jade dumplings need better prawns, but the newly created siu mai ($12) are great, their chicken filling invigorated by earthy kimchi.
Double Bay locals are busy checking out the place, and everyone knows everyone else in the room.
Elegant glassware is reserved for the light spice and stone-fruit qualities of my 2018 Adelé Pinot Grigio ($15/$75) from Heathcote’s Galli Estate, but beer comes in glass tankards that make you feel you’re drinking from a jug.
The welcoming restaurant manager, Kim Hyunchul, virtually slathers me with several different sauces in case I fade away from lack of chilli, including a very top-shelf XO.
Overall, it’s the Shanghainese and Sichuan influences that give the menu its point of difference. Fingers of sliced, marinated chicken ($18) are served with the integrity of both skin and bone intact, the juices lightly “drunken” with mei kwei lu rose wine.
Wrinkly, wok-fried green beans tossed with minced pork and Chinese olives ($22) are moreish as hell, and a thick fried cutlet of Spanish mackerel lurks in a deeply flavoured pool of soy, chilli, garlic and fermented sticky rice ($38).
But the real test for a Shanghainese restaurant is red-braised pork belly ($35), slowly cooked in shao hsing cooking wine, yellow rock sugar and red and light soy until tender. Known as dong po pork, it can be a magical dish, the pork fat as soft and quivering as jelly. This isn’t that, but it’s perfectly pleasant.
Lotus Double Bay should do well, because it has been designed for Double Bay’s demographics, it isn’t pitched too high, and it’s a comfortable and accommodating place to dine. No surprises there, which at this stage of the year is something of a relief.