PURE CHI­NESE CHIC

Matthew Denholm rev­els in the rare treats of Can­tonese cui­sine in Tas­ma­nia’s cap­i­tal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

IN an age of fu­sion food, it is re­fresh­ing to find a restau­rant where such a con­cept seems un­heard of. Ho­bart’s Me Wah Restau­rant is just such a place. Here the ded­i­ca­tion to fresh, tra­di­tional and fault­less Can­tonese cook­ing is unadul­ter­ated by fad or fash­ion.

The restau­rant’s pala­tial en­trance and lav­ish tra­di­tional art­work set the tone, while the menu, over­seen by ex­ec­u­tive chef Gor­don Tso, scarcely waivers from this pure path.

The Tso fam­ily has op­er­ated Me Wah Restau­rant in Launce­s­ton since 1998, where it has picked up Restau­rant and Cater­ing As­so­ci­a­tion and other awards each year of its op­er­a­tion. So when word leaked out that Me Wah was open­ing in Ho­bart, there was a great sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion.

The south­ern city is not short of fine restau­rants, par­tic­u­larly those of­fer­ing mod­ern or Euro­pean-in­flu­enced Aus­tralian cui­sine. But it has few top-notch Asian restau­rants, Thai, Viet­namese or Can­tonese. Vanidol’s, an ex­cel­lent and noisy melt­ing pot of Asian cuisines in North Ho­bart, is a noble and long­stand­ing ex­cep­tion.

Ho­bart din­ers have not been dis­ap­pointed with Me Wah. It was named Tas­ma­nia’s best over­all restau­rant for 2007 at the Aus­tralian Ho­tels As­so­ci­a­tion and Restau­rant and Cater­ing As­so­ci­a­tion awards last Novem­ber.

Me Wah Ho­bart has less the ap­pear­ance of a fam­ily es­tab­lish­ment than its north­ern sis­ter, its well-de­signed in­te­rior be­ing rather cool and clin­i­cal. The ser­vice in both is sim­i­lar: at­ten­tive, close to fault­less, but also rather clin­i­cal.

The com­bi­na­tion of Me Wah’s stately spa­ces — the work of Ho­bart ar­chi­tect Pa­trick Ye­ung — and the def­er­en­tial ser­vice make eat­ing here seem a mil­lion miles away from the loud, happy, messy Chi­nese meals that I en­joyed as a young­ster with my fam­ily in sub­ur­ban Ade­laide.

Me Wah Ho­bart is def­i­nitely grown up­din­ing: chic, ex­pen­sive and ex­cel­lent. No oily spring rolls and chem­i­cally coloured dip­ping sauce here. No tacky Chi­nese lanterns or peel­ing red, vel­vety wall­pa­per. And, sadly, no ly­chees in syrup, that old child­hood favourite.

Those seek­ing a fam­ily meal, how­ever, should not be de­terred. I vis­ited Me Wah a cou­ple of months ago with my chil­dren, both un­der four. They were not es­pe­cially en­cour­aged or fussed over by the staff but were cer­tainly not made un­wel­come. One waiter stacked three chairs to raise the eldest to ta­ble level (we had come pre­pared with a booster seat for the youngest). Both chil­dren took to the Hokkien noo­dles with gusto and, un­like their ex­pe­ri­ences of Chi­nese food else­where, did not suf­fer any nasty re­ac­tions to MSG.

To­day my wife Jen and I have es­caped for an adults-only feast, leav­ing the chil­dren to their child­care cen­tre and the con­tents of their lunch boxes. Only par­ents of lit­tle ones will fully ap­pre­ci­ate the sense of lib­er­a­tion this can bring. We approach the ex­ten­sive menu in the pleas­ant knowl­edge that the meal ahead will be tod­dler-free.

The wine list, at 31 pages, is so ex­ten­sive we could eas­ily con­sume a bot­tle or two while con­tem­plat­ing it. It even has an in­dex so din­ers don’t lose their way.

This is a restau­rant where the wine is taken se­ri­ously and it has a cli­mate-con­trolled wine room, over­seen by som­me­lier Matthieu Bancal. If we were en­ter­tain­ing and feel­ing gen­er­ous, we could opt for a bot­tle or two of the 2000 Chateau Lafitte Roth­schild (six-litre im­pe­rial, $19,500) or one of the 14 vin­tages of Pen­folds Grange.

In­stead we choose the Chartley Pinot Gris 2007 ($45), a wine from north­ern Tas­ma­nia’s Ta­mar Val­ley, which has a strong pink­ish hue, del­i­cate fruiti­ness and creamy af­ter­taste.

We move on to the food and our first choice is a serv­ing of duck pan­cakes ($28 for four), which are as­sem­bled for us at our ta­ble with ef­fort­less ef­fi­ciency by our waiter.

The price seems high for two pan­cakes each but they are per­fect. The duck flesh is in whole pieces, rather than shred­ded, as is of­ten the prac­tice else­where. And the pan­cakes are light and fluffy.

We have also or­dered steamed blueswim­mer crab dumplings ($16 for four), one of my favourite dishes, and they are ex­quis­ite.

Me Wah has a ded­i­cated dim sum and dumpling chef, Ping Nam Chan. I am se­ri­ously tempted to or­der an­other round of his crab dumplings but am mind­ful of the food to come.

En­trees in­clude all the usual dishes, such as chicken spring rolls ($10 for four) and pork dim sim, fried or steamed ($10 for four). And there is a fo­cus on seafood, which in­cludes wild har­vest Tas­ma­nian scal­lops steamed with ginger and shal­lot sauce ($21 for six) and seafood medal­lions, a fried dish of diced mixed seafood wrapped in bean-curd pas­try parcels ($12).

There is also, of course, a se­lec­tion of soups, from won ton and shark’s fin to the more in­dul­gent cray­fish ($12). Chef Tso takes spe­cial pride in Me Wah’s broths, which form the es­sen­tial base for th­ese soups.

The ex­ten­sive mains menu also fea­tures a good range of seafood from Tas­ma­nia and in­ter­state. On our ear­lier visit we tried the South Aus­tralian squid, pan-tossed with spicy salt ($23), and found it ten­der and moist.

To­day we or­der sauteed squid with gar­lic and chilli ($23), which is also ten­der and, be­ing ex­plo­sively hot, not a dish for those with a del­i­cate con­sti­tu­tion.

Had we not al­ready eaten pan­cakes, I would have tried the im­pe­rial lamb, a dish of lamb fil­lets sauteed with gar­lic and mildly spiced savoury sauce and wrapped in pan­cakes ($24 for four).

In­stead we or­der sauteed lamb fil­lets with Mon­go­lian sauce served in a clay­pot ($21). The lamb is as melt­ingly ten­der as our ear­lier squid, and the clay­pot sauce rich, thick and al­most nutty.

But a high­light of the meal is a veg­e­tar­ian dish we’ve or­dered to bal­ance the meat and seafood. It is a braised trio of mush­rooms with veg­e­tar­ian oys­ter sauce and steamed Chi­nese veg­eta­bles ($21). This is a su­perb and re­mark­ably flavour­ful dish. I’m not sure how veg­e­tar­ian oys­ter sauce is made, but this one is good enough to send shivers down the spines of oys­ter farm­ers. The still slightly crisp green veg­eta­bles and the mix of nee­dle, but­ton and dried mush­rooms pro­vide a suc­cu­lent range of tex­tures.

The Chartley Pinot Gris is al­most gone as we con­sider whether we can man­age dessert and de­cide we have room only for the mango sor­bet ($6). With a sweet lolly taste and only a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the flavour of man­goes, it is the first and only dis­ap­point­ment of our meal.

If only there had been ly­chees. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Per­fect tra­di­tion: Chef Gor­don Tso re­mains un­moved by food fads, main; man­ager Stephen Tso, top right; ginger spices a red mor­wong

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