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