In a case of ‘if you build it, they will come‘, Waitan’s opulent fit-out is unlike anything Sydney has ever seen before. The restaurant was unfazed about flaunting this at their launch party last year with many people to this day, still associating the restaurant with the $10million dollar fit-out figure and the Lamborghinis that lined the restaurant entrance at the launch event.
Waitan encompasses 2,500sqm, spread across two levels. The name pays homage to an area in Shanghai which historically was one of the earlier ‘East meets West’ areas. Confusingly, Waitan as a restaurant doesn’t actually serve Shanghainese cuisine but aims to be the cross-cultural ambassador for modern Asian.
Catering to Sydney’s elite Asian community, what they’ve nailed are the 14 private rooms, each with a minimum spend from $1000 (scroll down for a peek at these private rooms) and its own themed decor. Depending on the size of the room, guests may have dedicated wait staff or private chefs. And the people having been coming – I’m told these rooms are constantly booked out and have been popular for large family gatherings, 100 day baby celebrations, business meetings and corporate groups. If you’ve read Crazy Rich Asians, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that stepping into Waitan’s extravagance felt like a scene from the book. Custom designed pieces such as exuberant high back chairs, delicate hand-painted cupboards and hallways adorned with Chinese antiques, all feed my curiosity even further.
However, I’m here to check out the revamped casual dining space – following an underwhelming response from customers – the restaurant recently underwent some changes, including lower price points on the menu, improved staff training and some restyling.
We start with the Imperial Peking Duck, which priced at $88 per full duck serve, is definitely dearer than what I’d normally feel comfortable with forking out. However, they do go all-out with the accompaniments. The pancakes have been meticulously separated and arranged over a clever little table steamer device.
We’re advised the ducks are hung and cured in a special syrup then baked in a $35,000 open wood fired oven for 50 minutes. The oak and cherry wood is meant to infuse a smoky flavour into the duck, which I’m unable to taste, but the meat is juicy and pink, and the skin is glossy and crisp.
For a whole duck ($88), you get the theatrics of the duck carved at the table; the duck breasts are sliced and served with the pancakes, sauces, spring onion and cucumber and the remaining meat is trimmed off and tossed with bamboo shoots and water chestnut for the second course of san choy bow.
I love how dainty they’ve trimmed the lettuce cups, and the overall spread of the two Peking duck courses fills up the table with a sense of abundance. A third course of duck soup is an optional addition of $18.80 – thanks, but no thanks.
There seems to be something for everyone on the menu, from small Modern Asian share plates to pages and pages of traditional live seafood.
On the cold starters front, the sweet and sour prawns with mango ($18.80) is a light and refreshing take on the classic prawn cocktail, where cubes of dragon fruit, mango and cucumber replace any need for a coating of sauce.
The duck breast and preserved egg yolk terrine ($18.80) is surprisingly lean, with most of the flavour coming from the salted egg yolk encased in the centre.
I’m much more excited about the Sichuan poached chicken, chilli oil and sesame dressing ($19.80) which has the delicateness of Hainanese chicken and the bold flavour profiles of Sichuan cuisine. We drown each tender piece of chicken with the deep earthy sesame dressing. The sharp numbing chilli oil leaves an endearing glossy slick on my lips that I can’t stop coming back to.
An alternate to Singapore chilli crab are the Singapore chilli prawns ($38.90) which infuses the same sauce with king prawns instead of crab. It’s less messy to devour and the sheer size of each prawn makes every bite extremely satisfying. An expert from Singapore trained the Waitan staff on perfecting this dish and it shows, the sauce is an absolute winner. Despite it’s appearance, the accompanying grissini sticks are nothing like the Italian-style bread sticks. They’re neither soft nor crunchy, and that’s when you know they’ve taken the modernising movement too far. Some fried mantou would’ve helped us to mop up all that delicious sauce perfectly.
The steaks are all David Blackmores wagyu with a marble score of 9+. The signature steak, is the 250g inside skirt ($60) which is sous vide for 12 hours and served with 3 sauces: oyster mushroom, black pepper and Mongolian. It is uncommon to be served steak in any state other than well done at most Chinese restaurants, but this here is a perfect blushing pink medium.
The braised bean curd with vegetables ($19.80) is a fairly generous serve of braised oyster king mushrooms with baby kai lan and tofu. The seaweed crust on the tofu unleashes a delicious savoury umami depth that takes the basic combination of vegetables to something more extraordinary.
The dessert tasting plate ($26.80) consists of mango cream with sago, lemon curd pavlova, and green tea and sichuan pepper macarons. Unless you’re sharing this as a couple, it’s quite awkward to share the chilled mango sago soup. The lemon curd pavlova has a delicious zing but misses the mark as it is all marshmallow with none of that crisp crust which I’ve accustomed to. Similarly with the macarons – while it looks the part, the centre is filled with fresh whipped cream instead of ganache or buttercream. The Sichuan pepper flavour is fantastic regardless, but I’d probably stick to their traditional Asian desserts next time.
What’s great overall, is that we’ve surprisingly been able to have a real conversation as the restaurant is still fairly quiet, even on a Friday night. And with them accepting bookings, we were able to walk straight in without any queuing nonsense. The extravagant plush decor makes the menu (it’s the same menu across the casual dining space and the private rooms) seem surprisingly affordable, so while word is slowly getting out about their revamped offering, take this as an opportunity to dine like you’re a Crazy Rich Asian.
One of the private rooms, this mammoth round table can sit up to 30!
Karaoke room as an after-party space for private diners
Waitan Restaurant, Bar & Lounge
1/405-411 Sussex Street, Haymarket NSW
Phone: (02) 8218 1000
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of Waitan