For many years, Chinese restaurants in Sydney have largely been firmly embedded in the traditional, whether it’s the vibe of the décor or the featured items on their menu. And while there is certainly still a place for odes to the exuberance of glittering golden dragons, red accents and 1920s Shanghai vintage posters, one can’t help but wish for some Chinese dining destinations that give more of a glimpse into the best of 21st Century China.
There are no dragons in Lan Yuan Restaurant but there is bamboo, and an atmosphere of light, comfortable minimalism in its carefully selected modern furniture, tableware and lighting. At the same time, there is acknowledgment of Chinese roots through the bamboo motif in décor and traditional blue ceramic plates. Tables are divided to accommodate pairs and larger groups but – most importantly – there are round tables for the ubiquitous large Chinese family gather, a critical factor for older Chinese people.
Service, from friendly bilingual waiters, was also particularly considerate (our teapot was never empty), and several times, I spotted the restaurant manager taking the extra step of squatting next to customers’ chairs so he could talk to them at eye-level. The open kitchen dominating half the entrance and layout of the restaurant is also such that it’s actually quite easy to forget you’re in a shopping centre if you’re sitting in the large back section of the restaurant.
Both the Hot and Sour Soup ($10) and Chicken and Sweet Corn Soup ($10) were exemplary takes on classic Chinese soups and earned a tick of approval from the toughest critic of them all: my father, with his very traditional Chinese palate. The Hot and Sour Soup was loaded generously with calamari, prawn, egg and scallops, as well as tofu and seaweed, with a strong bamboo shoot flavour and a small kick of spiciness. The Chicken and Sweet Corn Soup was similarly generous with its chicken-to-corn ratio and both soups were thick and vividly flavoured.
The Garlic Butter Lobster ($78) would have been a knockout fusion dish, but for slightly overcooking the lobster. The garlic butter was rich but not too thick or heavy, which allowed the flavour of the lobster meat to shine instead of capping over it. The lobster was also thoughtfully prepared to eat directly, so we wouldn’t need to spend a painstaking amount of time cracking the shell (though, personally, I find that half the fun).
Unfortunately, the Mushroom and Broccoli ($26) was a total miss for us, mostly because of the paddy straw mushroom, which had a really strong, raw, almost fishy taste to them that overpowered the other, very light-tasting elements. I’m not sure if it was just bad luck with the mushrooms, or because I simply disliked the flavours the chef was going for. The broccoli was cooked quite soft, as the Chinese like it but the crab meat sauce on top of it was fairly flavourless and didn’t really add anything to the dish.
The Lan Yuan Beef Eye Fillet ($26) is a take on the popular ‘Japanese style’ Chinese beef dish featuring a teriyaki-like soy sauce that’s lightly sweet and wasabi mayonnaise to dip. The beef was incredibly tender and delicious. Unlike most restaurants, the wasabi sauce was lightly incorporated into the sauce, which made its taste almost negligible. However, another plate of mayonnaise can be requested if you need more of a kick, though it probably would work better if provided with the dish. The green beans were slightly too undercooked for my taste, though some may have found it refreshing.
The Deep Fried Ice Cream ($8) could definitely have been presented with some more finesse and its elements more thoughtfully considered for its price point. The addition of dessicated coconut in the batter and the absence of a strong oily aftertaste is the best part of the dessert. The other elements – plain vanilla ice-cream and generic-tasting strawberry syrup – could have been more thoughtfully considered; they prevented this dessert from being a standout amongst its competitors. This dessert is definitely better as a sum of its parts.
To my Chinese father and many of his elders, the dishes at Lan Yuan are still a little ‘Western’ in flavour. But to judge every Chinese restaurant by how well it captures ‘authentic’ Chinese cuisine presumes that authentic Chinese cuisine never evolves when, in fact, it’s changing all the time. Despite the small problems with their dishes (I’m more inclined to give Lan Yuan a bit of time to iron out their workflow, given they are a new restaurant), many of them are based on good ideas, presenting an interesting, slightly more modern variation on well-loved Chinese flavours.
So while we might still end up underneath golden ‘福’ signs for dinner with the grandparents, Lan Yuan is another contribution to the small but growing list of Chinese eateries that seek to distinguish itself from what many of us Chinese-Australian kids grew up eating while still remaining, in many ways, comfortingly familiar. And that’s pretty exciting.
Lan Yuan Restaurant
Shop 4005, Level 1, Top Ryde Shopping Centre
Corner Blaxland and Devlin St, Ryde, NSW
Phone: (02) 9808 1030
Web: Lan Yuan
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of Lan Yuan Restaurant