There’s a sense of excitement that pervades the atmosphere of The Rice Den and in the demeanour of Roy Chan, one of its head chefs, as he stops by to say hello and introduce us to the menu. It makes sense; they are now in an airy St Leonard space, a stone’s throw from the station, and more than twice the size of their former Chatswood premises. Roy talks enthusiastically about their first seasonal menu, developing their own range of sauces and beer, the small microherb garden they’re growing in the back office and ideas for an in-store pop-up for Sunday lunch, with the air of someone still marvelling at how there’s enough room for it all.
It is truly a beautiful, light-flooded space, primarily made up of bold furniture, bright colours and an open kitchen, with decor that plays with the nostalgia of its bright vintage Chinese accents and walls. It’s a fusion that is decidedly modern in approach, extending even to the playful combination of metal teapot, containing Oolong Tea ($5) with a traditional Chinese teacup (complete with a lid to preserve warmth).
It should come as no surprise that The Rice Den’s menu is as carefully thought out as its décor. Almost as influential as the Cantonese heritage of its head chefs is a deep appreciation for farming and natural, Australian produce, drawn from both head chefs’ experiences as boarders at St Joseph’s College. Roy is careful to emphasise the restaurant’s commitment to local Australian produce and limiting their reliance on MSG and artificial flavours, through techniques like slow cooking their sauces. Add the French and Spanish techniques that The Rice Den’s other head chef learned in Canberra, a period of tutelage under old Chinese culinary masters and enthusiastic support from an Italian landlord, and you have a menu promising an entirely unique incarnation of Chinese cooking.
In Chinese tradition, the lunch menu is dominated by share plates, featuring a combination of reliable favourites but also classics with cheeky twists – see: lamb spring rolls. Most commendably, its vegetarian dishes are not simply an afterthought: there’s an sizeable vegetarian share plate section on the menu and even a vegetarian banquet dinner menu ($35 pp) to match the carnivore-friendly counterpart ($40 pp).
Many people would assume that the Hand-made Cheong Fun ($8) should just be stabbed with the toothpick, rolled in sauce and eaten. You can certainly do that, but the flavour payoff of coating the long piece of noodle in dipping sauce is worth the fiddly, delicate task of unrolling each one in a process that is akin to trying to find the end of a roll of sticky tape, and is a secret technique practised for generations by fidgety Chinese children (or…just me?). With the combination of fragrant sesame sauce and the sharper sweetness of hoisin sauce that works like a dream team, you’re going to want as much of this sauce as possible.
The Roast Duck Breast ($25) featured a delicate balance of flavours that really showcased the natural meaty taste of the duck. There was a great balance of meat, fat and crispy, well-flavoured skin. The leek and plum sauce has a base reminiscent of soy sauce, but with slightly more complex sweet-and-sour flavours courtesy of the plum. This was further enhanced by the buttery flavour of the bed warm savoy cabbage under the duck. The slivers of fried garlic and chilli actually added some great flavours and textures to round off the dish, despite their relative small quantity.
The Tea Smoked Chicken Salad ($16) is a beautiful dish, full of bright vibrant colours that brings to mind spring and summer, even in the dead of winter cold. It’s also a very textural dish, with elements that work well together – you have the light crunch of the rice sheet, the smooth, refreshing slide of clear rice noodles, the smoky substance of the chicken and the crunch of vegetables. Everything is tied together by the strong sesame sauce, which is thinner and more acidic due to the Chiangkang vinegar. This would be a particularly good summer dish.
You really have to smile at The Rice Den’s Ovaltine Pannacotta ($14) and the childhood memories it brings back; and if you were unlucky enough to have never had a pack of bright orange Ovaltines as a primary school student (and have been given endless amounts of grief by mates), now’s your chance to discover what you’ve missed out on. The pannacotta is set at different times to create a beautiful gradient effect and has precisely the malty, chocolate-y Ovaltine flavour you expect, but more refreshing due to the pannacotta texture. I don’t know if the whisky-glazed chestnuts really added to the dish but the orange puree and strawberry work like a dream team to keep the chocolate-y sweetness of the pannacotta from being too overwhelming. Some textural variation is provided, courtesy of the crunchy, puff-pastry-like sticks.
In many ways, The Rice Den embodies the experience of growing up multicultural in Australia; it manages to pay homage to its Chinese roots, while simultaneously refusing to be boxed into a definite category as it draws from its head chefs’ myriad of international influences. It’s bringing the Australian farm and multicultural cooking practice to Chinese cuisine, and it’s all the more unique and beautiful for it.
Now – literally – with room to test its new limits, you’ll do well to be as excited as its chefs are for what’s coming next.
The Rice Den
30-32 Chandos St, St Leonards, NSW
(02) 9411 2001
Web: The Rice Den
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of The Rice Den.