Wednesday, February 10, 2016

China Doll, Wooloomooloo

Every year when I visit Sydney, we always make a point to get dumplings at some point, as one of our local friends loves dumplings. He happens to be the one who first led us to Chinatown Noodle Restaurant, with its famous dumplings and noodles, and who we went to fancy dim sum at Luya and Yum Yum with on our last visit.  On this visit, we decided to do something a bit different, and go more upscale, to China Doll.

China Doll is the flagship of a restaurant group that also operates China Lane, in the CBD, a slightly more casual venue, and China Diner in Bondi, which is far more casual.   This was my first visit to any of their establishments.

Our visit was on a Saturday afternoon, and we focused mostly on dim sum items, although they serve a large variety of Chinese dishes.  Overall, our experience was positive: the food was good, albeit a bit pricey, service was decent, and food came at a steady clip, each dish delivered as soon as it was ready.  I'd return if someone wanted to, but, I didn't find it particularly memorable (besides the company, of course).

The Atmosphere

Outside Seating.
China Doll is located on Cowper Wharf, in Wooloomooloo, along the strip of trendy restaurants located on the wharf (where Russell Crowe used to own a condo), all of which spill out into the sidewalk.  Each restaurant was full to capacity by 1pm on the lovely Saturday afternoon.

I did request an outdoor table when I made my booking earlier in the week, but, alas, 1 week notice isn't enough to secure a coveted outside slot, and we were ushered inside when we arrived.
Open-ish Kitchen.
The kitchen is fairly open, and you could see the wall of tickets lining up.  The restaurant is pretty large, so there was a constant flurry of activity back there.
I went on a venture to the bathroom, which was located upstairs.  This level seems to be used mostly for large groups, although I imagine sometimes they split it into smaller tables?
Looking Down.
Since the bathroom is located upstairs, I was able to take a shot from above, looking down on the inside main dining room.  As you can see, these were all rectangle tables, with table clothes, and formal place settings.

My party was on the front left.
Swanky Bathroom.
I don't always include photos or reviews of bathrooms, but, the bathroom here was notable.  It was located behind a HUGE door.  The wallpaper and decor were quite swanky and modern.  A really lovely bathroom experience.
Place Setting.
Place settings were elegant, and our little bowls were swapped out after our first round of dumplings.

 Dim Sum

The menu starts with cold share plates, which we entirely skipped, but that section included several raw seafood preparations (raw tuna, cured kingfish, and ocean trout sashami), plus chicken larb, and some cold salads.

Next up is dim sum, and the area we focused.  It was lunch time, and one member of our party is a serious dumpling fiend, so, dumplings were clearly going to be our focus.  There were 4 types of dumpling-like items, and we got them all.  Our other options in this category were corn and zucchini cakes, mushroom spring rolls, chicken ribs, and steamed scallops.

Dishes all arrived as they were ready, hot and fresh, one at a time, fairly staggered.
Wontons: Pork Prawn & Shiitake w/ Black Vinegar & Soy. $18.
First to arrive was the wontons.

These were ... huge.  Each dumpling was far more than a single bite.  Inside the wrapper was large chunks of prawn, ground pork, and slices of shiitake mushroom.  The filling had a nice chew to it from the sizable chunks of prawn.  The wrapper was thick, necessary to hold in all this filling.

The broth they were in was quite tasty, with a subtle complex flavor from the black vinegar, mixed with the soy.  I appreciated that they included a soup spoon to really lap up all that flavorful sauce.  Oh, and the bits of garlic in the broth for an extra flavor pop.

My second favorite dumpling, third favorite savory dish, and I'd get this again.
Crispy Dumplings: Chicken Prawn & Scallop w/ Red Vinegar. $20.
Soon after the wontons, a completely different type of dumpling arrived, the crispy dumplings.  From soft and slimy, we moved on to crispy.

These were also huge, this time triangle shaped.  The outside was crispy and fried, which I liked.  But ... in the filling, all I could taste was the ground chicken.  I'm not sure where the prawn or scallop were, but, chicken was clearly dominant, and I don't like chicken.

My third pick for dumplings, because I really did like the crispy wrapper, but I wouldn't want another.
Steamed Dumplings: Prawn & Green Bean w/ Red Vinegar. $20.
After a slight lull, two more baskets of dumplings arrived at the same time.

On top we had steamed dumplings, filled with prawns and green beans.  Like the wontons, the chunks of prawn were huge, but in this case, there was not pork to balance it out, and mine tasted really fishy.  I didn't care for it.  But I did really like the crispy, large pieces of green bean inside, not an ingredient I've ever had in a dumpling before.

These wrappers were more translucent, which was fine, but I liked the slimy wonton wrappers and the crispy dumpling wrappers better.

This was served with red vinegar on the side, like the crispy chicken dumplings.  My least favorite of the dumplings.
Shu Mai: Pork Prawn Scallop & Shiitake w/ Chilli Oil. $20.
Our final dim sum item was the shu mai, which arrived alongside the steamed dumplings.

These were clearly the best looking, as they had one of my favorite ingredients, scallops, front and center, right on top.  I wasn't expecting that!

Like the other three dumplings, these were also jumbo sized.  I've really never seen dim sum this large before.

The filling in this was similar to the first wonton, with the pork, prawn, and shiitake, but here there was also the slice of scallop on top (and I think some inside?), and it was shu mai, so the wrapper was not sealed.  The scallop was fully cooked, not mid-rare like I like, and not seared obviously, but it was tender and sweet, and I liked it quite a bit.  Who needs the dumplings?  Hmm, maybe I should have gotten some of the other scallop dishes, since, well, I do love them so.

These were my favorite savory item of the meal.
Red Vinegar, Chili Oil.
I really appreciated how every type of dumpling came with its own sauce. We were warned by the server to only use a little of the chili oil because it was so spicy.  It was not, but it did provide a nice little kick.

Small & Medium Plates

The next section of the menu was "Small & Medium Plates", although there was no indication which items might be "small" and which might be "medium".

Here the options were quite varied, san choy bau (veggie or pork), grilled spatchcock, duck pancakes, and vegetarian fried tofu, plus one item I was eyeing: the chili salt squid.
Chilli Salt Squid. $20.
The squid was delivered to our table piping hot.  I really appreciated how quickly it went from the wok to our table.  It was really nicely cooked, not rubbery.

But what was awesome, besides just being hot, fresh, and well cooked, was the spicing, I guess the "chili salt"?  It was really flavorful, and reminded me a bit of the seasoning you have on potato wedges.  In fact, one of my fellow table mates said he thought it WAS wedges when it showed up.

It was served with a lemon wedge on the side to drizzle over it, and some wok fried red peppers.

I really enjoyed this, a flavorful preparation, and a different treatment of squid than I'm used to.  My second favorite of the savories.  I didn't even really miss having a creamy sauce to dip it in.


The largest portion of the menu is mains, however, we mostly skipped it.  There was just about every protein imaginable in this section, and every preparation too.  Lighter choices included a whole steamed market fish, lemongrass blue eye with sago and green mango, XO scallops with silken egg dashi, and barramundi with chili, garlic, and mustard greens.  Heavier, fried seafood options were wok fried marron with ginger shallot chilli and cognac sauce and salt and pepper prawns with toasted chili and garlic.  There were several red meat options, such as whole lamb shoulder for $80, beef fillet with oyster mushrooms, grilled wagyu rump with mushroom, XO, and truffle jus, and a penang curry of slow braised wagyu beef shin.  Oh, speaking of curries, there was also a seafood green curry with flathead, snake beans, and thai basil.  Poultry included tea smoked duck with tamarind and plum and chicken breast with sichuan, soy, and bang bang (uh, bang bang?)  Finally, for vegetarians, there was a single option, eggplant and tofu with sichuan chili bean paste.

But, since it was lunchtime and we wanted a lighter meal, and, because we ordered so much dim sum and smaller items, we opted for only a single main: the pork belly.  Wait, what was I saying about lighter options?

If I were to return for dinner however, I would opt for any of the seafood, and in particular, the XO scallops and the salt and pepper prawns.
Crispy Pork Belly w/ Chilli Caramel & Nam Pla Phrik. $36.
The pork belly was ... ok.  The very edges were indeed crispy, but I didn't care for the consistency of the rest of it.  It was either fatty and mushy, or stringy dark meat.  Now, don't get me wrong, I do like fatty pork belly, and, in this very trip, I had delicious pork belly just a few days prior at Longrain and even in the cafe at my office.  This wasn't just me not liking pork belly, although, maybe I was getting a bit sick of it.

I did love the caramel sauce though, sweet and spicy, all at once.  I also appreciated the red chilies and bits of fried shallot.  So, they nailed the sauce, and I gladly just lapped some up, sans pork belly.


The sides menu was small, with only two types of rice (jasmine rice or pork and prawn fried rice) and two types of greens (Chinese greens or steamed broccolini with oyster sauce and garlic).

We got rice to go along with the pork belly, but I didn't try it.
Chinese Greens. $12.
We also got the Chinese greens, at Ojan's request.  He wanted something ligher, and with fiber (he's trying to increase his fiber intake).

The greens were fine, but just steamed and quite bitter, and in a light soy sauce, since it was a vegetarian dish.  Oyster sauce would have been tastier.  I guess it was nice to have something light alongside the heavier dishes, but this wasn't a particularly interesting item.


Of course, you know me, I won't ever pick a restaurant that doesn't have dessert items I'm interested in.  The dessert menu had two items I wanted, black sticky rice with seasonal fruit and sago pudding with vanilla coconut cream and passionfruit syrup, both items I love, as I just adore puddings.  Plus, the sago gets rave reviews in nearly every review I read.  They also have a few other items, including a trio of gelato and ice cream, a roasted pear with butterscotch, and a chocolate & orange slice with honeycomb.

We were pretty stuffed, and decided to just get one dessert item, since my dining companions were all were happy to skip dessert entirely.  While we were considering which of my two picks to get, and nearly settling on the sago pudding, our server told us he was sending dessert our way.  I knew that China Lane often sends out a dessert platter, making our decision making unnecessary, since it would include both of the items I wanted.   Excellent!
Dessert Platter. $30.
As expected, the dessert platter had my two picks, plus a trio of gelato and ice cream.  One warm dessert, one frozen dessert, and one room temp.  Something for everyone!

Starting from left:
"Black Sticky Rice w/ Seasonal Fruit"
The sticky rice was topped with a little coconut cream, rice bubbles, and a few small slices of mango.  The rice was nicely cooked, not too mushy, not too al dente, served warm.  I liked the crunch from the rice bubbles on top, a cute touch.  Overall though, this didn't wow me.  It certainly wasn't very sweet, not that it was savory, but I wouldn't call it a sweet dessert at all.  It needed far more mango.  My least favorite of our dessert trio, but I appreciated the warm item.

"Selection of Sorbet & Ice Cream"
Next we had three small scoops of frozen delights.  Not something I'd order, since we were eating plenty of ice cream and gelato at gelato shops on this trip (like Messina), but, hey, I'll take free ice cream.

The pink one was strawberry sorbet, way too sweet for me.  The green seemed to be kiwi, also way too sweet, also sorbet.  The white one was creamy, and clearly ice cream.  None of us could place the flavor though.  It seemed vanilla, but ... better than vanilla.  It had some subtle extra flavor going on.  I asked our server, and he confirmed that it was coconut vanilla.  I didn't care for the sorbets, but, the ice cream was nice, making this my second choice on the platter.

"Sago Pudding w/ Vanilla Coconut Cream & Passionfruit Syrup"
And finally, the famous sago.  This was excellent.  It was perfectly creamy, the sago was nicely cooked, and the passionfruit syrup added a nice touch of sweetness.  A sweet, creamy, comforting, dessert, a perfect ending to the meal.
China Doll Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato