Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Restaurant Review - Golden Century Seafood

Location: Sussex St, Sydney
Date: 1 October, 2004

The date of a big gay dance-party isn’t usually the occasion for a feasting celebration. On the contrary, usually the months of near-starvation and frenetic gym workouts, not to mention solarium sessions and artful manscaping (body-hair trimming/removal), preclude any thought of good eating.

But this time was different. On this particularly dance-party eve, Sleaze 2004, a particular confluence of friends was in Sydney. My good friend D and his bf R both from New Zealand, my glam LA-living friend P, my adopted (unofficially) brother S and his friend (and now ours) the cyberpimp J. It was D’s first time in Sydney, let alone overseas, and he was much excited to be in town. So I had arranged for dinner and gradually the circle of six got wider until it became a party of eight.

Usually I would cook, but since I live in Canberra and everyone else was in Sydney, this wasn’t such a convenient thing to do. I had arranged for dinner at the Golden Century Seafood Restaurant: a place that L and I had previously checked out with S. That time we feasted on steamed murrawong with ginger and spring onion, hot and salty snowcrab, and chicken steamed with ginger and spring onion. This time, with a party of eight, I was looking forward to the greater variety of dishes possible.

Golden Century was reviewed during the Sydney 2000 Olympics and is probably Australia’s best seafood restaurant. It is on an upper level and from the street you can see the tanks and tanks of live seafood swimming away or sitting, in the case of the abalone and scallops. On this particular occasion, I made the bold step of choosing what we were to eat. I felt that it would be too hard to come to a consensus amongst eight people, and that a Prime Directive of Food Concept should come from one person. I had already started thinking of the menu the night before, something that L found amusing, but I thought was deadly serious. I needed to match the flavours, yet leave room to take advantage of specials, and still cater to filling bellies. Tough work, I tell ya.

I ordered:
Scallops – steamed with ginger, spring onion and soy sauce
King crab – salt and pepper deep-fried (jiu yim), steamed with ginger and spring onion, and noodles flavoured with the roe (three dishes)
Coral trout – steamed with ginger, spring onion and soy sauce
King mushroom – braised with lettuce
Ma po tofu – bean curd braised with hot spicy beef mince
Mustard green (kai larn) – stir fried with ginger and garlic

Okay, so maybe there were a few too many “ginger and spring onion” dishes, but it was busy and I was too shy to ask our waiter what were some other ways of cooking those seafoods. After taking our order, the waiter promptly went to the display tanks, caught and weighed our seafood, and brought it to our table for my inspection and price approval; before taking it into the kitchen to be cooked fresh. The fish was still convulsing in the plastic bag, which unnerved a few of my friends, but I assured them that it was “all part of the experience”.

It was way too much food for eight men, but all quite delicious. J, of Hispanic origin, was most impressed with the premiering scallops. Whilst not familiar with the “ginger and spring onion” flavouring concept, commented that these were the best scallops he’d ever tasted. I couldn’t agree more.

The king crab arrived next divided into two plates: two masses of jumbled claws and exoskeleton piled up high. The jiu yim version was tasty, the flesh firm and sweet, although I thought the deep-frying oil needed to be a touch refreshed. A little heavy on the MSG too, but not unpleasantly so. The ginger and spring onion version was coated in a cornflour thickened sauce, which I found a little unnecessary, but revealed another flavour dimension to the crab. The noodles, which were nestled within the giant body-shell of the crab, were absolutely delicious. They were a beautiful orange, rich with the crab roe colour, but still delicately flavoured to allow the seafood nature to permeate without the excessive iodine-tinge that can sometimes mar the enjoyment of roe. Even non-roe eaters such as R enjoyed the noodles.

The coral trout, although perfectly steamed and the flesh texture just right, had trouble competing against the previous splendour of the king crab. I actually found the flesh texture a bit disconcerting. It was my first time eating coral trout, and I’m more used to the texture of blue cod instead of this very firm and springy fish. One day I will have to enjoy this delicate fish on its own and to enjoy its understated and restrained flavour.

I had never eaten king mushroom before, but thought I would order it as S was on a ten-day vegetarian cleansing ritual, “I can’t eat anything with a face.” I managed to convince him that crustaceans and molluscs don’t really have a face – he was glad to find any excuse to indulge. King mushroom is quite amazing. Obviously it was developed as a vegetarian alternative to abalone, but the silky firm texture alone has meant that many would prefer it to the sea creature. I certainly do. It was flavoured in a very “meaty” sense, I suspect there was generous use of lard if not beef dripping, but the overall impression was a luxurious pale side of mushroom; as if freshly sacrificed.

After all of this, the tofu arrived. Everyone was full now, and the richness of the beef and chilli actually detracted from the prior seafood and vegetable delights. We had to give it a miss. I had actually mistakenly ordered this dish in place of Bean Curd Eight Treasure, which I really wanted.

For dessert, there complimentary plates of watermelon, fresh baked cookies and petits fours. These were executed in Hong Kong style, those of you who know the this particular bakery aesthetic will know what I mean. On our previous visit, with our Asian faces, S and myself had also prompted a big bowl of hot and sweet black sesame soup. Now, with our yellow moon-faces lost in a sea white powderpuffs, no such luck.

Service was quick, efficient but eerily silent. Most of the waiters did not speak good English, but had no difficulty understanding our requests. My limited Cantonese helped on occasion, but many were exclusive Mandarin speakers. The restaurant was particularly bustling that night, and we encountered no less that five birthday celebrations. Periodically when we were eating, the music would quieten down, “Happy Birthday” would be played and everyone would start clapping and cheering. There was discussion at the table that we should have a birthday at the table too - not to give into peer pressure or anything.

Overall, this was a fantastic dinner. The seafood is priced per kg, and the bill came out to approximately $95 per head. A very rare indulgence, but well worth it in the company of great friends.

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