Saturday, October 23, 2004

Restaurant Review - Mahjong Room

cross-posted, originally written 12 July 2004

Location: Crown St, Darlinghurst.
Date: Sun, 11 July

Mahjong Room was the second in the list of that night's eateries. The first, Billy Kwong, had an hour wait for a table and I had sourced Mahjong Room as a suitable backup. The bf was not impressed initially as the large bay windows showcased an empty room. But we persisted (I whined and he gave in) and we were pleasantly rewarded.

The menu is suitably simple and elegant - comprising a range of interesting Cantonese fare ranging from crabmeat dim sims to steamed fish with ginger and shallot. The selection is pleasingly constrained for a Chinese restaurant which showed that the chef had paid some attention to food matching.

Our waitress showed us through the front room, past the ornately carved antique style wooden chairs and into the back section of the restaurant. We sat in the cobblestone corridoor adjacent to another room entrance with painted chinese signs. Our table perched on the stones and our tea light candle flickered alluringly. The red plastic lampshades barely covered their bulbs, giving them an air of blatant reveal. All vaguely appropriate given its proximity to the major gay strip in Sydney. The carefully crafted decor and atmosphere elicited a slightly homesick feeling within me. I could almost believe I was in a back street in Malaysia or Hong Kong except that it was conspicuously clean and there was a distinct lack of occassional strange and wafting malodours. Such was the ambience that I almost expected a cheongsam clad Maggie Cheung to glide past, her takeaway container swinging, as she came to pick up her noodles for the night.

We decided on the roast duck platter, the jiu yim prawns and the steamed tofu and eggplant with ginger and spring onion. We were also tempted by slow cooked spare ribs and sze chuan hot pot, but as what I had convinced myself were overdeveloped obliques were actually fat deposits (as gloriously pointed out by a well-meaning friend), we chose not to overeat. Our waitress was rushed off her feet but handled all four tables with aplomb, I barely noticed her busyness until the bf pointed out she was short of breath from running from table to table.

Our meals arrived promptly. The duck was gloriously tender, bone-free and served with 5-spice marinated hard tofu and fresh shitake mushrooms. Succulent, juicy and perfectly seasoned. The woody mushrooms complimented the duck and the aromatic tofu beautifully. The jiu yim prawns were a little bland for seafood, but the flesh was firm and the batter crisp and lip-smackingly tasty. The MSG flakes mingled with the chilli and garlic to give that unreal 'too-delicious' taste. I think the usual trick of applying lye water or bicarbonate of soda to 'firm up' the prawns had been used and the rinsing of excess alkali had also washed off much of the prawn flavour. The tofu and eggplant, served in a steel steaming pot, were beautifully steamed, their textures perfectly complementary. The velvety softness of the tofu was just balanced by the ever-so-slightly firmer eggplant and its associated coarser vegetable texture. I would have preferred more of a savoury flavour, but there was only a hint of this because most of it had drained through the mixture and pooled at the bottom of the rack. The remining prominent flavours were coriander, spring onion and ginger.

We were now suitable satiated, but dessert was offered. I searched, located and opened my stomach dessert pocket and we agreed to share some glutinous dumplings. We chose red bean and black sesame and these arrived in a warm sweet soup. They were deliciously chewy and the fillings pleasantly unsweet and tasty. I was a little disappointed in the soup as I had expected a sweeter ginger syrup soup, like my grandmother makes with these dumplings, but I guess this isn't the way it is done elsewhere.

Although the menu is not as creative as Billy Kwong, the flavours were pure, unadulterated and traditional. You'd probably find better value in Chinatown or Chatswood, but the quaint ambience and proximity to Oxford St are a drawcard. This is the sort of place that should serve yumchar, but in the original sense and concept, i.e. copious amounts of boutique chinese teas and just a small selection of snacks accompanied by caffeine inspired debates on ephemera. Mahjong Room is a pleasingly retro reconstruction of old chinese tearooms.

"Small eats" $13-18
Mains $17-21

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