It's been a long time between visits to Billy Kwong, Kylie Kwong's famous Chinese restaurant in Surry Hills and it's not for lack of trying. Their no bookings policy means that you either have to eat very early (i.e. line up at 5.45pm and eat when doors open at 6pm) or leave your name at the door and come back in a couple of hours-neither things we wanted to do. This year for my birthday, we are trying again and as we're eating early there should not be a problem in theory. Outside there are posters advertising the Fair Trade Fiesta as Kylie Kwong is involved in environmental and social causes and since 2005, they only serve Biodynamic, Organic and Free Range produce. Billy Kwong is said to be the first carbon neutral restaurant in the State and the "Billy" in the name is from Kylie Kwong's partnership with Bill Granger (my interview with Bill is here).
There's a touch of nightclub queue in there where at 6pm the staff are looking at everyone in the queue hands resting in chin and pointing. We're not quite sure what they're pointing at and at 6.03pm the doors open and we are ushered in. Service is friendly-ish-you get the impression that should you misbehave they'd boot you out and by 6.15pm all tables are taken in this tiny establishment. Decor is all about dark lacquer and flower arrangements and the lacquered "walls" are cupboards that house things from peanuts to soy sauce and a handmade drum shaped lantern sits above the room.
We're seated at our table which brings me to a point that traumatised us last time 9 years ago when we last ate. The stools are three legged stools and that combined with the hard lacquered floor meant that when we sat down those many years ago, the waitress advised us to sit squarely on the chairs as some people had been known to fall off. Indeed one of my dining companions back then had fallen off one of their stools a few weeks before. So we warn Mr NQN and Ronald that this may occur and to sit tight (Rose and I are seated on the banquettes as the more accident prone members of the dining party). The tables are tiny (and light), an unusual choice for a Chinese restaurant where dishes are shared - we presume done to make the most of the tiny space.
Service from our waitress is matter of fact rather than warm and we have some questions about the menu: the first one has her stumped. We ask about the White cut chicken and she describes it and when we ask if it is like Hainan chicken rice she says that she doesn't know as she's never heard of Hainan chicken-hmmm, not a good sign. Menu items err on the high side with most main dishes being $47-$49. I'm ecstatic to see the Duck with Mandarin on the specials menu-we're told that it's always on the specials menu but it changes according to the fruit in season which may be plums as it was last time I dined many moons ago.
Homestyle Fried Biodynamic Eggs with Organic Soy & Homemade XO $19
Our first entree arrives and it's the Homestyle Fried Biodynamic Eggs with Organic Soy & Homemade XO. I adore XO chili sauce (a heady mix made with dried scallop, seafood, chili, onion and garlic) and the homemade XO in this is delicious. The fried biodynamic eggs has some liquid egg yolk throughout which gives it a creamy texture against the fried egg whilst the hot chilis, oyster sauce and spring onions give it a spice and flavour. It doesn't come with our rice and needs it and the maitre'd notices and brings us a bowl of rice quickly. I loved these so much, I found the recipe on her site and now include this in a regular weekly meal rotation.
Yabbies with XO sauce $39
Our second dish is the Yabbies with XO sauce (can you tell I like XO sauce?) which is on the specials menu. It;s a large plate with a tangle of halved yabbies. One thing you'll need to eat this is the ability to extract tiny amount of meat with your hands.
Yabbies are tiny creatures with very little meat in the body and the sweetest meat is in their small pincers-and beware when you crack these as the sauce can go everywhere. Whilst the flavour was great, pulling apart these tiny little things proves a little tiresome and we'd probably opt for prawns next time.
Special fried rice $15
The Special Fried Rice comes out and as it has Lup Cheong (Chinese sausage) I'm a happy camper being a big Lup Cheong fan.
Free Range Duck with organic mandarin oranges $46
The dish that I loved so much last time and I tried to recreate at home with some success is the Free range duck with organic mandarins. It's as delicious as I remember it with the duck first marinated with a salt and pepper mix, then twice cooked -first steamed and then fried with an aromatic spice mix including star anise, cinnamon and tangy fish sauce and lime. It's the table's favourite and every piece is gone within a flash.
Red-Braised, Caramelised Organic Pork Belly with Chinese Coleslaw $47
Our last dish to come out is the Red-Braised, Caramelised Organic Pork Belly with Chinese Coleslaw. One strange thing that our waitress asked us was "Have you tried Pork Belly before?" and we answer yes of course. She says "I have to ask as sometimes people order it and it was not what they were expecting". It's an unusual comment - looking around sure there's an almost exclusively non Asian clientele but presumably one familiar with things such as pork belly but I guess you never assume. The richly unctuous pork belly cubes are delicious and well paired with the clean fragrant Chinese coleslaw which is rich in fresh coriander and mint.
We're stuffed full and signal for the bill. There is one dessert, a fruit plate with Cocolo Organic Fair Trade chocolate but alas there's no room. During the evening several diners are turned away and a couple stand outside so we feel that we can't really linger. We also notice that the table of two women next to us can't finish their meal so they offer to give it to them to take away. Whilst the price is a matter of contention for some of our dining party (Mr NQN feels that it's expensive for such a small, noisy place with tiny tables), we mostly agree that the food was delicious and that it was worth it for a special occasion.
Shop 3, 355 Crown Street, Surry Hills, NSW
tel: +61 2 9332 3300
No bookings except for 1 table which seats 6-8 people.