Restaurant Ka is a degustation only restaurant in Darlinghurst. Chef Zachary Ng serves up a Chef's Table experience to 10 people seated around the open kitchen. The menu has nods to Zac's Cantonese heritage with Japanese influences and uses Australian produce. The restaurant is hidden away in the midst of inner city Sydney, with little to no signage and has the feel of a clandestine hideout or club.
Monica is holding her phone. "I think we have to go towards Crown Street," she says moving her phone in different directions like a lost bushwalker holding a compass. "Is this it? I think it is," I say pointing to a building with a small framed menu on the outside but no sign. Chef and owner Zac Ng sees us standing outside and opens the door and welcomes us in.
Chef Zac Ng
The name Ka is named after the Cantonese word for "home" to make it Zac's home away from home. One wall features black and white photos of his children and he named two mocktails after his eldest and middle sons. Restaurant Ka opened in October 2022 but has been in concept for a few years - it was during COVID that Zac made the beeswax glazed Binchotan chopstick rests.
Zac hails from Hong Kong where his interest in cooking started at 9 years of age. At ages 11-12 he was helping his parents cook the family meals and by 14 he was taking orders for what his family wanted to eat. In 2004 he moved to Australia to study. His parents didn't want him to become a chef and wanted him to get a degree to fall back on so he did the next best thing combining the two worlds with a degree in business management (restaurant and catering). More recently he has worked as Head Chef at Chinese restaurant XOPP and contemporary Japanese restaurant Sepia. It was while working at the latter that he first considered opening up his own restaurant where he could explore ways to impart some Chinese and Cantonese elements into his cooking.
Monica and I take a seat at the stunning orange quartzite bar. We are the first to arrive at just before 6pm and after us the remaining guests file in and take a seat. "I need a cocktail," says Monica who has had a week. She orders a Zegroni with Szechuan pepper infused Four Pillars rare gin, Campari, Ambrosia and Vermouth while I sip on a glass of champagne.
The menu details 8 courses with 2 optional courses and is $180 per person with a wine pairing for $110. The cocktails are also designed by Zac who did a bar and mixology course when he was 19 years old. "I found making cocktails and mocktails is just as fun as cooking," says Zac and all of the syrups are made in house from the salty kombu syrup, star anise syrup and Szechuan pepper flavoured gin.
"Does everyone like oysters?" asks Zac. Diners are addressed as one group. Zac was initially reluctant to have an open kitchen, "I didn't like the idea of working in an open kitchen in the past, nor talking to guests and strangers." But his eldest son who was 3 years old at the time was finding it difficult to interact with other kids and Zac thought that having an open kitchen would take him out of his comfort zone and become a positive influence for his son.
Royal Miyagi Pacific Oyster
The first oyster course is an optional extra. The Royal Miyagi Pacific oyster is served with a ginger and lemon dressing which really enhances the creamy oysters and balances it. Sitting at the bar affords guests a prime view of the other chefs taking tweezers to the delicate and detailed dishes. This evening Zac has three other chefs Benny Sanjaya from Cedric's bistro, Aldwin Steven from Chaco Bar and Poly and Pita Permata Dewi from Bennelong and Woodcut.
My favourite part of a meal is always seems to be the snacks. This is a three parter: the first is truffle squid with an orange thyme vinegar on top of a house-made squid cracker. This is the sort of snack you could eat all day long as every bite is gloriously crunchy, soft and balanced. The second is grilled corn on a buttery biscuit with shaved manchego on top - this is rich and the biscuit is very short so it draws the moisture from your mouth. The third is a little morsel with savoury celeriac, foie gras and guava. This reminds me of a luxe version of the flakey Choi Xi Soh or radish/turnip puffs at yum cha and again I could eat a dozen and be very happy.
The next course is one of my favourites of the night. The blue mackerel from Wollongong is served as slices with beautiful iridescent silvery blue skin. The mackerel is soaked and dressed with a Szechuan soy and vinegar dressing with sesame. It is then served with the tiniest baby capers, cornichons, pickled jalapeños and witlof that reminds me of that classic wafu dressing. Each mouthful is gorgeously piquant and full of flavour and aroma.
The next dish has spanner crab, ginger, shallot, tiny cubes of tender potato, crushed potato chips, garlic chips, chilli powder and finished with fresh tomato sauce. Every bite has a lot of different flavours and textures to it but each bite ends in the flavour of spanner crab.
Port Lincoln Calamari
Then comes my favourite dish of the night. While the spanner crab course prior had a cast of thousands this is all about simplicity. We watch as they cook some calamari on high heat for 20 seconds and then pair it with a sauce made with squid ink, green shallots and smokey burnt shallot dust dusted over the dish. It looks like noodles and is superbly tender and I eat it strand by strand just to keep the eating experience going.
Buns with butter
Then they slide over a plate of two plump buns with butter. The wholemeal buns have been pan fried like dumplings so that they are crisp on the bottom but soft and spongey on top. They are paired with a whipped butter flavoured with soy sauce and sweetened condensed milk that are perfect and designed for mopping up that squid ink sauce.
The next course is one we were both looking forward to as we both love suckling pig. Here the pork has been deboned and all of the meat removed and diced and mixed it so that you get a range of textures which also increases the moisture inside of the pork. Then it is stuffed back in to the skin and then cooked so that the skin has a gloriously thin, glass-like crackling and the meat is seasoned, moist and moreish. The pork could do with a tiny bit of seasoning but it's perfectly paired with the silky pear butter and half moons of pickled nashi pear.
Spatchcock (black truffle supplement $20)
We are getting to the final savoury course which in Chinese meals usually involves rice. This is spatchcock with rice paired with chicken stock shiitake mushroom, chestnuts and freshly shaved Western Australian black truffle. To finish the dish the chefs add some crispy spatchcock skin. This is a comforting dish with the rice, spatchcock, mushrooms and sweet chestnuts and the truffles really add a lovely aroma to it.
Fromager d'Affinois Ice Cream (supplement $30)
The next course is an optional course but it's worth getting because it's not often you get offered d'Affinois cheese ice cream. The tangy, savoury cheese ice cream is beautifully smooth and has a rich, tanginess sort of like a yogurt. It's served on a bed of shaved hazelnuts with candied lotus seeds that have a fruity tanginess to them. On top of it is shaved truffle that makes it even more luxe.
Candy Heart Grapes
We are on our penultimate course and it has now been about 2 hours of dining. This is the palate refresher course made with a candy heart grape granita with tiny compressed celery cubes and a Granny Smith yogurt sorbet and tiny pops of finger lime. The sweet grape granita is balanced by the celery that never seems out of place in this pre-dessert.
Chinese Date Pudding
The final course and dessert is having its debut tonight. It's Zac's version of a sticky date pudding. His version uses Chinese red dates and pairs the slice of pudding with a butterscotch sauce atop a bed of walnut and cocoa nib crumble. On top of this is an apricot kernel ice cream that has a strong almond flavour to it from the kernels and to finish there's an iso malt and apricot kernel round tuile. Added to this is a final sprinkle with fine pu'er tea powder. By now we are so full but this is such a lovely, comforting dessert that I make surprising inroads (hey it's a separate stomach).
That also means that despite my protests to the contrary I do have room for the tiny macarons at the end served with tea. These are black sesame macarons filled with salted soy sauce caramel. I'm not usually a big macaron eater but these are the perfect size for that final bite.
Pop, chew, swallow.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you believe that there's a separate stomach for dessert? And do you sometimes eat a dish really slowly to draw out the eating experience?
NQN and Monica were guests f Restaurant Ka but all opinions remain her own.
13B Burton St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010
Phone: 0450 885 888
Tuesday to Saturday 6–10:30 pm
Sunday & Monday closed