If there’s one thing Chris Lucas wants you to know about his new Windsor restaurant, Hawker Hall, it’s that it’s not Chin Chin 2.0.
“I don’t mind people saying, ‘It’s the guys from Chin Chin’. We’re not running away from that,” he says. “It’s just that we want Hawker Hall to stand up for itself and have its own identity.”
Which it does. But it’s also impossible not to draw the connection. There’s no mistaking that initimable energy we’ve seen at the Lucas Group’s first three restaurants: Baby and Kong, but Chin Chin most of all.
A lot of that is down to the thumping sound system by Urban Intelligence, the same company which did the audio for Chin Chin. Given the right track – on our visit, it was a fun club remix of Dolly Parton’s Jolene – you’ll feel the bass as much as you hear it. You might also feel a little hoarse after your visit. The weekday playlists are compiled by PBS’ Miss Goldie, who also rosters the DJs who spin from Thursday to Sunday.
Then there’s the buzz generated by 160 diners, who are spread beneath strings of festoon lights and a row of vertical signs advertising mock hawker stalls: "Chong Lee economy noodle"; "Open late for hungry people"; and so on.
On another wall, the venue’s motto, Forever Independent, is spelled out in neon orange letters. Like Kong, the space teeters on the edge of kitsch but never quite falls in, thanks to the good taste of interior designers Eades & Bergman and Craig Tan Architects.
The din is nearly matched by the open kitchen, where ten or more chefs work banks of deep-fryers, custom wok hobs and charcoal burners for cooking satays. Counter diners get a front-row view of this and head chef Damian Snell (ex-Charlie Dumpling) who spends most of his time at the pass, barking, “Where are my satays?” or “Get that CKT (char kway teow) plated up!”
He’s mirrored by the group’s executive chef, the mohawked Benjamin Cooper, who paces outside, keeping track of dozens and dozens of dockets. For the time being, he’s spending five days a week at Hawker Hall, and two at Chin Chin.
The menu runs to more than 60 items, with nothing over $20. The food isn’t much like Chin Chin’s or Kong’s, but Cooper’s deft hand is apparent in everything from the moreish curried potato cakes with lemon and five-spice mayonnaise; to the mutton biryani, sprinkled with blackened, deep-fried chillis.
The main difference is in the spice. As at Chin Chin, there’s no holding back on the heat, but it’s often matched with cumin, turmeric and cinnamon: those classic Indian spices with less of a toehold in Thai cooking.
This influence is clearest in dishes such as the mutarbak, a sealed pocket of roti stuffed with curried noodles and potato; or the aromatic chickpea curry drizzled with cumin yoghurt. Elsewhere things do shoot for a straighter South-East Asian flavour, such as the smashed fried chicken with coconut sambal; or the Hainanese chicken with bok choy.
As Lucas has often said, this is food that more or less demands a salving beer to accompany it. With 18 taps on site, there are plenty to choose from, including the house brand, Shiki. It’s brewed as a lager, pale ale and white ale, the same easy-drinking styles that dominate the rest of the menu. The small serving sizes – 200 millilitres and 370 millilitres – mean there’s plenty of scope to try new beers over the course of your meal. Just watch the wallet – if 285 millilitre pots were available, the equivalent price would be $7 or more.
It’s a recipe that seems destined for success. A model vibe; 60 well-executed dishes; and 18 taps pouring beers even the most casual drinker will enjoy.
No, it’s not another Chin Chin. But could it be the next Chin Chin? For a restaurant that served 500 customers in its first four hours (according to Lucas), it’s off to a running start.
98 Chapel Street, Windsor
(03) 8560 009
Mon to Sun: 11am‒late