Dim sum at Mr. Wong is more a ceremony than a meal – a ceremony we’d like to take part in daily if it were possible. Baked and fried options are presented on fine ceramic-ware. Steamed dumplings are placed on the table still nestled in their bamboo steamers. They come in a medley of jewel-like tones and are crafted so deftly they look like rosebuds: there’s the finely folded jade seafood and ku chive dumpling and, with its crowning glory of bright-orange crab roe, the scallop and prawn shumai. While designed to look beautiful, they’re also melt-in-your-mouth delicious – so they never stay in that steamer for long. The dumplings are always the first order to roll off our tongue whenever we visit.
When Dan Hong opened Cantonese-style restaurant Mr. Wong with Merivale in 2012, he knew his dim sum needed to be next level. Inspired by the prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants of Hong Kong, his dumplings were to be offered à la carte, cooked to order and served straight off the steamer. There’s a time and a place for trolley dim sum (and Hong would know; he often makes the five-minute walk from Mr. Wong to Palace Chinese Restaurant for lunch) but it is not here. Instead, at this laneway locale in the CBD, it’s about quality and refinement over quantity.
We love Mr. Wong’s dim sum platter because the best produce possible is used to create the “one-bite wonders”, as executive chef Hong describes them. It is this that sets them apart from the dumplings of other Chinese restaurants in Sydney. Flavour combinations such as mushroom and water chestnut; pan-fried chicken and chive; and poached pork and asparagus are encased in wrappers both exquisitely fine and expertly pleated; before being steamed, baked or fried.
You can see the care and precision they’ve been made with in every pleat; whenever they arrive at our table, it always makes us feel like royalty. To achieve this level of craftsmanship, “We had to find the best dim sum chef we could possibly get,” says Hong. “And you wouldn‘t be able to find that person in Sydney.” First at the helm was Eric Koh, who moved to the city from the Michelin-starred Hakkasan London, before Michael Luo – hot from the kitchen of Hakkasan Dubai – was appointed the new dim sum head chef in July this year.
“Ever since he started he’s taken the dim sum to the next level,” says Hong of Luo. “Especially with his baked and fried items, which I thought weren’t as good as the steamed ones. Now, we’re killing it with the dim sum.” We agree: we love all the dumplings whether they’re steamed, baked or fried.
Although Hong, who also oversees restaurants Ms. G’s and El Loco, is no longer on the woks himself, he’s a hands-on boss: calling the pass during service and working closely with Luo and head chef Brendan Fong on ideas for new dishes. On the day we chat they’re debuting four, including typhoon-shelter-crab fried rice. That’s in between raising two kids with his wife and scouring the internet for rare sneakers. He documents this through his popular Instagram account, which has almost 30,000 followers. We’re envious of his sneaker collection and amazed by his ability to source the flyest Flyknits for himself and the tiniest Tubulars for his kids. That’s dedication.
For all the sophistication of Hong and his food, it is also the attitude and approachability that has won us over.
“I love his stories, from growing up eating his mum’s [respected Vietnamese restaurateur, Angie Hong] food, to his experiences in places such as Tetsuya’s, Marque and Bentley,” says friend and colleague Paul Donnelly, head chef at Ms. G’s. “There’s never a dull day in the kitchen when Hongy is about. He is a pretty easy-going guy, he loves a laugh – but we all know the standard that he likes his kitchens and food to be at.”
Hong’s complete lack of pretension is appealing. He was trained in fine dining but has a relaxed attitude. “I don’t cook food to try and challenge people, to be different or to be the next groundbreaking chef,” he says with a shrug. “I just want to cook food that I like eating and that I think people might like eating as well.” In a fiercely competitive industry that often is revolves around hype, it’s refreshing to hear.
We’ve spent many long lunches at Mr. Wong. Hong believes part of the appeal of eating dim sum is that you can take your time. It’s the ceremony involved, the whole package: “If there are constantly dumplings getting put on the table, you feel like you can just eat them forever.” And we often do.
When they are presented in front of you, Hong says, “you can see the amount of hard work that goes in to creating something so beautiful and delicious. It's a dying art nowadays, and it's a good feeling to know that we are still trying to keep these traditional techniques alive by teaching the younger chefs.”
The fact that we – and the rest of the country – are slightly obsessed with dumplings also has to do with “the multiculturalism of Australia,” he says. “With such a big Asian population here, they’re part of our identity.”
The reason we’ve fallen for the mighty Mr Hong is that he represents how we view ourselves: multicultural, lovers of quality and authenticity – but not ones to take ourselves too seriously.
That, and a simple caveat: “I’m not going to put anything on the menu that’s not delicious. That’s the one thing I can guarantee.”