“If you have a perception of what a dish should be and you come here, I’m going to break that,” says chef Son Sewoo. That’s the first rule of General Chao.
The second rule of General Chao is to expect a flair for the dramatic. When Broadsheet visits, a two-kilogram tomahawk steak is delivered on a large bamboo tray to a nearby group. It’s carved at the table and finished with Australian seaweed butter.
At another table a salted-coconut and roasted-rice pudding with Thai green-curry ice-cream is served on a bed of fragrant herbs and so much liquid nitrogen that smoke cascades over the table long after the server has walked away.
Even the humble pork bun gets the ceremonial treatment. It’s enormous, cut in quarters and served with shining silver tongs to each diner.
“We’re taking inspiration from the street food of pan-Asian countries – from Thailand to Japan – and preparing it with Western techniques,” Sewoo says.
Sewoo’s kitchen is in the centre of an oblong-shaped space at the back of Chatswood Interchange’s upmarket food court, District Dining. In that kitchen everything is made from scratch: the 24-hour master-stock braised pork belly; the sriracha and Kewpie-esque mayonnaise that goes with the spicy, crisp fried chicken; and all six of the XO sauces.
If the menu is decadent, the addition of XO sauces ups the ante. On one end of the spectrum there’s the classic XO made from dried shrimp, ginger, garlic and ham. At the other end is the outrageous “New Style Super Premium XO” made from black truffles, Tasmanian abalone, premium dried scallop and shrimp, jamón and gold leaf. “We want to take XO sauce to the next level,” Sewoo says.
But just because over-the-top is available, that doesn’t mean you have to play along. It’s possible to have an outstanding feed and still eat simple, classic dishes. A pork bun followed by salt and pepper eggplant, a saucy, spicy kung pao chicken, and fried banana with ginger ice-cream is an utterly satisfying meal. You could also get the Singaporean chilli crab.
The very talented Michael Chiem of CBD bar PS40 has designed the mocktails, and they’re great. The refreshing Shrub and Garden combines PS40’s lemon myrtle and lemongrass bush tonic with pea, spearmint, rosemary and thyme for a delicately sweet, complex drink. The cocktail list is excellent as well. Try the Jean Claude Pandan, a rummy clarified-milk punch finished with pandan, coconut and pineapple.
Like the food, General Chao’s dining space is dramatic. It’s a tricky feat considering its location in a shopping centre, but as you ascend the escalator you can see its large neon sign shining from the window and a huge mural of an elegant woman painted above the bar. The space brims with an energy that emanates from Sewoo and his knowledgeable, skilful staff.
“I’m so excited to open this venue,” he says in the days before it officially launches. “I’ve got so much adrenaline; I feel like I’m drunk every day.”
District Dining, 436 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood
(02) 9411 7977
Mon to Wed, Sun 12pm–10pm
Fri & Sat 12pm–12am