“I started telling people that we weren’t ever actually opening a restaurant, but it was a performance art piece to see how long we could keep people’s interest,” jokes Patrick Friesen, co-executive chef for Enmore’s Queen Chow – a venue that’s been flagged for launch for a year now. The opening date kept playing slip-and-slide, moving from late 2015 to January 2016; then April, shifting to late spring, before Merivale finally unlocked the doors in mid-December.
Merivale’s blockbuster-heavy line-up was partly the reason for the delays (The Newport dropped in March, Fred’s in October and in August, CEO Justin Hemmes was so swayed by community support to save The Alexandria Hotel, that he snapped up the pub before he’d even walked inside).
But the extensive drumroll for Queen Chow’s opening began long before launch dates were announced, with Patrick Instagram-taunting us with experiments via the #enmorechinese hashtag for nearly two years now. There were previews of Queen Chow at 2016’s March Into Merivale and Newtown Festival events and the hype and interest that’s been revving for all this time paid off with the venue’s opening. I’ve been three times since launch and I’m working out how to go back without seeming stalkerish.
I like how executive chefs (and Papi Chulo co-conspirators) Patrick Friesen and Christopher Hogarth have both maintained and reframed classic Chinese dishes, with help from Mr Wong‘s Eric Koh – who gives you plenty of reason to turn your table into a loading dock for his excellent dumplings.
My favourite time to go is weekend lunch, when you can fully flex your way through the dim sum menu as well as all the other menu categories, from “snacks” to “stir-fried” and beyond. Incidentally, the roast meats (a section looked after by Jibeck Lee) and the Hokkaido Scallop Sashimi (backed up by shiso, yuzu, soya milk and an unlikely touch of quinoa) are the only long-term survivors of Patrick’s #enmorechinese days.
And while you may recognise some dishes from Eric Koh’s dim sum menu at Mr Wong, there are some Queen Chow extras that you can only score here: such as the Alaskan Chilli Crab Meat Dumplings ($16) and Oven Baked Egg Tarts ($12). After stockpiling bamboo steamers during various visits with friends, our favourites have been the Crystal Pumpkin Dumplings $12 (with its crunch of roasted peanut and hint of coriander), the savoury ammo rounds of Oven Baked Char Siu Puffs ($12), the ultra-packed Wild Mushroom Dumplings ($12) and the crisp pockets of Panfried Chicken and Chive Dumpling ($12). It’s also agreed that the Queen Chow take on cheung fun – cuttlefish stuffed into fried bread, then laced inside a rice noodle roll ($15) – is the Turducken of dim sum and underscores the “fun” in the title.
Of course, it’s worth busting into some other (non-dim-sum) sections of the menu, too. If you’re unafraid of high-blast heat, you can head into the danger zone presented by the Chonq Qing Hot and Numbing Chicken Wings ($18), which is made with six spring-trap-sharp types of chilli (with three kinds of sichuan peppers just to dial up the flames). It was fascinating to watch the jackpot of responses from friends who were game to try this – one liked the lip-tingling effect, another savoured the dish’s raging party of flavours; on the flipside, though, one friend had to leave the room to recover, and another did not like the dish’s non-consensual obliteration of your senses, the way the chilli-spiked chicken was so hot it hijacked all your other feelings.
By contrast, the Stir-Fried Milk ($24) was universally loved. It’s inspired by the version at Pang’s Kitchen in Hong Kong, but instead of large scallops, the chefs have added crunchy prawn, roe and tobiko, fried bread and chopped chives to slash through all that creaminess. (Helen Yee of Grab Your Fork also names it as a must-try dish in her great post on Queen Chow.) I was lucky enough to sample a one-off vegetarian version – I loved how this unassuming cloud of milk and egg ends up retaining all these surprise power boosts of flavour; I hope they might slip that alternative onto the menu one day.
Incidentally, like many Merivale venues, there’s actually a dedicated vegetarian menu if you just ask nicely. It features an ace Salt and Pepper Silken Tofu with Chilli Bean Mayo ($12) that’s ultra-seasoned with a crusty mix of sugar, salt, spices and MSG that has been wok-toasted. “Salt and pepper without MSG is really shit,” says Patrick, sticking up for the unfortunately maligned flavour enhancer (MSG occurs naturally in tomatoes and cheese, after all, yet is too often used to scapegoat Asian food).
There’s also Silken Tofu ($14), laid out like stepping stones topped with vegetarian XO, pickled long beans and shiitake mushroom floss. The veg XO, especially, is jumped up with spice and dense flavour, thanks to Patrick’s detailed recipe – a throwback to his days at Ms.G’s, when Dan Hong wanted something to soup up a vegie noodle dish. “I went to the Chinese grocer and just picked all the dried and fresh veggies that I thought had the most umami as possible,” recalls Patrick. Salted radish, black beans, garlic, chilli, sun-dried tomatoes, fried shallots, five-spice tofu and red dates were super-charged together for maximum impact. (Or to be less dramatic, Patrick soaked, chopped and fried them one by one and kept them in the frying oil.) “It was, and is, super tasty and I wanted to use it again here,” he says.
There’s also a vego version of Slightly Fires the Emperor, made with macadamia and garlic chive and wryly renamed Slightly Fires the Buddha ($14); this twist on a classic dai pai dong dish comes courtesy of a recent research trip to Hong Kong, where the executive chefs hit both street stalls and Michelin-starred joints pretty hard, doubling down on mealtimes (smashing your third meal by 1pm counts as heavy-duty research, right?). For some dishes at Queen Chow (like the Typhoon Shelter Crab), the chefs wanted to maintain as much authenticity as possible. For others, it wasn’t so much about creating a museum-perfect level of precision or replication. The Black Market Angus Beef, with Baby King Oyster Mushroom and Potato ($32), for instance, reminds Patrick of growing up in Canada: “We ate potatoes at least two meals a day. Sometimes three.”
This dish is like the “Chinese steak and chips”, even though “it’s not really a Chinese dish per se”, he says. (Either way, Will approves – he’s a fan of it.) The executive chefs tried a well-known version at Tin Cheung restaurant in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po area, which is more like a Western dish that’s been made Chinese, notes Patrick. He tweaked it, making the sauce more similar to Vietnamese Bo Luc Lac. “It’s really a giant mash-up of cultures, but who cares because it’s so damn delicious.” Will loves the spuds in this, and could it be because they’re cooked in supreme stock, dried out and then fried for next-level effect?
Do not apply the brakes if you get to the dessert menu – the offerings are actually excellent. (Even the fruit platter is kinda interesting if that’s your thing – think dragonfruit and passionfruit instead of the old template of orange wedges.) The Forgotten Koi Fish in the Frozen Pond ($15) is named after a pet-owning tragedy, where Patrick’s mum would forget goldfish in their Canadian backyard pond and the water would freeze over in winter – with fish intact and mid-swim. RIP pets – you were the inspiration for this surprisingly sunny dessert. There’s mango pudding, fashioned from fresh Kensington Prides and Boiron mango puree. Beneath is a lychee granita ‘pond’ that’s garnished with tosaka seaweed to maintain the fish-trapped illusion. But this isn’t just an obituary to long-gone koi; the light, summer-bright dessert is like a spin through the colour wheel, thanks to its salad of pomelo, lychee, coconut, extra mango and coconut cream.
For me, the Coffee Milk Tea ($15) dessert is an utter standout. Inspired by the drink of the same name that’s found at cha chaan teng teahouses in Hong Kong, here it’s translated into this beautiful dress-frill of coffee mousse dusted with praline powder – all bolstered by coffee milk tea ice cream, chocolate cake, caramel tea brûlée and the satisfying crunch of salted caramel callebaut pearls. “It’s like tiramisu meets trifle meets cha chaan teng,” says Patrick.
You might want to create a defensive formation around this dish if you’re not willing to share it, ‘cos smart table-mates will want to lay instant claim to your servings. (It’s that good.)
I always suspected Queen Chow would be excellent; its baseline quality was bound to be high – thanks to a kitchen led by Friesen and Hogarth. The space itself is also pretty atmospheric. It’s housed inside the renamed (and refurbished) Queens Hotel, which also hosts a dark, moody bar with a punchline name (The Smelly Goat). If you can, head upstairs to the charming, light-dazed rooftop area, complete with summery shutters and the kind of strategically art-directed planters that you could imagine being Pinterest-bait. It all feels open and generously sun-struck, but is cleverly rain-proof and weather-protective. The setting’s another reason you’ll want to hang out at Queen Chow, which will hopefully have a long reign down this end of Enmore Road – a strip that already admits membership to many excellent eateries (from Cow and Moon and Stanbuli to Hartsyard and the curfew-busting Saray). Queen Chow makes for deserving company.
Level 1, Queens Hotel, 167 Enmore Road, Enmore NSW 9240 3000, www.merivale.com.au/queenchow