Last week I slid in for a quiet midweek dinner at General Chao in the Chatswood Interchange.
It opened last year amidst considerable fanfare, attracting much cooing from the usual canapes-for-comment, rent-a-crowd, most impressed by the eye-catching décor featuring Shanghai girls in cool blues and greens.
Sitting somewhere in-between the hawker-inspired outlets that make up the bulk of District Dining, and a standalone restaurant, it achieves its sense of separation by tucking the dining space and private dining areas around the corner from the main thoroughfare.
Peering through shibari-style window bondage, diners can either take in the underlying railway tracks, or look inwards toward a more coquettish mural hovering over a kitchen that is open on both sides.
We sit right on the quiet cusp of restaurant and (empty) bar, where leafy green palms, bamboo bucket chairs and low-slung lounges give it a last outpost of empire look. The colonial motif should clue you in that General Chao is all about contemporary reinterpretations of Asian cuisines, with prices, portions and heat levels designed for the Australian palate.
We partake in Pickles ($8.50), whetting our appetites with sour soy celery, while the bar gets busy with our cocktails. This tangy favourite is presented with fermented kimchi-style nashi pear batons balanced Jenga-style; cauliflower in a curry-like piccalilli; star anise-heavy radish and juicy fermented cucumber that strikes me as a bit bland.
The Whisky Smash ($22), which uses Sichuan and pink peppercorn syrup and Vietnamese mint to take Monkey Shoulder to South East Asia, turns out to be a gentle aperitif. For a more serious whisky cocktail, try the Craigellachie 13-year-old Single Malt Old Fashioned ($29) that teams the fruity yet smoky Speyside tipple with torched and dehydrated pineapple, cooled with a hand-chipped sphere of ice.
Cleverly steered into Sheriff Woody ($20) by the floor team, who inject personality and opinion appropriately and with comfort, I experience my cocktail of the night. Teaming milk clarified Del Maguay Mezcal with Wyborowa Vodka, mango, green pomelo, coconut, lime and spices, it takes your palate on a journey through smokiness and toasty coconut brightened up with acidity. It's a lovely drink.
In terms of bar bites, the Beef Rendang Pie ($8.50) should be a given. The dry coconut curry beef really lends itself towards being a pie filling against pleasurable pastry, and green chilli and coriander chutney that gives your tongue a tiny tickle.
Coated in “too many” herbs and spices, the General’s Fried Chicken ($8.50) is another winner, particularly against the house-fermented sriracha it comes with.
Saucing is General Chao’s strong suit, so dabble in one of the house-made XO sauces, particularly if you’re planning on playing with the Giant Pork Bun ($14.50). Spicy XO ($8) made on dried shrimp, Jinhua ham, garlic and three kinds of chilli, will save the bun from being too ‘bready’, even though it comes with its own heavily smoked black vinegar that tastes like it's been in a fire pit. (Defend it vehemently against staff clearing intrusions - you’ll want it for your meat.)
The bun’s interior, made from tender braised free-range pork belly, crunchy chestnuts, shallots and mustard greens, is a bit of a show-stopper.
Chargrilled Wagyu Beef ($34) takes boneless rib meat somewhere smoky and tender with a 24-hour braise. It’s served with yuzu jam (remember to look for it under the meat) and artful puddles of mild sesame gochujang, though it eats better in the smoky vinegar you've been hoarding.
The 2017 Forest Hill Gewürztraminer ($16/glass) from the Great Southern has enough acidity and minerality to combat the richness of the meat, with lychee notes making it a good cuisine match overall.
Chao’s Special Fried Rice ($30) is interesting enough to be a dish in its own right. With big chunks of smoked bacon, rings of Chinese sausage, juicy green peas, and prawn chunks that aren’t tasteless, it’s tied together with classic XO and dotted with garlic chips under a mayonnaise net.
That said, the Stir-Fried Razor Clams ($36) – which our waiter says come all the way from Scotland – really do beg to be scraped out onto the rice to really make the most of their saucy Conpoy XO goodness, levelled up with premium dried scallop.
Basically, the only thing I missed at General Chao was chilli heat, and that’s even with ordering the spicy XO. I was however impressed with how they create umami and flavour in their sauces, so picked up the Sambal ($10) and house-fermented Sriracha ($10) to take home.
436 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood
Ph: (02) 9411 7977