What TV Shows did you grow up with?
For me, it will be Full House, The Wonder Years, Ultraman, Kamen Rider Super and of course, the Monkey Magic.
Having said that, as I only came to Australia 14 years ago, I have actually never watched the more popular Japanese version that was shown in Australia back in 80s but only the Chinese version called Saiyuki (西遊記）by HK TVB. I loved that show and it truly had captured my childhood imaginations, the flying cloud on command, the wishing staff that can shrink and expand, the ability to conjure monkey clones by blowing on hairs plucked from his chest, what not to love?
But how does this cult classic of a sixteenth century Chinese novel translate into food? The Pom and I are invited to the Monkey Magic restaurant in Surry Hills, so here we are, on a quest for culinary enlightenment.
Monkey Magic is exceptionally easy to find on Crown Street, right opposite Billy Kwong, Marque and Bills. The restaurant may look small from the outside, but a short staircase leads to the dining area above ground is almost triple the size of the shopfront, it is a Tardis in disguise.
The spacious dining room is slick and modern, motifs of nimbus clouds and the Monkey’s golden crown are painted in gold on the wooden-clad wall, shimmering under the flickering candlelight adds a touch of playfulness to the sophisticated space. We have booked a table for 7pm on Wednesday night, hence it is no surprise to find the restaurant is little quieter than usual.
We are seated at the right far end of the restaurant, away from the communal tables. It doesn’t take long for us swaying cocktails in one hand while perusing the menu. My minami azabu is a sake martini instead of gin, highlighted with a simple mix of lychee and a hint of ginger. But The Pom’s Hibicus Hana is more exciting, a refreshing cocktail with fresh crushed apple poured short with wild hibicus, Cognac and finish with a smooth vanilla liqueur.
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Monkey Magic offers an eclectic Asian fusion menu with majority Japanese, one does need an open mind when comes to order from the extensive menu.
We start off with a few appetizers to share, bowl of edamame is sprinkled with pink salt liberally. Despite I enjoy the pleasure of nibbling on the pod and pop each soybean into my mouth, I am actually more interested in the renkon chip. The paper thin lotus root slices are deep fried then flavoured with pink salt, the golden crunchy chips are surprisingly not oily at all and extremely additive, we finish the whole bowl within seconds.
The salt and pepper cuttlefish is also another winner. The bite-size cuttlefish tiles are tender and bouncy, deep fried with a light batter that is just right and not overly salty, served on a bed of crunchy bean sprouts salad with coriander and chilli.
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Then we move on the side dishes. Duck pancake is The Pom’s favourite, but the version at Monkey Magic is somewhat different from what you’d get at a Chinese restaurant.
There are four slices of plump roasted duck meat served with buckwheat pancakes that are rather on the thick side, a side of shredded cucumber offers refreshing crunch to balance with the richness of the protein and a saucer of dark miso paste is thick and salty, the flavour somewhat reminds us of vegemite.
The beetroot cured kingfish is the most beautiful dish presented this evening. The kingfish can easily be mistaken as Chinese BBQ pork with a crimson red edges from the curing of beetroot juice, it is sweet and earthy, nicely balanced with a hint of tangy yuzy dressing, whereas the cute cucumber pearls add texture.
We then move on to the sushi and sashimi selection. Michiaki Miyazaki, is the head sushi chef at the restaurant with his own sushi counter where all the sushi are skillfully prepared.
We opt for the assorted sashimi selection which consists of the common trio – salmon, kingfish and tuna, with pairing condiments of wasabi, daikon and miso dressing, and avocado with tobiko dressing which can be a little too much for the delicate flavour of the fish. I prefer to have my sashimi with just a quick dip of soy sauce and let the freshness of the fish do the talking.
For sushi, we simply can’t go past the soft shell crab roll. This is the first time I’ve tasted the sushi roll being served warm, it is a nice touch to keep the deep fried soft shell crab still hot and crispy, topped with tobiko roe and fried leek to add texture and finished off with a rather mild spicy mayonnaise.
By the time we ready for our mains, we are already seaf00d-ed out and stick with proteins. I have my eye set on the slow-cooked pork belly. The dish arrives with a big hunk of soy-braised pork belly, smothered in a dark but almost black sweet caramel soy gravy, underneath is a bed of smooth apple and ginger puree. The pork belly is succulent and tender with ribbons of fat that goes straight to my thighs, nicely balanced with a refreshing tangy salad of fennel, chinese cabbage, orange and chives.
The black angus sirloin is grilled to order, a nice pink medium rare that is still tender and juicy, the sweetness of the beef is enhanced by a simple tangy plum steak sauce, served on a bed of humble braised silver beet that adds texture.
A quick check on foursquare, the only tip I’ve received is to check out their dessert, the black sesame creme caramel in particular. We are so glad that we did, the grey-ish looking creme caramel is indeed lusciously smooth with a strong nutty flavour in the toffee syrup. A scoop of coconut ice cream adds richness, sprinkled with pink peppercorns which we find them a little overpowering with the sudden numbing heat like SzeChuan peppercorn. The overall sweetness of the dessert is toned down with tart poached pear in red wine.
Another dessert we share is the silken tofu cake. Unfortunately the cake doesn’t really have the right texture what a silken tofu cake should be, it is a little too dense and curdy for my liking whereas a silken tofu cake should be light and fluffy. It also comes with a cup of mysterious sauce which I believe is made of plum that has a peculiar flavour that doesn’t really work together with the cake. But I find the tangy white lemon sorbet is strangely addictive and no trouble finish it all on its own.
It is almost 9pm by the time we finish our meal, but surprisingly the restaurant is now lot more busier than before with a few patrons just come in for late dinner. I am absolutely full to the brim and walking out of the restaurant is an absolute struggle, now I only wish I could just hop onto a flying cloud and send me home while I have a food coma snooze.
Monkey Magic 3 & 4/410 Crown St Surry Hills, NSW, Australia, 2010 T: +61 2 9358 4444 Opening Hours: monday to saturday 6pm to 10pm
[ATFT and The Pom dined as guest of Monkey Magic]