birdman eating

Sydney notebook: Magic at billy kwong

Posted in travel by birdmaneating on January 2, 2009
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On fire

Kylie Kwong: On fire

The Desert Music, I think—that’s the place William Carlos Williams noted it’s the strange hours tourists happen onto stuff that makes even ordinary scenes seem, well, magical. And Alain de Botton says even a crummy sign in a foreign airport can seem steeped in the all the romance of travel, all the strangeness of new places—turned electric with anticipation you, the traveler, have juiced it up with. Like some foreign-current converter you pull from the bulging fanny pack of  your imagination.

It was a night that’d been drenched fitfully in rain. In a cab we hurtled through the dark, bent, eventually, for a late-ish meal at billy kwong, the mod-Cantonese place (originally co-owned with Bill Granger) by Sydney chef and author Kylie Kwong. Magical? It was, in a way so many restaurant experiences simply aren’t these days: a chain of advance bookings, the 5:30 seating you didn’t want, and anticipatory anxiety, leading ultimately to food that seems to wither on the plate under inspection, like a picked basil leaf under the 100-watt lightbulb of expectation.

Was it the drinks Perry and I had before we hit Kwong’s place? The murky glamour of some sleek, boozy Surry Hills hotel bar, where Aussie twentysomethings were sloppy celebrating the convergence of summer and Christmas. Wiry, handsome-ish guys in fauxhwaks or Rod Stewart rooster cuts; girl hotties in holiday-party sheath minis, some drunk as hell, tottering on the stairs down to the loo, in a dizzy spiral leading inevitably to vomit and remorse.

We walked the few blocks to billy kwong, me with an umbrella—a brittle claw of a thing stretched with nylon as flimsy as a popped balloon—cadged from the apartment we were renting. We’d read the warnings in any number of guidebooks: No reservations at Billy Kwong, only painful waits for the privilege of crowding with yahoos in a restaurant more than half a decade past hip, where the crispy duck with blood plum sauce could be either delicious or, well, not.
But just past a rainy 9:30, we were able to sit right down, after ditching my evil umbrella (one of its spines had already nicked a finger). No waiting, no pain: a small, dim room with black walls and an open door to the cooking line. Kwong herself was cooking—well, barking, standing at the central kitchen work table, calling out orders I think, clipping tickets to the clothesline-like wire that served as rail, clapping her hands, like Yul Brynner in The King and I, to summon a pickup.
What kind of crazy-ass universe do we inhabit, where a restaurant owner working in her own establishment can feel like grace? We ordered crispy duck with organic oranges. The bird’s joints looked nearly black, the skin furrowed and wizened like prunes—simultaneously delicate and husky, chewy, and dark-tasting, over flesh that managed to be both moist and well cooked. Its long platter was awash in thin sauce whose flavors balanced on a cleaver’s edge of salty, sweet, and tart. Sichuan peppery. Lapping against peeled orange rounds and long, papery twigs of cinnamon—a wonderful dish.
A stir-fry of bok choy, asparagus, and snow peas with oyster sauce was alright. Still, even with the duck, I felt we were missing the essential Kwong-ness of the place. I asked to re-examine the menu; the floor manager seemed to be anticipating a complaint.
Aussie-chirpy, blond, composed, slightly defensive:   “Can I help you choose something, sir?”
I think she got that I wanted to run my finger through the sap of the place; she pointed to the eggs. Fried eggs with scallion and chili. They came in a luscious puddle of oil: whites frizzled around the edges, like a nylon pot scrubby left too close to a burner. Bright, sloggy yolks. A jagged nest of julienne scallions and red chilies. The whites had absorbed the oil—it filled my mouth, left me with a luxurious sensation, gilded, unctuous, and slightly, wonderfully gross. Perry wasn’t sure about it—he didn’t like the feeling. But me? I loved it, the way, as a kid, I loved fried baloney sandwiches for Saturday lunch. Fiercely home style. Which, in this context, seemed really ballsy, as if Kwong were confident enough to float a dish at once intensely personal and exquisitely fusty. The kind of thing chefs list as guilty pleasures in silly Q&A-style magazine profiles.
Next came chicken livers, marinated (Shao hsing? Virgin peanut oil?) and fried, rosy and mashy. With a a cold heap of long-cooked yellow onion, sugary but still blond—no shitty French-onion-soup acridity from browning. A small gesture, but one that showed patience. Restraint. Virtuous and lovely. 
By now the kitchen was closing. Kwong took an empty table next to ours, sipped a glass of beer. Heaps of papers, a notebook, the blond floor manager. In her broad, authoritative Aussie voice, she dictated stuff to the manager. Okay, I was a tad starstruck. But Per leaned over to chat. “Duck was delicious … we’re visiting from San Francisco … this was the one place he [me] really wanted to eat.”
At mention of SF, Kwong brightened. “Oh, I love Chez Panisse, And Zuni Cafe. And Boulette’s Larder, in the Ferry Building.” Seemed strange to be so far away from, I don’t know, the throngs clutching Peets cups at the Saturday morning market, but have a Sydney chef conjure it as if it were across town. I said something stupid about Panisse. “Great local treasure.” She told us to go to Sean’s in North Bondi. “Sean’s,” she said in that broad, flat accent, spelling it out because, I assume, we seemed kind of dumbly fawning. “S. E. A. N. I love Italian cooking,” she said. “The inspiration for those chicken livers.”
The meal was over in what seemed like half an hour, but it had satisfied the way I’d forgotten restaurant meals could. Spontaneous. A few quick flashes of brilliance. An experience that took you closer to the satisfactions of home foods—a small frame around something quiet and personal, not some self-important gesture of an anonymous kitchen crew toiling in the satanic mills of the celeb-chef genre. Magical. 
We never made it to Sean’s. We didn’t have to—my imagination, anyway, was more spent than my shriveled umbrella.   —John Birdsall

One Response to 'Sydney notebook: Magic at billy kwong'

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  1. michelle said,

    John: No one writes about food experience the way you do…you always make me feel like I was there…or at least I wish I was.

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