Manly has its China Beach, Woolloomooloo has China Doll and more recently the CBD got its piece of this modern Asian empire. Gone is the Indian restaurant that always seemed empty and in its place is China Lane, located beneath a cloud of bird cages.
These guys weren't even open two days before I took a break from my el-cheapo lunches at Hunter Connection Food Court to sit amongst the corporate suits and skirts and give China Lane a burl. The inside of the restaurant is all about the dark tones, with dim lighting and the feeling of sitting in a classy basement establishment. As ugly as the laneway is, excluding of course the bird cage installation and improved pavement, sitting outside is much more pleasant when you can dine to the soundtrack of birds squeaking and chirping. I reckon some edgy Asian influenced street artists need to be let loose on that hideous mustard yellow rendered wall opposite the restaurant as it's a cold space and really needs some character and colour introduced.
For the time being the colour and character comes from the food and fantastic service China Lane brings to its clientele. The menu comes categorised as raw & nibbles, salads, steamed, grilled, wok & fried, spicy & wet and vegetarian. Easy to navigate and a lot I wanted to try so some repeat visitations were in order. Twice on my own and more recently with a lunch date. A serving of the pickles ($5) is a good place to start. Sharply-flavoured vegetables (carrot, daikon, beans, cucumber & cabbage) teamed with a chilled glass of pinot as the other dishes descend.
The pulled pork bao (16) is an absolute winner and something I've eaten twice now. The second time may have had much more of the sriracha mayonnaise than the first but all was forgotten when I sunk my teeth into the juiciness that's piled on the steamed bun. A few crispy shallots, some gnarled bits of crackling and a good dose of chilli oil that makes you clear your throat a few times. The salad of slow roast pork belly, prawns, pomelo and jellyfish (18) leans toward Vietnamese flavours with subtle textures and fresh nuoc mam dressing. Tender nubs of pork, crispy skin and refreshing coriander and basil. Don't be put off by the jellyfish. It's just like eating short tasteless noodles and the salad isn't loaded with them.
On a solo visit I tucked into a delicious bowl of grilled Dory (19) wading in a shallow pool of coconut sambal. The sauce was more akin to a Thai choo chee curry. The fish is cooked to perfection and virtually dissolves in the mouth while the basil leaves on top give a welcoming perfume. The Hervey Bay scallops ($4 each) come crowned with a dab of pickled Chinese mustard greens, a bit of garlic and almost unnoticeable chilli, despite its promise. I would loved to have seen the roe left on, had they been bought that way. Nevertheless it's a happy mouthful.
The deliciousness continues to some of the most divine eggplant I've had for a while. Crispy salted eggplant (14) with turmeric, diced tomato, roasted cherry tomatoes, long pepper and feathers of dill. Texturally it's a winner and the flavour is just perfect. We swooned over the bbq lamb ribs (20), in all their finger-licking glory. Cooked with tamarind, lemongrass, chilli and peanuts and the balance of key flavours was spot on. The meat pulled off the bone in one sweep and required very little chewing action; it even, to me, had a slight American bbq flavour.
Six desserts grace the menu and so far I've had the pumpkin & peanut dumplings (14) twice. Love the coconut ash ice cream that takes centre stage with it's creamy richness while the mandarin segments and ribbons of young coconut bring soft sweetness. The basil is a nice fresh touch and those warm mochi-like dumplings are just beautiful. The banana and cardamom pudding (14) conceals a surprise gush of liquid chocolate as you spoon past the lightly torched exterior. Not a lot of cardamom going on but at least the scoop of chocolate sorbet and chocolate pop rocks make up for it.
Lunching at China Lane isn't an inexpensive exercise by any means but let's just remember we're in the CBD and square metreage in this town doesn't come cheap. Our work-day lunch for two may have hovered around the $110 mark but let's just say it was worth it. All in the name of research and a far cry from my usual $5 tight-arse Hunter Connection meal.China Lane1 Angel PlaceSydney 200002 9231 3939Mon-Fri 12pm-3pm; 6pm-10.30pmSat 5pm-10.30pmwebsite