How many countries are there in the world? The internet says it's as many as 196. If you run your eye down the index pages of most of the restaurant guides sold in Australia (even those published by SBS) you'd be hard-pressed to find more than 40 countries represented. It's clear, then, that there's a lot of scope for The Next Big Thing, and that's even before you start to slice and dice things down to regional cuisines within sovereign states. We might be fortunate enough to find contemporary Thai spaghetti, a place that just does the food of Ischia, and a Finnish-Mexican fine-diner within our city limits, but what of the cuisine of Norway? Of French Guiana? There's a decent Yemenite takeaway in Mullumbimby, and yet I still can't get a good tameez or laxoox to go with my saltah before I catch a show at the Opera House.
This year, at least, you can expect to find a new subheading. Bang has struck a blow for Bangladeshi food, and it has done so with high style. That it has a designer for a co-owner (Nicholas Gurney, who also has a hand in Farmhouse Kings Cross) will come as no surprise to anyone who has glimpsed the bold graphics on the plates, the glowing neon in the stair alcove or the lysergic-acid dazzle of tigers emblazoned on the tees of the staff. Where many cuisines get their foot in the door in a new city via trestle tables or Laminex-lined boltholes in the 'burbs, Bang places Bangladeshi cuisine boldly on the same Crown Street block as Marque and Bills, and dresses it crisply in smart typefaces and a hip, good-looking room. It also charges full whack: there's a banquet option for $55, but a (shared) main course can be $32, a beer will cost you $9, and the cocktails are $18 a pop. But you get what you pay for.
I'm pretty sure I learnt more about Bangladesh reading the cocktail menu than I did in the entirety of my secondary schooling. The descriptors for the Water Lily (two gins, strawberries, elderflower, sparkling wine), the Oriental Magpie Robin (one gin, cherry liqueur, orange liqueur, Benedictine, lime, bitters, pineapple juice) and the Dhaka Attacker (one gin, cherry liqueur, lemon juice) will teach you the names of Bangladesh's national flower, its national bird, and that during the war of liberation Dutch-Australian commando William Ouderland led guerrilla attacks from the base of his shoe company in the capital.
The blurb for the Porto Grande (cinnamon and cardamom aromatised Port, Indian tonic), meanwhile, mentions that the Portuguese established the first overwater connection between Europe and India.
It's this connection that might explain why the Bang guys have chosen to go with an entirely Portuguese wine list. All of the wines, from the Muros Antigos vinho verde to the Quinta do Crasto Douro, are available by the glass. This is probably a good thing because I'm yet to encounter anyone on the floor who can really hand-sell these wines in the way you'd expect the guys at Pilu to explain their Sardinian offerings; nor have I seen the equivalent of the basic level of Sherry knowledge you'd expect from just about everyone at Tapavino. Taking a stab with the Pe Branco, an entry-level wine from Alentejo, I find myself with a versatile white that's perfectly drinkable and works okay with some of the food. I'd question the absence of a grape listed next to the name of the wine, but then I don't know how much I could've surmised from reading that the juice in my glass was made with antão vaz, regardless. (I thought I'd swot up on it later but its Oxford Companion to Wine entry isn't entirely helpful either: "white grape increasingly favoured by winemakers in the Alentejo, southern Portugal, where it is now producing sound varietal wines". Portuguese grape used to make wine, then? Right.)
Electing to choose wine on the strength of a distant historical connection rather than, you know, because it is known to pair well with the food is an unusual move, but it seems almost admirable in its brazenness. In the event that you'd like to play things more authentically, you could follow the menu's footnote: "As a general rule, Bengali's don't drink." Sic, and then some. I'm saddened to report that in a restaurant so thrillingly realised in small details, there are some truly horrendous misuses of apostrophes, the lassi's (ugh) and iced tea's (double ugh) among them, but the creamy yoghurt of the lassis (there, that wasn't so hard, was it?) at least makes a bit of sense with this stuff, though they make for almost a meal in themselves. The iced Earl Grey with honey, lemon juice and blueberry jam, too, is refreshingly tart and surprisingly drinkable.
But by crikey the food is something. However much or little you know of particular Bengali traditions, you can reasonably expect food from the Subcontinent to involve grains and legumes, but at Bang the pulses set things racing. There's nothing ballast-like about the fuskas. Each of them constitutes a small crisp bubble filled with a well-spiced, gooey potato-based filling. There's heat from green chillies, shredded bits of boiled egg on top for texture, and it comes with a little jug of tamarind water to pour in just before you take a bite, which brings a welcome sourness. Puffed rice and Bombay mix gets a lift out of the snack bowls of the 1970s thanks partly to a good hit of lime and shallot, and partly thanks to its presentation. It's served in a little cone of paper printed with a reproduction of the front page news of Bangladesh's declaration of independence. Nice. There's also another thoughtful touch in the street snacks section: the peanuts, sand-roasted in their shells, that automatically come to the table incur a two-dollar charge on your bill, which would be annoying were it not for the fact that those two dollars (or at least "all proceeds") go to aid the Fred Hollows Foundation in Bangladesh.
Some of the thrills of dining at Bang, as with the fuskas, come from the unfamiliar. A pawpaw salad, for instance, combines that potent fruit along with batons of green mango, sections of snake bean, and slivers of buttery toasted almond in a tumble of textures that's by no means alien but, with the addition of young coconut and mint is, just unexpected enough to catch you pleasantly unawares. Honey-roasted paneer, meanwhile, has a quality more reminiscent of saganaki than anything Asian, the thick slice of cheese resting hot and golden on sweet onions, peas and pea tendrils.
A thread of chilli heat in the duck-egg omelette prompts the question: why is the food here so unspicy? It would be great to see a few more dishes with some real fire. The omelette is a highlight, at any rate, nicely set, a generous helping of swimmer crab meat folded in with garlic chives, the chilli and grape tomato.
Sometimes it's a clever switching-up of ingredients that brings the interest. The deep, dark beef curry is flavoured in part with satkora, a grapefruit-like citrus native to chef Tapos Singha's home region of Sylhet, and dressed with chive flavours. Impressive enough, but the choice of a large single piece of wagyu tri-tip, braised to the point of surrender, as its centrepiece gives it another layer of appeal. Opting to deploy hanger steak, meanwhile, brings unusual succulence and flavour to the charry kebab, served sans-skewer in a flurry of watercress and radish. Someone here is playing to win.
Mostly, though, it's the simple fact of good cooking that carries the day. The goat biryani is not a prime example, the meat neither tender nor juicy, the prunes and saffron in the rice conspiring to conceal its flavour rather than enhance it. But just about every other dish on the menu (and I've knocked off most of them now) is distinguished by a careful hand from chef Singha and his kitchen crew. And that goes equally for dishes showy (a superb tartare of cobia - aka black kingfish - cut with finesse, lemony with coriander seed, dressed carefully with fennel pollen and shreds of pomelo, and served under a dramatic bubbly textured tapioca pappadum) and mundane (some really fine naan).
The mussel curry is another standout, the texture and flavour of the shellfish clear and bright under curry leaves, sawtooth herb and red chilli, the sauce calling for another round of that excellent flatbread.
The cheffy criss-cross quenelle presentation of the okra and minted yoghurt that accompanies the lamb shoulder blade could be reeled in a bit, but there's no faulting the meat, which comes apart under the fork to reveal a nice contrast between the charred exterior and the giving centre.
On the other hand, the desserts are just restauranty enough. They call it a rum-drunk doughnut, but the outrageously syrup-soaked dough ball that comes to the table with a caramelised cheek of good peach and crumbs of milk powder is a dumpling in my book, and a bloody good one at that. The crowning glory?
A scoop of saffron-scented crème fraîche where you'd expect the obviousness of ice-cream. Clever.
So is this the food of Bengal presented with as much authenticity as panache? I can only vouch for the panache - it's in no short supply. But I can tell you that Bang is a very welcome addition to Sydney dining, a restaurant where the cooking is as accomplished as it is interesting, and where the team at the helm seem deeply invested in getting it right. Bangladesh, your reputation - on Crown Street, at least - is in safe hands.