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Dan Hong doesn't want you thinking that his hot fudge sundae is any kind of no-brainer. "That's my signature dish already," he says. "I swear, it's my downfall. Every single table orders it." It started as a throwaway dish, a gag almost, and now Hong can't take it off the menu. But it's no no-brainer nonetheless, even if it is magnetic menu-bait to all and sundry. "I worked on the fudge quite a lot so it wouldn't be too sweet, and it has an almost savoury taste, with quite a bit of salt in it. So it may be a hot fudge sundae, but it's a well thought-out hot fudge sundae."
That fudge sauce is going to be too salty for many palates on its own, but try it with a spoon of ice-cream, as Hong hopes you will, or with some of the berries or peanuts or shards of honeycomb sticking out of it, and, like the bunch of dots and the Dalmatian, it resolves into a clear picture. The sundae is the restaurant equivalent of the tales in those paranoiac news magazine features about crack cocaine's power to addict on sight. Merely reading the words 'hot fudge sundae' already has you thinking, hmm, yes, I could really go me a sundae. Just take a look at the picture above.
Such is Dan Hong's menu writing at Lotus. There's a Roy Lichtenstein straight-up appeal to it that hits you right between the eyes. "Most of the customers aren't here for the chef," says Hong. "They come here because there's a great bar and it's quite a nice-looking restaurant. They come for the package, and that's no bad thing, so I set out to make food that is just really tasty that I know I would like. I also want it to be quite identifiable on the plate - food you don't have to think too hard about."
A remarkably ego-free statement from a young-gun chef. So, you might be asking yourself, just who the hell is this guy anyway? The son of Sydney Vietnamese restaurateur Angie Hong, Dan started his restaurant career as an 18-year-old apprentice at Sydney's Longrain. From there he went to East Sydney's Pello, then Marque, Tetsuya's and then spent a longer stretch working with Brent Savage at Surry Hills' Bentley. In 2007 he won the Josephine Pignolet award for Sydney's Best Young Chef, and took off to the US for a spell.
Lotus is the Potts Point bistro opened on Challis Avenue in 2002 by the Hemmes, the clothiers-turned-hotelier family who have since gone on to (much) bigger things with Establishment and Ivy. Since it hit its stride, with Marco Faraone doing the drinks, Genevieve Copland in the kitchen and Frank Roberts running the floor in 2004 (and maintained its greatness with subsequent stars Lauren Murdoch on the pans and Alexx Swainston on the shaker), the glossy dining room and Broadhurst-wallpapered speakeasy back bar have perennially attracted a crowd biased heavily towards the young and looking-for-fun. Today Lotus remains a business in which the Hemmes are still invested; with Murdoch leaving the restaurant to head Ash Street Cellar (a wine bar due to open at Ivy soon), Justin Hemmes auditioned her replacement personally. It was Dan Hong, fresh off a plane from New York, whose food impressed him most.
You can try to isolate the elements of Hong's CV and indeed his Vietnamese background in the menu he has written for Lotus, but the young chef says it's as much a product of the time he spent in Manhattan as anything else. "It's not inspired by the stage I did at WD-50 [long-sideburned Wylie Dufresne's Lower East Side bastion of out-there cuisine], it's inspired by me going out and eating at all these small places in New York while I was there."
The sundae, for the record, was inspired by Gramercy Tavern. "They do a really old-school one there, in a milkshake glass," says Hong. Did he have to fight hard to resist putting a cherry on top? "Not at all. The two things I hate most in this world are Amaretto and rosewater. Amaretto tastes like medicine and rosewater tastes like make-up, and glacé cherries remind me of them both." Like drinking your grandmother's underwear drawer? "Exactly."
The take-home point is that the food is straight but never boring. Grilled cuttlefish with chorizo and romesco sauce gives the squid entrée a much needed update. Deep-fried quail with tartare sauce is all succulence and wickedness, and takes its cues from the sort of dish you're likely to see in a Vietnamese beer bar. Hong adds tartare sauce, a little grape salad and then, joy of joys, he stops. Nothing else on the plate is needed, and nothing else on the plate is added. This is a good thing. The beef carpaccio is basically a nam tok, but calling it a Thai beef salad wouldn't strike diners at Lotus in quite the same way - a clever piece of sleight-of-menu. Hong captures the flavours and textures of the classic salad - searing the beef off on the chargrill to get the charry smoky flavour, throwing in ground roasted rice for texture, plus coriander, cucumber, green onion and chilli and lime dressing. It's Harry's Bar opening a Hanoi branch.
There are occasional leaps of faith. The goat's curd, watermelon and pork belly entrée special, for instance, reminds me of some of the dishes Brent Savage cooked at the Four in Hand while he was waiting to open Bentley. It works, and there's some magic in that fact alone, but it's unlikely to be a long-term part of the repertoire. Touches such as the sauce with the corned wagyu beef and spiced beetroot are more interesting. Hong says he's over the foams and jellies of molecular cuisine for the moment, but still happens to keep a little bag of xanthan gum in the kitchen cupboard. Xanthan gum, a polysaccharide which new-foodists liberated from common use in mass-market sauces and dressings to use for their own ends in restaurant kitchens, is used in the Lotus kitchen to emulsify elements of desserts and sauces and keep them from splitting. The mustard sauce with the corned wagyu is butter, mustard and chicken stock thickened with xanthan gum, but you wouldn't know it if you didn't ask. You'd just think it was tasty. This kind of under-the-hood use is the future of today's weird science food, and its seamlessness here is commendable.
Steamed blue-eye trevalla with vegetable broth is a different kind of magic. The fish is cooked simply and well, and rests, firm and glistening, on a broth brightened with ginger and a little sugar. Black fungus and snow pea sprouts are there for texture. More of the former and far fewer of the latter would make it a better dish (I feel the same way about snow pea sprouts as Hong feels about Amaretto), but it's a winner as it stands. Späetzle, those doughy Teutonic dumplings that are a lot easier to eat than pronounce (I'm running with SCHPETZ-leh) with sautéed shiitake and oyster mushrooms, hazelnut crumbs and skin-on Jerusalem artichokes make a worthy offering to our vegetarian friends.
I'm not going to bother telling you about the rest of the desserts because I know you've already mentally ordered the sundae (even though the chilled mandarin soup with coconut sorbet has a lyrical perfume that will lift even the heaviest of winter hearts), but I will tell you about Blake Head. He's the latest in a proud line of bartenders who have made Lotus's little bespoke backroom bar one of Sydney's finest places to go and hear yourself drink. Head and fellow barman Anton Forte have the temperament, the stock, the knowledge and the inclination to help you expand your cocktail horizons. You'd be derelict in your duty to the pursuit of fun to do otherwise.
With punchy food, personable and well-drilled service and great drinks, Lotus's latest flowering certainly keeps the dream alive.