Note: Master has closed permanently
"And here is your smelling cup," said the waitress. I nodded along, anxious for her to think I knew what the hell she was talking about. She saw through it, though, and explained that you poured the tea from the very small pot into the very small cup - the smelling cup - and then into the marginally less small cup, which I'm tempted to call the drinking cup. "The smelling cup," she said, "is for smelling the tea before you drink it." Ah. Oh. Mmm-hmm. This was back in June at a surprisingly good Taiwanese restaurant in London. Imagine my delight, then, when I pulled up a chair at the counter at Master and was able to say airily to the chap I was having dinner with, "Oh look, smelling cups." Happy day.
Tea and China. It's a thing. Proverbially so, even. In The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking Barbara Tropp mentions ancient Chinese scholars' lists of "Things and Places to Keep Away from When Drinking Tea": noisy streets, crying infants, hot-headed persons and quarrelling servants. With that in mind, trying to drink tea - even with a smelling cup on hand - could prove tricky in Surry Hills, not least in a restaurant that considers the music of Korn to be an apt accompaniment to dining.
Better, then, to switch from the white peony and lapsang souchong to tea's opposite in the Chinese philosophy: wine, "full of fire and warmth, radiating aggressive cheer and best drunk in boisterous company to the accompaniment of good food and lively games". This is much more Master's forte. Even the name of the place is more yang than yin, and the menu brims with bold dishes and big flavours.
The best of them is the salt-and-pepper sweetbreads. No particularly tricky tricks here - just a good idea executed with confidence. The sweetbreads are veal, crusted in spice, fried golden and juicy, and plated with plenty of chilli and lengths of spring onion, a bit like a cross between S-and-P squid and la zi ji, the Sichuan standard comprising small pieces of chicken deep-fried with a vast quantity of dried chilli. The only way it could be improved is in quantity. On my first visit I ended up ordering three rounds between three. Many glands.
Then there's the scallop silk (pictured below). There is a theory that, given a good enough XO sauce, a man would have no trouble making a meal of his shoes. Far better, though, to have it on scallop silk. Scallop what? Scallop silk. The kitchen at Master buggers around with scallop meat, rolling it out and poaching it till it's the shape and texture of a really fancy slice of Devon, and lo: scallop silk.
Would this compelling XO sauce not be better on, you know, really nicely cooked scallops that hadn't been rolled flat? Served hot, even? Perhaps. But in messing with natural textures, Master chef John Javier and his kitchen cohorts have tapped into a long and legitimate tradition in Chinese cooking. Some schools of the cuisine revel in preserving the taste and texture of an ingredient; other traditions hold that the chef's art is transformative as much as anything else, the more alchemy worked with nature's bounty the better. Consider the velvet chicken that has a custard-like texture, for instance, or the well-made fish ball that consists of a soft meat turned crisp.
A similar philosophy may be at work with puffed beef tendon. It's by no means a Master invention, the idea having graced menus around the world for some years now, but Javier nails the convoluted technique required to turn the unyielding tissue into a crunchy and airy fried bar snack. His version comes dusted with seaweed salt, and encourages frank exploration of the beer offering: Coopers Pale in a bottle, Moritz in a can, longnecks of Tsingtao. Not a selection pandering to the craft-beer crowd, but perfectly apt for those of us more interested in drinking beer than in talking about it.
The wine list is almost painfully of the moment, though, a rollcall of the edgier makers of juice in the Loire, Languedoc, McLaren Vale and the Yarra. But the big flavours and pronounced texture of some of the wines here that have spent more time macerating on skins makes them appropriate partners, for the most part, to the heft and shimmy of the ferments, fat and spice in the larder. It's not simply on-trend for trend's sake.
Chef Javier worked at Momofuku Seiobo and Quay, and has staged at Noma and Restaurant André in Singapore. I think this has made him more inclined to use immersion circulators and sous-vide machines than not. There are times when this doesn't work in the food's favour. In most old-school Chinese recipes, lamb ribs are simmered or, better yet, steamed for a good long time before they're grilled or fried. This makes them tender, and also renders out a lot of the fat. Sealing pieces of lamb breast in a plastic bag and cooking them at low temperature doesn't do the same job. The flavour of Master's version is okay - a mixture of cumin, chilli, black pepper and Sichuan pepper - but they don't have the same savour, and the fat is there in thick, rubbery layers. So much so that I'm concerned that if one fell to the floor it would bounce around the room like a western-Chinese-flavoured superball.
But if the ancient masters of Chinese cooking had had sous-vide cooking at their disposal, I reckon they'd have embraced it wholeheartedly for the cooking of chicken. Javier's white-cut chicken, chilled and dressed with white soy, Sichuan spice and plenty of sesame, has that odd, almost gelatinous smoothness that's prized in the dish down to a tee. Fine slices of "strange flavour" pork neck, another classic cold-cut, are likewise a slippery success.
I can take or leave the Peking pork jowl. The jowl is lacquered and crunchy like the one Peter Gilmore used to do at Quay, and served with pancakes and Peking duck condiments but, as with the Quay dish, too often you're eating fat unrelieved by much else.
Far better to have the kale and white fungus, a simple yet devastatingly effective move on Javier's part, where he rhymes the curly, feathery texture of the greens and the mushroom, and dresses the two ingredients with oyster sauce. Bada-bing, bada-boom.
And there's more to like in the menu's other almost-vegetarian hit: a quarter of a cabbage, thoroughly blackened on the outer leaves, tender at the core, and slathered with enough fish-sauce butter to make a feast of a potentially dour dish.
Speaking of dour, the white-painted brick walls and unclothed tables of the two-storey space could have seemed stark, but the place has appealing bones, and crackles with energy and life. (Admittedly much of that energy is driven by the speakers blasting Tool, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and - inexplicably - early Placebo. This is not a restaurant for the hard of hearing.)
There's just as much vigour in the desserts. True, there are only two of them, but the kitchen makes them count. Neither of them sounds particularly sweet or promising on the menu. But "a roasted potato" ends up being a clever, surprisingly delicious take on fried ice-cream rendered in potato-flavoured ice-cream, muscovado and vinegar, while the "congee" is more like a rice pudding mingled with pear and vanilla. The slash of coriander oil it's finished with is an inspired touch.
And then there's the service, which is sweetly enthusiastic. The team is young, and keen, and they clearly like what they're selling.
They're not alone. There's more modern Asian food going on in Sydney right now than a person can shake a chopstick at, but somehow John Javier has managed to carve out a niche of his own, doing modern Chinese food that in most cases puts the "modern" in the service of the "Chinese" - just as it should be. And he shows every promise of getting better. Let's keep Master busy and see where it takes him. "If one does not keep the cook in line, he becomes insolent," wrote Yuan Mei. "Before the food comes, send word down that the food tomorrow must be better."
Note: Master has closed permanently