Clenched buttock dining. That's how a friend of mine describes the fustier side of the fine dining scene. He loves good food, he says, but he can't stand the hours-long degustations, the laughless rooms and the fossilised waiters. He is, I suspect, far from alone. "Fine dining is dead" is one of those silly phrases that newspapers like to wheel out on a regular basis, and like the old "the novel is dead" saw, it's patently bollocks. There's a deep and distinct set of pleasures to be gained from a really well put together high-end restaurant meal. But if you eat out in Sydney a lot, you may have noticed that the bonds between original, interesting, smartly executed food and a fine-dining fit-out are loosening. (Terrible food in a fancy setting is a tradition as old, I suspect, as the restaurant itself.) The push now is for places to eat that are relaxed and comfortable, for places where prices are lower and flexibility is higher. And right now that place is Ms G's.
It's Asianish, casualish, inexpensiveish and funkyish, but not strictly defined or bound by any of those qualities. The décor is a bit much. It's trying so hard to be edgy, with its buckets strung from ropes, its cases of 333 and KB beer used as tables and chairs, and its bubble-tea cocktails that it gives you a bit of a running-into-your-mum-at-a-nightclub feeling. (The neon sign reading "six two one" - MSG's additive code - is pretty cool, I'll grant you.) But if the look is a little forced, the food seems completely natural. Lotus chefs Dan Hong and Jowett Yu are in the kitchen, and the exuberance of the carte suggests this is in some ways a dream gig for them. It's as much about who they are as where they've worked; both have spent time in some leading-edge kitchens, but the menu owes as much to what they've grown up eating (Hong's background is Vietnamese, Yu's Taiwanese) and what they like to eat now (food-court ramen, American street food).
David Chang, proprietor of New York's Momofuku restaurants, takes a similar approach, and the debt Ms G's owes Momofuku for its inspiration is one happily acknowledged by Yu and Hong. The whole thing came about when the pair were hosting David Chang at a Momofuku tribute dinner at Lotus this time last year. Lotus proprietor Justin Hemmes was so taken with the food that the decision was made on the spot to bring something of a similar stripe to Sydney. Flash forward 12 months and you've got a five-storey building packed every dinner service with people eating and drinking, and not a scrap of starched linen in sight.
The menu's carved up into starters, raw things, salads and larger plates, and this informality is underscored by the serve-yourself arrangement at the table - knives, forks, spoons, chopsticks, tapioca-gauge straws, sriracha chilli sauce and Maggi Seasoning. Informal, though, doesn't have to mean lazy. The floor team, led by Madeline Nieuwenhuizen, is composed for the most part of efficient waiters whose depth of knowledge of the food can surprise. Nieuwenhuizen was last seen managing Aria, and several of her colleagues come to Ms G's from similarly lofty peaks. The wine list was put together by Franck Moreau, GT's reigning sommelier of the year, and he ain't resting on his laurels. Fresh from putting together a suit-pleasing list at Felix packed with bold Burgundy and Bordeaux names, he seems equally adept at throwing together a cellar that matches the menu punch for punch in both value and interest.
You can (and should) burn $90 on a JJ Prüm Kabinett riesling to have with Hong's cocktail-sized versions of Vietnamese baguettes, shrunk down and souped-up with pork belly or chicken katsu, but you'll find equal joy smashing a round of the yuzu aïoli-spiked prawn toast, piled high with herbs, or the smoky slices of beef tongue and salsa with Dr Loosen, Chablis or Slovenian pinot gris by the glass, or a frosty Asahi. The cocktail list currently skews towards drinks that are a bit too busy for the team to punch out in serious volume when they're getting slammed, but there's plenty of top-drawer hooch on the shelves to admire in the quieter hours. It would be great to see evidence of more communication between the kitchen and bar, separated by 46 steps. Then again, bugger it, how many other places in this town offer cocktails studded with jelly and the Didi Piniolo blend of pinot and nebbiolo under the one roof?
The menu's big, so I'm going to give you the essentials: the non-negotiables include crunchy fried spatchcock pieces paired with a tangy kimchi mayo and the plate of pickles - mushrooms, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, you name it - that works as its perfect counterpoint. (Over-reliance on mayo is something to watch out for when you're putting together your order.) The street-market funk and smoke of the roasted sambal skate is unmistakeable, and the dish comes to life doubly so with a squeeze of lime; ditto the Café Habana-inspired grilled corn with parmesan cheese. If the stir-fried rice noodles with wagyu, chilli and peanuts is a bit light-on for some palates, the richness of the egg noodles with shreds of braised duck and a poached egg is a gooey riposte, made gently pungent with the addition of the surprisingly subtle XO sauce formulated to Yu's aunt's recipe.
Attention to texture on the plate is one of the kitchen's real strengths. The Vietnamese-style tartare impresses on the strength of its lemongrass-brightness and fine knife work, but the prawn crackers in place of the usual toasts are an inspired touch that gives it a real note of distinction. Slices of citrusy raw salmon, served ceviche-style (all together now: seh-VEE-chay) with a slash of jalapeño purée gets its crunch from a crumble of tempura and deep-fried fish flakes. Garlic stalks bring contrast to a lush brown, buttery dish of stir-fried mushrooms, while salty, chewy slivers of dried hijiki seaweed add an unexpected note of complexity to raw scallops plated with fine slices of celery, coriander leaf and a good glug of miso-ranch dressing. Did I mention they're keen on mayonnaise here?
It's probably stating the obvious to say that the dessert dubbed "stoner's delight" - banana ice-cream, Chokito-esque rice bubbles, peanut brittle, chocolate and marshmallow - is over the top. But golly, it really is over the top and, like the too-cinnamony cinnamon-doughnut ice-cream with raspberry jelly, makes for a grating transition from savoury to sweet. The pine-lime granita, served with lychee sorbet and whipped cream, does better justice to the dishes preceding it, as does the pandan chiffon cake, made all the more fragrant with coconut sorbet and a scattering of strawberry pieces.
I think the take-home point here is that this is a restaurant with legs, not clenched buttocks. If 2011 is going to be the year when walking the walk comes hand in hand with talking the talk, Ms G's is unlikely to be a flash in the wok. In any year, in fact, when exciting food, conceived and executed with flair, is sold at a reasonable price and teamed with strong service and an appealing drinks list, Ms G's is going to be a welcome addition.