On Friday night after a couple of drinks at PICA bar, Ollie and I wandered up to the far end of William Street to a little known Chinese restaurant called Szechwan Zen. This was Ollie’s choice, and I was a little bit out of my comfort zone after we walked past Viet Hoa and William Street got really dark and the crowds of slightly buzzed, scantily clad Northbridge dwellers thinned out.
But we persevered, and eventually came to the little hub of Chinese restaurants gathered around a carpark at the top end. Most of them were fairly empty, but the one Ollie had chosen was pretty buzzing! We did get a table straight away, but some people that came in after us had to wait a while. They had a very sophisticated set up for those waiting – a couple of rows of chairs facing all the tables which sort of made you feel as though you were dining in front an audience. Tables did seem to magically appear during the night though so no one had to wait too long.
This was a pretty authentic joint – the menu in Chinese and English, tanks of sea-dwelling creatures lining the side of the restaurant that I am guessing you can choose for your dinner should you so wish, and BYO- disappointingly so, as we hadn’t thought to bring any wine and there were no bottle shops near by. Oh well, soft drink sugar buzz for everyone!
The menu was massive, and it took us forever to decide what we wanted. However, in the end we went with vegetarian san choy bau, pork dumplings, a pork pancake with pork floss, and abalone with ginger as starters, and satay beef and beer duck for mains. A lot of food you might think, and you would be right. Most of the starters were around $10, and the satay beef about $15 with the beer duck being one of the most expensive items on the menu at a jaw dropping $22 (besides the abalone….more to come on that later). And of course, the lemon, lime and bitters and a pepsi to keep that buzz from PICA bar going. The lady that took our order was very proficient, and she had this headpiece on so that she could talk to the kitchen about whether they had everything in stock – a pretty smooth set up!
Food came out in a rather haphazard manner, but you definitely couldn’t fault the service. Without being too intrusive, our friendly waitress checked up on us every 5 minutes while the food was coming out to make sure that everything was going well – which it most certainly was! This was some pretty spot on Chinese.
This was one of my favourites, and I got it all to myself due to Ollie’s odd pea allergy. Really fresh veggies and crunchy lettuce, and a HUGE serving – everything you want san choy bau to be!
These were some sort of cross between pork buns and dumplings, but as far as I am concerned you could call them what you liked as long as its fantastic. Soft, sticky outsides and juicy, tender pork inside, these were steaming hot and delicious. Nice salty sauce to dip them in as well, and I even managed to eat all of mine with chopsticks – winning.
This was by far my favourite dish of the night. Sweet outer pancake layer with this light, savoury pork floss on the inside – I have never had anything like this before and I didn’t know what I had been missing out on!
Beer duck was really interesting – a slightly sweet but really spicy sauce, with lots of tender duck on the bone and some omelette strips, this dish was a little greasy for me. But the spice had a good punch, and it was one of Ollie’s favourite dishes for the night.
The satay beef came out on a sizzling pan, and the sauce was poured over it at the table which caused quite the spectacle. This dish doesn’t look like much, but the beef was really tender and it was a balanced satay sauce that wasn’t as greasy as the beer duck.
The abalone came out after what felt like forever! I am not sure what the big deal is with abalone, but apparently you can only fish for it for like 32.5 seconds out of the entire year and its impossible to find on the sea floor. Well, that was the vibe I got from what I read. Anyway, it was about $40 for 6 abalone. I had a cautious sniff of one and it literally smelt like the sea floor – gross. I try and be adventurous with what I eat, but as much as I try I don’t think this kind of seafood will ever do it for me. Ollie enjoyed them though, but thought they were a bit chewy and the ginger flavour didn’t come through that much. So that was probably the only disappointing dish of the night.
If you want authentic Chinese at a really reasonable price, Szechwan Zen is sure to be a winner for you. A hidden gem at the top of William Street, relying on simple decor and tasty food , it doesn’t need any of the fancy frillings to draw in a crowd.