Crown Street, Surry Hills. Back in the bad old days, it was my favourite playground…and more than that, it was home.
The only bar on the street [in those days] to remain open after 12:00AM, Low 302 was a favourite for post-work drinks. The balcony of the Clock Hotel became a well-placed viewing platform to witness the colourful characters of Surry Hills go about their day. Maloney’s was there for my over-priced groceries. Yulli’s for some surprisingly good vegetarian food. The Winery for long, lazy lunches. Bills for an indulgent weekend breakfast. Marque. Billy Kwong. Toko. Bentley. Messina. Some have moved on, many remain… but you get my point.
I have heard whispers that it is losing its edge…murmurs that it is not what it used to be. To this I say: shut up and back off. It is, as it always has been, a magical little stretch of Sydney sidewalk. To me, it will never lose its charm.
Number 368 Crown Street was an exception. An address on the main drag that I never frequented. Places would come and go – nothing seemed to stay open on the spot for long and I never really bothered to venture in to try whatever did pop up (aside from Watts on Crown, where I do recall sharing a rather pleasant breakfast with The Parents once upon a time).
So it was with great confusion that in the very few days I recently had in Sydney, I found myself eager to try its latest lodger, Master. And try it I happily did! Might I hazard a guess and say that perhaps this one holds the magic ingredient that will deem it a permanent resident. A keeper. A stayer. A Crown Street institution. I can only hope…
Not having spent a great deal of time in the venue previously, I am unsure as to whether big changes have been made to the decor. However, I liked what I saw and it was certainly a lovely place to while away the evening hours. Whitewashed brick walls met dark tones and minimal design. The only giveaway in relation to the restaurant’s Chinese rooting lay in the chopsticks and rice bowls that neatly found their way onto each of the table settings.
Service was young, hip and friendly. A little banter coupled with some helpful menu guidance and we were off!
First up was the intriguingly named ‘scallop silk’ (AU$6 per piece). Flattened, vacuum sealed and lightly cooked in a water bath until the proteins had just set, the end product was served with a punchy, top quality XO sauce and bore a striking resemblance to a silken smooth rice noodle. Exciting as a concept and interesting in terms of preparation, it was undeniably tasty…but I did not feel that the whole was necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps I am just a lame scallop purist, but part of me would have preferred a plump, sweet, beautifully seared version of the shellfish simply topped with their absolutely fantastic XO sauce. Then again, maybe that is too predictable and I am the one that needs to keep up with the times.
Always an offal lover, I could not go past the chicken heart sang choi bao (AU$8 per piece). These carried the familiar flavours of my beloved lettuce wraps, but with the added springy texture of the muscular organ. The char on the lettuce was a nice touch, but it also softened the leaves, making them a little difficult to eat.
Not something I would usually jump on when listed on a menu, the pickled watermelon with preserved mustard and nori (AU$12) was surprisingly my favourite dish of the evening. What a revelation! Who knew this humble melon could be transformed to taste so good? Dense in texture thanks to compression methods, it loosely imitated thin slices of tuna sashimi. Sweet, salty, sour, savoury…spectacular.
I am a big fan of salt-and-pepper-anything. Throw in offal – particularly sweetbreads – and you have a winner with me. Therefore, salt and pepper veal sweetbreads (AU$24) were definitely on the cards. Served with grilled spring onions and spicy dried chillies, these were perfectly cooked and fantastically seasoned. I desperately poked through the chillies to uncover far more than my fair share of these deliciously crispy glands.
My need for a token vegetable-based dish to grace the table over dinner instantly drew me towards the burnt cabbage with fish sauce butter (AU$18). The outer layers had a pleasingly bitter char and the inner heart was comfortingly tender and subtly sweet. The deeply savoury fish sauce-infused butter took it to another level. Here was another shining example of taking a modest ingredient and really making it something special.
The final dish was a playful take on the dim sum classic, cheung fun (AU$24). Slippery, thick-cut rice noodles with just the right amount of bite were presented in lieu of the classic steamed rolls. These benefited greatly from a warming douse of Sichuan oil, as well as umami-laden hijiki seaweed and finely grated bottarga, which provided a wonderfully salty kick. A generous smattering of tender wagyu skirt chunks finished it all off. Overall it carried those familiar Chinese comfort food flavours that I love so much, even if it didn’t exactly remind me of my dim sum favourite.
At Master, recognisable Chinese dishes and flavours are given a modern edge with a fine dining twist and passed on in a thoroughly relaxed setting with minimal fuss. My experience surpassed many of my expectations and I find that in retrospect I enjoyed my meal far more than I even realised at the time. For those who truly believe that Crown Street has lost its touch, I hope that the introduction of Master shows you that this is surely not the case. For me, it comes as a solid reminder of what makes this known stretch of pavement so very special to Sydney.
368 Crown Street,
Surry Hills, Sydney, 2010
T: 02 8065 0838