Disclosure: I was invited to dine as a guest of the restaurant
You could be forgiven for thinking you had walked into a gallery rather than a restaurant when visiting Shu Restaurant.
Even from the front, with soft neon lights and letters spelling out the name of the restaurant, it could almost be an installation than actual signage!
But don’t be fooled, beyond the quirky wall decor and neon lighting, projections on to the wall, mix of clear ghost chairs and solid timber tables, there’s a serious passion and dedication to Sichuan food, with a whole lot of conscience.
Mum and I popped in on a Sunday night, and were one of the only diners on the night, which meant we got to explore the space…and believe me, there’s plenty to see! Shu, the owner, came out to say hi and took us around, showing us the function rooms and explaining his design aesthetic, playing with soft and heavy textures, Ying and Yang etc.
As we sipped on our wine, Shu also explains his modern take on Sichuan, with a focus on using sustainable produce that’s in season and with no MSG, endeavouring to use organic and locally sourced produce as often as possible, resulting in Chinese food that is quite light with the flavour being driven by the produce itself.
Shu doesn’t really do ala carte, although you can opt to, but they highly recommend (and I would too) that you let them do the menu crafting and settle in for one of their set menus. Choose from the vegan, or non-vegan menu and let Shu and his kitchen work their magic.
Our meal starts with a trio of cold starters. The first, a generous and juicy oyster, blanketed with cole apple and lime slush and topped with a little caviar, just the way that Shu likes it! I loved the sweetness of this, and just how refreshing it was.
The chilled silken tofu with chickpeas, soy beans, lentils, mung bean, a house made chilli jam and fresh salmon was simply one of my favourite things of the evening. The chilli jam whacked in a wallop of flavour, and the mix of legumes adding a delightful texture mix alongside the smooth, and silky sweet salmon which was so refreshing with the tofu.
The vegetable roll filled with coriander, ionic mushrooms and Chinese chives, wrapped with daikon was a little more challenging to eat, as everything was still quite crisp and crunchy…and making a mess was only inevitable!
Cold entrees, were followed by a trio of hot entrees, including finger-licking-good honey, soy and sesame organic chicken wings, a beef dumpling with pickled chilli jam and a flat head with fennel puree wrapped up as a crispy spring roll with a green chilli relish (which I just could not get enough of)!
The pan grilled eggplant with pickled chilli and roasted cashew were meaty and hearty, but clean and light on the palate still. I loved the crunchy cashews that garnished, complementing the nice char on the eggplant too.
Tiger prawns with Asian herbs and a Sichuan pepper infused salad dressing is where the infamous Sichuan pepper raised it’s head, it’s slightly numbing effect coming into play, but not overwhelmingly so, still allowing the sweetness of the prawns to shine.
Beef cheek with Shimeji mushrooms, a spicy pumpkin puree and Sichuan pepper was absolutely stunning, the tender pieces of beef gently melting into the mouth with a lovely rich flavour. The pumpkin puree was not what I would expect at a Chinese restaurant, but this is the modern ‘fusion’ aspect of the food coming to play, and was gorgeously smooth and aromatic in flavour with a nice little kick of chilli.
A serve of crispy fried free range pork belly with celery puree and black bean sauce is again an unexpected mix, but work surprisingly well, with the celery puree adding a light and slightly acidic note to the otherwise rich pork (which I quietly wish there was more of!)
The pan fried rockling with chilli jam and stir fried organic vegetables is also hard to dislike, ever so lightly battered, and cooked just right.
Although there are many courses, the portions are quite reasonable, and although we’re feeling full, we’re not yet stuffed…until Shu brings out the raw avocado cheese cake with blueberries and puffed rice…mum can’t eat avocados…so it’s up to me to champion through and munch it up!
I’m simply in love with this, so smooth and surprisingly light and airy, the blueberries are irresistible and I can’t get enough of the perfectly crisp puffed rice, such a contrast to the smooth avocado.
All in all, I’m really impressed. Despite being full, I didn’t feel heavy, which can be the case after a big Chinese meal sometimes. Even mum, who I often think is the toughest critic I bring out to eat with me, is impressed and enjoyed the meal. I also appreciate that the fusion and contemporary aspect of the food doesn’t stray too far from the core, with many many familiar flavours, just accented with a new angle or addition to the plate which complements nicely.
My bosses were a bit apprehensive when I first said I was visiting Shu, slightly intimidated by the glowing neon lights and slightly abstract decor. To that I say to keep the mind open and see where it takes you, I certainly feel rewarded from visiting Shu, and would love to pop by on vegan Wednesday to see what the kitchen can do just with vegetables!
147 Johnston Street