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Chinese whispers

Wok qi is the name given to a subtle combination of aroma and taste that a well-seasoned, well-used wok imparts to food.

It’s best described as a slight smokiness – in essence, the flavour of the wok. It’s as much a sensibility as a physical property. In China, wok qi is a highly desirable state of affairs. It is the hallmark of an experienced Chinese wok jockey.

Wok qi was in abundance the evening I dined at Shun Fung at the Barrack Street jetty.

Shun Fung is the epitome of the brassy, classy Chinese mega-restaurant. It has more aquariums than Underwater World and they’re each crammed to the gunwales with live crustacea, fish and sinuous ever-moving eels. There could be no question about the freshness of the seafood.

This display of marine life ‘on the hoof’ as it were, covers an entire wall of the wood panelled, marble floored restaurant.

We started with the Peking duck ($26 a half/$48 for a whole bird), a classic of the Chinese repertoire and, because of its simplicity, a dish which readily exposes shortcomings in skill or technique.

The crisped skin was served first on small pancakes smeared with hoi sin and accom-panied with a strip of julienned cucumber and a stalk of spring onion. The pancakes were soft and springy, perhaps not as crisp as is the tradition, but none the less excellent. These simple little wraps are eaten with the fingers and are a great starter. We were served three each.

The skinless duck was returned to the kitchen where the meat was picked from the carcass and wok-fried in a variety of ways as the second course of the Peking duck specialty. We chose duck with bean shoots and that’s exactly what came to the table: no more, no less.

It had been enhanced with a dash of Chinese white wine, a small amount of oyster sauce and salt. The small shards of duck meat were plentiful and the shoots were crispy and flavoursome.

Very simple. Very good. Wok qi was everywhere.

Scallops steamed on the shell in light soy, fresh ginger and shallot are a simple staple of most Chinese restaurants. At $3 each, we were served a plate of six scallops. They were cooked lightly and were finished with a light oiliness which, to my mind, makes all the difference. The restraint in cooking and in the application of flavours let the delicate flavours shine through.

The spicy king prawns ($20) was the only disappointment. It was a dish made for round eyes and was a bland mix of lightly battered prawns in a mild chilli paste and finished off with tomato ketchup.

This dish highlights a problem that non-Asian diners will always face in Chinese restaurants. So real is the Chinese restaurateur’s fear of offending the diner by serving challenging food, that to get them to offer a Chinese menu rather than the ‘Anglo’ menu is like drawing teeth.

I made the mistake of allowing the waiter to choose the dish for me which caused my Chinese mate to shake his head in despair. His despair was justified. There was nothing wrong with the prawns. In fact they were well cooked. It was the deliberate Europeanness of the dish which was the let down.

We ordered a plate of Chinese vegetables ($10) to accompany the prawns and were presented with a mound of gleaming, green gai lan, lightly blanched, wok tossed and dribbled with oyster sauce. It was a highlight.

The gai lan (a member of the broccoli family which is eaten for its stalks and leaves) was cooked quing chao, another of those marvellous Chinese terms used to describe a technique as well as express a sensibility or state-of-mind about the particular dish.

Quing chao translates to bland cooking. Far from being a negative, it is an intentionally conceived blandness which seeks to elevate the produce, particularly vegetables, and deliver a frisson of subtlety to the dish.

Quing chao is the proper response to exquisite produce.

A complimentary platter of fresh fruit was delivered to the table at meal’s end and included a few slices each of chilled water melon, honeydew melon and orange.

Dripolator coffee was also complimentary.

The menu, as in most Chinese restaurants, is large. Crayfish are a speciality and it is served in half a dozen ways. A small 100g serve of abalone will set you back nearly $70.

Likewise, sea cucumber fans are catered for at nearly $80 a dish. You'll pay more at Shun Fung than at most Chinese restaurants, but then this isn’t a cheap’n’cheerful establishment.

The wine list is decidedly un-Chinese.

It is big, well thought out (there’s even a few Granges lurking in the cellar) and comprehensive.

Shun Fung literally floats over the Swan River at the Barrack Street jetty and one suspects the owners, a mainland Chinese syndicate with Perth partners, will clean up once the bell tower is built and begins to attract tourists to the Barrack Street precinct.

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