I have to admit that one of my favourite places to eat in Sydney is Kylie Kwong’s Surry Hills restaurant, Billy Kwong.
It’s a small room, tables are quite tightly packed in (no wild gesticulations here), and most of the diners sit on stools. After that description you might feel turned off, but at Billy Kwong the hustle of the dining room actually makes the whole experience better. Like you’re tucked away in a neighbourhood eating house in the backstreets of Shanghai or Hong Kong. Except this is in the middle of Surry Hills, and the room is decorated with stylish lacquered wooden walls (actually cupboards).
The place is always busy when I go, but it’s one of those places where you pop your name on the waiting list, go have a few drinks down the road, and your table will be ready before you know it. The turnover here is quick; you’ll be full before you know it and on to your next destination. The staff are always friendly, welcoming, and efficient. Top of the list, is that the food is fresh and tasty, and designed to share.
Over the past few visits I’ve noticed that the food has begun to include more native Australian ingredients such as saltbush leaves, warrigal greens and quandong. These native foods bring new life to Kylie’s dishes, which sing of her Chinese-Australian heritage. The stir-fried Old Man Salt Bush Leaves with Young Ginger were simple, yet delicious and moreish (especially as a counterpart to the richness of the pork belly main).
(I should say that the photos below, in no way to justice to the food. That’s the downside of a softly lit dining room, and I’m not one to whip out a camera and flash to disrupt everyone’s meal.)
A perfect change from the ordinary spring rolls that you often find littering menus. These were crispy and light, with the slightly nutty tatsoi leaves wrapped up inside. On the side was a wonderful housemade chilli sauce, which had a subtle heat to it, but a well-developed, almost slightly fermented flavour coming through. After noticing how fast the chilli sauce disappeared, our waiter kept us well supplied all night.
These were possibly my favourite dish of the night (and my last visit also). Normally you see rice noodle rolls steamed, with that gelatinous texture that you love or hate, but here they’re fried to give a crisp texture on the outside, that melts into the comforting softness of slow-braised brisket inside. The spring onions and micro-herbs give an element of sweetness and freshness to cut through the beef. Despite being so full at the end of the meal, I was so close to ordering another serve.
Sung choi bao is one of those classic dishes that can never go out of style, because they’re far too enjoyable. A brimming bowl of pork, ginger and mushrooms, accompanied with a stack of lettuce leaves and a selection of herbs like mint and coriander. It’s DIY style, which is far better than them coming out with the lettuce wilting under the heat of the filling, and it’s best to embrace the reality that there’s no way to eat them without getting messy. There’s something so perfect about that crisp, refreshing lettuce (this is what iceberg lettuce does best) that yields to the juicy, dripping, gingery pork inside, with a zap of herbaceous freshness.
The biggest shame is that the photo of this dish does absolutely nothing to convey how great this was.
The pork belly was crispy and caramelised on the outside, yet moist on the inside, that great balance between rendering the fat out but retaining enough to give it an amazing flavour. Served with a scoop of gorgeous honeycomb on top to stir through the pork, and lemon to squeeze on for acidity, this was essentially an elevated sweet and sour pork. To balance it out, we had Old Man Salt Bush Leaves with Young Ginger on the side, the beautiful tender leaves with generous slices of zingy ginger.