Phone: (09) 930 0999
On an unlovely stretch of Hurstmere Rd populated by sports bars and branches of chain eateries, Artwok is a standout new arrival. Proprietors Jill Chen and Yan Yang are making their first foray into hospitality after careers in the banking and finance sector but they make up for their lack of experience with a razor-sharp focus.
Artwok seeks to position itself in the neglected territory between the Asian fusion restaurants starring big-name chefs and the resolutely unglamorous Chinese eateries pitched principally at expatriate diners, where MSG rules and free-range meats never get a look in.
The fit out, by Material Creative, is snappy but unostentatious, and the staff wear T-shirts with witty non sequiturs: Congee des Garlic in the same font as Comme des Garcons. At first glance, with a barman cranking out cocktails in jam jars and beer in beakers, it looks like a chic bar (all the street-level tables are leaners with high stools, although there is more sedate seating upstairs). But as the name suggests, this is primarily a restaurant, and the menu, which grazes widely in the different fields of Chinese regional cuisine, offers a dozen and a half intriguing options.
We bowled up last Wednesday, when the year was just cranking back into life after all the public holidays, so I suppose I can't grumble too much about the fact that only one of the 10 shellfish options was available, though it did suggest poor planning. They occupy fully a third of the menu and include a section named dai pai dong after the street kitchens of Hong Kong: you choose your clam and your sauce. Or not, as in our case.
But there were plenty of pleasures in store. Rou jia mo, which originated in Shaanxi Province, are like little hamburgers, tiny pita filled with braised pork belly.
De san xian, a vegetarian dish of eggplant, potato and capsicum relied a little too much on roasted spud, it seemed to me, but the garlic sauce and soy reduction were just the ticket.
Chen is particularly proud of the guo bao rou, because it's native to her hometown, Harbin, near the North Korean border. It's battered deep-fried pork but it comes as a version of sweet and sour (a phrase that makes me shudder, but I am determined to give it a go on a return visit).
What else? Shiuzhu niurou, a fiery and widely feared Szechuan dish of boiled beef, is not as intimidating as it might have been: you can scrape the scattering of fried chilli aside and enjoy the numbing Szechuan pepper flavour of the tender Wakanui beef. This is a special treat. The whitebait omelette, crunchy with beansprouts, is wonderful too, though I suggest you ask them to go easy on the salt.
Desserts are a bit of a lottery in Asian places, but if you go for the deep-fried ice cream, lean over the plate. My advice: order another round of clams - if they've got them in.
Verdict: Quality authentic Chinese regional food in attractive surroundings
Snacks $10-$13; small plates $12-$20; big plates $29-$36; sweets $15