'You OK?'' my passenger asks nervously. Sure, yes, A-OK, I reply, but I'm not. I know exactly how Jack Nicholson got into character for his role in The Shining. He tried to find a carpark among the new hotels in Barton. We've been around the block three times now, and I keep ending up in a street that seems to have no use other than to spin you around in a circle so you can do it again. I can see carparks just ahead, but can't get there. One more time and I'm going all ''Heeeere's Johnnie!''
But we find one and I'm sure there'll be no parking inspectors out to look at my handy work this late at night. We also find our destination, Malamay, which takes up the ground-floor corner of the Burbury Hotel just behind the Realm. It's quiet inside and dark, moody. I'm instantly calmer.
This is Josiah Li's new venture - we are all acquainted with Chairman and Yip and Lanterne Rooms - and he doesn't do things by halves. It's like you're in a dark bamboo forest, the room broken up into small sections by hanging poles, which reflect the red pendant lights, and dark colours in the carpets, tablecloths and throughout, with a private dining room at the back. The design gives you great confidence in the food that might be coming at us.
The menus come with a tranquil Campari and soda for me. It's a set menu - excellent, no choices, other than to go for five courses ($62.50) or eight ($88), or a five-course vegetarian menu ($68), although you can make requests if there's anything you don't like the look of or can't eat. I love the idea of set menus, which allow the kitchen to focus on a smaller range of dishes, and it's the full eight-course menu for us.
The food here is Sichuan fusion, as opposed to Nyonya at Lanterne and Cantonese at Chairman. So there's a leitmotif of spice throughout the meal - chilli, spice and Sichuan pepper. Each dish has a prickle of heat that peppers the palate, constantly reminding you of the underlying cuisine. It never dominates the food, just enlivens the senses.
The menu is arranged to build in flavour, starting with an intriguing dish of house-smoked ocean trout. It's very smokey, to be sure, but somewhat tamed with a delicate fresh curd-like ''quick fry milk'', made from milk and egg white and with a beautiful texture, like very fresh silken tofu. There's a seasoning of chilli here, the first for the night - a warming, dried chilli that builds through the dish but is reined in by the soft milk. I like this a lot, a great start.
I skip on the three-chilled relish with bonito-marinated prawns on housemade soba that comes next, not without a little regret because this looks and smells amazing - a bundle of green noodles, served cold, with two plump - like week one Biggest Loser plump - prawns, which carry a fishy-bonito-salty lift, surrounded by lots of finely chopped chilli. Yes, this looks pretty damn spectacular, but I've promised the local ambulance crew that I won't eat crustaceans again. Instead, I grab a dish off the vegetarian menu - a pair of slow-cooked tomatoes with king mushroom. I like the texture here, but there's not much flavour coming through from the cold tomato and I shed a little tear when I see the enjoyment my guest is getting from the prawns.
Next, a refreshing salad of smoked chicken noodles - glassy noodles with shredded chicken and vegetables. We are told this is a common afternoon pick-me-up, and it does have that chicken soup-like quality, a cold dish that is very moreish and textural with the slippery noodles and crunchy nuts.
After this, another stunning dish, a big scallop, topped with red-bean paste and served with crispy fried, tempura-like enoki mushrooms. A great scallop, with that intense earthy flavour that they weirdly, being a fish, have. The bean paste gives it a pungent seasoning and the mushrooms are almost whitebait-like in their lightness and brittleness.
Now a dish also on the vegetarian menu, and I do believe, just checking my scorecards, yep, that this is simply the best non-animal or fish dish I've had in a very long time. Let me describe it: a large disc of super-slowcooked eggplant, almost gel-like, with a covering of chilli-enhanced sticky rice, very sweet and oh-yeh yummy, and underneath a chilli-oil-augmented, konbu-enhanced stock. I just love the texture here. It's meaty and sweet, with that umami boost from underneath and the prickly chilli heat to finish. Most excellent of vegetarian dishes, I'd turn for you!
But after this a dish that restores my faith in being a passionate omnivore. Two pork parts, one plate: a rib cloaked in sticky sweetness and the belly, dusted in chilli. On top some crispy sweet potato threads. The ribs are pretty good, there's that chilli hit, but tempered by the sweet sauce, yep, it's like first love. The belly isn't as show-stopping, with a texture that is too firm and chewy.
Lastly, before a pleasant trio of sorbet (a more substantial dessert menu is still in development), a dish simply named ''mouthwatering spring chicken'', which turns out to be ''saliva chicken'' if you translate it literally, a description I prefer. It refers to the mouth aerobatics you get after eating Sichuan pepper, a heat that keeps building until you think your head's coming off, then you get the saliva and I'm all Jack Nicholson again, and then, bang, it's gone. A very active dish, you could say. Lovely juicy chicken, served on an Asian risotto of sorts, flavoured with spring onion and coriander.
The wine list is very fresh, with lots of choices by the bottle, but I'm not taken with the choice by the glass. A Pizzini pinot gris is OK, a pretty bland variety given some hope by a good producer. Likewise, the Torbreck Juveniles Grenache is a pretty wine, easy drinking without sending me into the raptures the food does. I reckon they could match this food easily with wine and offer a degustation with half glasses. Sichuan cuisine is crazy good with wine, with all the rich delicious flavours.
Malamay has only been open for two months, and there's been no fanfare. Li and co just opened their doors and let the word get out. Well, hopefully it is now, because this is very interesting, unique food with an exotic fit out, such that at anytime you expect Bruce Lee to leap out with nunchucks a-whirling. But as I say, you wouldn't expect any less from this talented and experienced.
Bryan Martin in winemaker at Clonakilla and Ravensworth, www.bryanmartin.com.au
Address: 1 Burbury Close, Barton
Phone: 6162 1220
Owner: Josiah Li
Chef: Jeffrey Shim
Hours: Lunch Tuesday to Friday noon-1.30pm, dinner Tuesday to Saturday 6pm-9pm
Licensed: Yes, plus BYO, corkage $12 a bottle
Vegetarian: Yes, a full set menu
To pay: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Eftpos
Wheelchair access: Yes, including disabled toilets
Seats: 100 inside (outside later)
Food: 4 stars
Wine list: 3 stars
Style: 3 stars
Value for money: 4 stars
Service: 4 stars
Summary: It's early days yet, but mark my words, this is a brilliant schmickly operated exotic restaurant.
11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.