The kitchen at Donna Chang, Brisbane feels like a frontier. A place where two cultures slam into each other at a breathtaking pace.
Bubbling furiously is a wok in a broth laden with deep red, crimson chilli peppers. A young chef from Hong Kong tosses some rice around in another wok, his arm working like a piston on a locomotive. The air is filled with the aroma of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise along with Szechuan pepper – the holy blend that is Chinese five spice. Next to this a young chef prepares the most exquisite dessert using sponge cake, her blonde hair tied back carefully. She layers flavoured cream and fine pieces of praline – all classic French technique. This is Donna Chang, the modern temple to Chinese food in the historic heart of Brisbane’s CBD.
‘Originally this was going to be an oyster bar and grill,’ says Chef Jake Nicholson, Executive chef with the Ghanem Group. They are a family-owned, Brisbane-based hospitality company that also owns Blackbird in Brisbane and Byblos in Melbourne and Brisbane . ‘It was going to be a seafood and grill based menu like Bentley’s in London. But I decided to push myself and do something completely different.’
Different it is. The almost palatial dining room is housed on the ground floor foyer of the former Queensland State Insurance Office. The 1920s sandstone building has been beautifully restored highlighting original features such as the carved art nouveau doors, marble-tiled floor and intricate ceiling plaster work from which hang tiered glass chandeliers. During the lengthy and extensive renovation, architects Jones & Co. reinvigorated the space by highlighting the historical features such as the mullioned glass in the doors and native hardwood wainscoting. Inside this historic shell sits a modern interior of plush salmon and ice blue banquettes with pendulous modern brass light fittings. Working the floor and behind the bar are beautiful young bar tenders and smartly dressed wait staff. The fit out reeks of pleasure and overt consumption and there is a joyful element of wickedness about the room.
The food is some of the best Chinese in the country presented with some modern flair. Think your much-lauded Chinese restaurant in Sydney or Melbourne – but then add a lot more fun. Look to the kitchen for guidance as to what to eat. Safely behind a wall of glass and encased in gleaming stainless steel there are ducks slowly drying off in the duck fridge – ready for their maltose glaze and roasting in the oven where they crisp up. In a tank swim live grouper, from an aquaculture farm down the coast. Look to the left and be mesmerised by the dim sum chef carefully pleating scores of little dumplings.
Start here. Order some Crystal Bay dumplings wrapped in a spinach-infused skin that is so tight and thin that it almost pops in the mouth revealing luscious hand chopped morsels of perfectly seasoned crustacean. Order the scampi toast. It is a must. Pieces of soft white bread, layered with rich, sweet, mashed scampi meat, topped with pounded sesame, lowered into scorching hot oil until golden then topped with a dollop of seaweed mayo and scampi roe. Together with an aged Eden Valley Riesling or Adelaide Hills Chardonnay the picture is completed. (It is interesting to note that Jake’s wife Penny Grant is the sommelier for Donna Chang).
Try something as simple as slices of fine, raw kingfish served with slivers of seaweed, finely shaved radish and a dressing of fine sesame oil and spring onion sauce. You cannot go past the duck. It is some of the best we have tried. That perfect balance between a crisp skin and just enough fat left under it to make the sweet, dense flesh so luscious. Sitting next to this is a flat ruby dome of Davidson plum sauce with a touch of five spice. It is very, very good.
The food should be good here. The chefs have immaculate pedigrees. Jake has cooked under Brett Graham at the Ledbury in London, trained under Alla Wolf-Tasker at the Lakehouse in Daylesford, Victoria and worked with Andrew McConnell at Circa at the Prince Hotel in St Kilda. His Head Chef is Jason Margaritis who had spent 12 years under Neil Perry before heading the kitchen at Spice Temple Melbourne. ‘I’ll say to Jason, ‘make me some brilliant crisp char siu pork’ and I will find that very Queensland touch,’ explains Jake. ‘So we get very young suckling pork from a local grower and cook it over iron bark coals on the Spanish parilla (wood grill). We then finish it with rock melon honey,’ says Jake with a smile.
Jake and Jason have hit the mark gaining critical acclaim from some of the nation’s toughest critics in the media and from even harsher critics. Brisbane’s Chinese population. ‘It’s hard cooking for them for they are so particular, so precise about the way the food is,’ he pauses then smiles. ‘But we must be doing something right because they keep coming back.’
171 George Street,
Tel 07 3243 4888