In the past ten years or so, Australian cuisine has embraced Asian flavours and endeavoured to make them our own. Lots of recent new restaurant openings boast Asian-inspired dishes, each one with their own palate of flavours, none more unique than Ally Chow.
Inspired by the depth and breadth of Asian cuisine, Ally Chow’s owner-chef Trent Scarr (ex-Songbirds and Honeyeater Kitchen, Robina) garnishes flavours from across the archipelago to bring us food to share.
Even before the food arrives, we love Ally Chow already for its ‘dare to be different’ demeanour. With its own alleyway adjoining a darkly atmospheric dining room and moody bar, the dramatic wrought iron and dark colours reflect medieval and post-modern eras. The ‘burnt’ wood panelling of the outer wall references both Japanese izakaya bars and the former occupant of the site, the much-loved Hugo’s which burned to the ground in 2016.
Colour pops against such a dramatically moody set: air plants hang like creepers from the ceiling; the restaurant’s red chinois logo and the alley’s mural depicting life in a Japanese village painted by artist Jordan Zaz, springs to life.
It’s a fitting setting, too, for food brimming with the colours of Asia. Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea all make an appearance on the menu, popping up in unexpected places, bright and fresh, a palate of new flavour combinations on colourful purpose-chosen tableware.
We begin with bites, two heart-shaped betel leaves loaded with sticky pork and spanner crab meat from Fraser Island, topped with caramelised coconut sauce and smoked salmon pearls. It’s only a bite, but what a bite it is! Sugar and smoke, honey and richness, it’s a mouthful of intriguing tastes.
Next, a couple of bao filled with tempura Moreton Bay bugs, offset by a bite of XO kewpie, dill and vinegary pickles and dill for punch. There are seven different options for bao fillings, from BBQ pork belly to MB9 Wagyu eye fillet with mushroom pesto. For vegetarians, miso eggplant or peanut butter tofu with burnt chilli both sound moreish.
There are quite a few vegan options scattered through the menu and lots of gluten and dairy free dishes, all clearly marked, making this a great place for dining as a group, especially as banquet options (from $55 – $79pp, the latter with a bottomless 2-hour selected drink package) include vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free choices.
Having taken the edge off our hunger, we launch into main course, a lamb shoulder slow-cooked to absolute tenderness served in a Burmese-style curry sauce with pickled Szechuan cucumbers. We choose a Som Tum salad to go with it, coconut rice and handmade roti, the lightest most technically brilliant wafer-like roti we’ve ever tasted.
Deciding between sides of crispy cauliflower and eggplant, we choose both. Miso caramel on the crispy eggplant is a taste sensation, but the yuzu and sesame cauli is delicious as well. The house is divided on favourites; both are winners!
These are dishes made to share, so we take a portion of each onto our plates and savour each one, as well as (sometimes) tasting dishes in combination. Rice and roti mop up the sauce, too delicious to leave languishing on the plate uneaten.
What piques our interest most as we dine is the way that the chef makes each dish his own. Making all his food from scratch, balancing Asian flavours with other culinary influences and techniques and seeking dishes that appeal to a broad cross-section of modern diners, Trent Scarr’s classical training comes to the fore.
In Asia today (or at least pre-Covid), international chefs have gained followings by adapting Asian ingredients to use in new ways. Scarr, on the other hand, has brought Asian ingredients into modern Australian cuisine to bring us dishes nuanced in flavour to be enjoyed by a cross-section of modern diners.
Bao buns, for example, may be filled with tempura chicken and gochujang, a prawn cracker and herbs added, paying little heed to geographical origins. Instead, Scarr gathers flavours eclectically to achieve his goals.
There are no elements of these dishes we have not encountered before, however the magic comes in putting them together in a different way. That’s the excitement of Ally Chow, that it dares to venture onto new ground, applying the ‘known’ to the unknown, and vice versa.
In our search for food gratification, sometimes we flock to each new opening as though it’s a gift from the gods. However, there’s no going past proven performers. When we dine at Ally Chow, we know that everything counts: the sexy atmosphere of a city laneway, efficient table service that doesn’t leave us wanting, smart cocktails and an even smarter wine and beer selection, market pitched specials such as their express lunch and ‘Happy Hour’ and, last but not least, amazingly creative (with flashes of technically brilliant) food.
Like each trip we make to Asia, there are new discoveries to be made, new surprises to be enjoyed as we sample from Trent Scarr’s unique and ever-changing kaleidoscope of flavours.
Ally Chow, 2215 Gold Coast Hwy, Nobby Beach Ph: 07 5572 4068
Open: Mon – Thurs 5pm am – late; Fri – Sun 12noon – late
NOTE: An earlier version of this review has been posted on Blank GC here.