Great things have been spoken about Grape Garden. It was one of the last restaurants open in the Lemon Grove Shopping Centre in Chatswood. The first promising sign of things to come was the large pile of noodle dough that the staff was preparing for the next day.
As we approached, the Head Chef gave us a knowing smile and, before we had a chance to read the menu, asked us “rice, noodle or dumpling!?”. This is a perfect example of how Grape Garden does things differently. From our responses, the chef recommended Mapo Tofu to me and the spicy vegetable noodle soup to my girlfriend. This unorthodox way of ordering may catch some off-guard but I think it streamlined the process of ordering, especially if you’re not picky (but you can always order off the menu). We decided to augment our meal with pan-fried vegetable dumplings. As we finalised our order, the chef asked me in a joking manner where I was from and that’s how I got the nickname “Malaysia boy”.
The first to come out was the spicy vegetable noodle soup, piping hot with looks ready to kill (our taste buds). We started to dig in and what immediately stood out was the springiness of the hand-pulled noodles.
The chicken broth was hot, spicy and hearty. The allspice, Szechuan peppercorns and the generous drizzle of hot oil gave the delicious soup an extra kick. Despite its intimidating appearance, the spice level was satisfying and perfectly in line with expectations. The ingredients were a mix of vegetables, soft tofu and a few pieces of black fungus which did well to absorb the flavour of the broth. For those of you that may not have eaten this delicious fungus before, it has a somewhat rubbery texture and tends to absorb whatever flavour it is submerged in.
Soon after came out the Mapo Tofu, generous and simply presented, we wondered if it would match the standard set by our noodles (spoilers: it did). I couldn’t wait to attach this giant plate of rice topped with a layer of spicy, salty Mapo Tofu. It was exactly what I needed to round off my night after the tea appreciation class at Tea Journal.
The first mouthful of Mapo Tofu was something amazing. The tofu was soft but held together on my spoon while the meat sauce was a perfect match. Sometimes you need some gutsy soul food to take you away from it all and this definitely did it. This dish was topped off with some hot oil which was the perfect topping. I had to take a moment when I took that first mouthful with the hot oil; all I can say is “WOW”. The flavour of the chilli was not overpowering but it definitely made itself known in that mouthful and added another dimension that I truly was not expecting. In the middle of my meal, the chef came to the front and shouted at me “hey, Malaysia boy, how’s the food?” to which I gave him the thumbs up. The chef walked back to the kitchen with a big grin on his face that only a man who loves his craft would have. I managed to finish this dish… but only barely.
While we were demolishing our main dishes, the staff brought out our pan-fried dumplings. I’ll be honest here; I’d been looking forward to these dumplings for a while after seeing pictures of them previously (and I’m always up for pan-fried dumplings).
My girlfriend and I have had many vegetable dumplings in the past but they always turn out mushy and unsatisfying. This was a whole different ball-game, as we should have expected from this place so far. In the first bite, I experienced something I had never felt from vegetable dumplings in the past and I would even say it was on par, if not better than the meat alternatives!
This bite was met with a perfect crispiness and revealed a treasure inside. The filling was properly filled with vegetables, instead of padded with vermicelli like other vegetable dumplings. This means that the dumplings stayed crispier for longer but that didn’t matter; we didn’t give them a chance to go soggy.
Following the spiciness of the main dishes, we each had a cup of sweet soy milk and it was exactly what we needed to wash it down.
In the middle of our meal, the lights turned off but to be fair to the staff, they did say “Oh, if the lights turn off don’t worry, just keep eating!”. When we left they took the time to thank us as they continued preparing their noodle dough for tomorrow. This was a very satisfying meal and I’ll be sure to return.
This meal cost $45 for us with drinks included. They are cash-only but there are ANZ ATMs nearby.
UPDATE (10 March 2017)
We revisited with some friends and I ordered the dumpling noodle soup while my girlfriend ordered the vegetable stir fry with rice.
The dumpling noodle soup came out hot and spicy. I ordered it with pork, cabbage and chives. The soup had seaweed and choy sum as well as their signature hand-pulled noodles. A very filling meal, I was not left disappointed by this bowl of noodles.
The vegetable stir fry had a very home-style feel to it. It mostly tasted of soy sauce and pepper with some chilli oil tossed in. The vegetables were fresh and the tofu was firm. With plenty of rice, it was more than enough to satisfy my girlfriend.