CJ posted this on 2016-08-02 02:43:00
I have been searching for authentic Cantonese cuisine in Australia (from NSW to QLD) for the last 10 years or so. Who would have thought I ended up finding what I was looking for in a regional city called Mackay of all places.
Initially, I was attracted to Phoenix by their late night local television advertisement touting their head chef being 'direct from Hong Kong with four decades of experience' lol. I was skeptical at first as it was quite impossible to encounter such serendipity even in metropolitan cities these days, let alone in a regional mining and fishing town.
Anyways, I was truly pleasantly surprised by the genuineness of their claim. I could not believe the value I was getting out of every single dish I ordered from their head chef, Mr Tam. I was quite emotionally taken by the dedication involved in his all of creations from entree to main course.
Like a true modern day 'Iron Chef', Chef Tam was able to turn simplest of ingredients into fists of art by preparing the ingredients days before hand as well as creating his own sauces instead of pouring them out of a bottle to ensure taste authenticity. His menu, just like any good, solid Cantonese menu, is extensive, but I shall recap on a few dishes I had to give you a more concrete picture of some of his masterpieces:
Coral Trout Combination Style. As the name suggests, one fish made into two separate dishes. Half of the fresh coral trout was artfully pan-seared, the other half, lightly battered and deep-fried. As Chef Tam suggests, it is almost impossible to pan-sear or deep-fry coral trout properly without heavy coating of oily batter to prevent the flesh from breaking apart or becoming firm like shoe soles. Yet under the master control of Chef Tam, both portions of the coral trout stayed in shape without the heavy use of oil or batter. The flesh maintained its original savoury taste and the texture remained soft yet slightly crisp, most importantly and surprisingly, without any traces of corn flour batter on each piece. How was Chef Tam able to merge all of these seemingly mutually exclusive elements? :)
Steamed Soft Tofu With Light Egg Coating and Shrimp Caviar. Another seemingly simple dish but requires pure kung-fu to get the shape, texture and taste all just tip-top perfect. Chef Tam personally cut out all the pieces of tofu into almost exact sizes and stir-fried them with a light coating of egg before steaming them to ensure the bead curds do not melt during the cooking process. The extremely light layer of egg coating on each pieces of bean curd locked in the moisture and the acquired soy taste. How Chef Tam was able to not burn even one piece of egg-coated tofu during the lightly stir-fry step without the heavy use of oil I truly cannot fathom. He also specially treated the shrimp caviar beforehand to remove all traces of 'fishy' smell from it before it was topped onto the tofu together with shredded spring onions. This dish was truly memorable even after it was consumed.
Phoenix's Own Salmon and Egg Fried Rice. It is actually very difficult to get fried rice done correctly without the rice clumping together or the use of too much oil to prevent this from occurring. Chef Tam's decade long kitchen experience proved common preconceptions of fried rice wrong. He was able to somehow separate each piece of rice during the stir-fry process while infusing all the salmon and egg pieces amongst the rice. You literally cannot find odd pieces of ingredients escaping from the rice so to speak. Yet you can still clearly taste each ingredient separately without any of them overpowering one and another. Only Chef Tam could master a common dish like fried rice so artfully. His magical take on fried rice literally changed my previous notions about take-out fried rice.
My long search for authentic and passionate Cantonese cuisine is over. As long as Chef Tam is still heading up the kitchen at Phoenix, I see no reason why I should even travel to metropolitan cities to look for such Chinese food without going out of Australia altogether. Every meal we spent at Phoenix was only about $50 per head. I honestly think I paid too little for his food passion and kitchen magic. As of service, which I have not even had time to mention, to me, was great. Although all wait staff were not permanent staff which was to be expected, we were greeted and served with care and patience (I do not think it was due to us speaking Cantonese, as I took silent observation of same wait staff serving other non-Chinese diners the same sincere way). I guess with Chef Tam being the only permanent fixture of Phoenix, when it comes to service by rotating wait staff, it would always be a hit and miss thing.