Under Head Chef Ben Haywood, the fresh Asian-inspired menu at China Lane is designed for sharing. With an impressive resume, Chef Haywood has worked with culinary heavyweights Raymond Blanc (Petit Blanc & Manoir), Nico Ladenis (Chez Nico) & Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck). The wine list is compact and accessible with 88 lucky labels tailored towards wines which are versatile with Asian flavours. Their cocktail list is fun and fresh with weekly specials to delight the palate.
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The entrance to China Lane sets the scene of the evening. Pop through from George Street and meander down a cobblestone road, past the buzzing Felix and Ash St Cellar, where diners spill out onto the footpath. Are we in Paris? Okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves, perhaps more Melbourne? Take a left into the narrow alleyway that is Angel Place and look to the sky. Metal birdcages of different shapes and sizes dramatically hang from wires, creating a ceiling that's intimate and majestic. Linger awhile and sounds of birds chirping from hidden microphones can be heard from above. Forget Melbourne - are we in an aviary?
Once inside the China Lane doors, the mood is ebullient. The fitout features hints of the garish urban 60s with lime green trimmings and then we take a quick trip across the globe to Shanghai – from a bygone era – with Chinese mahogany cupboards and doors. Head to the bathroom and we're transported to the space age with its uber modern soap containers and tiny cubicles. Who knows what design they are going for but who cares? China Lane is cool.
Are we weary of small plates, those minuscule portions that so often add up to nothing but a persistent, belligerent hunger? Are we tired of formal fine dining, where the atmosphere is a stiff as the white cloth napkins on the table? The food at China Lane isn't glamorous or exotic but it is the type of food that is almost impossible to stop eating. Listen carefully to the well-versed waiters as they point out which dishes can be ordered as half serves. Take guidance from their recommendations as each waiter artfully balances the salty, the sweet and the sour flavours of each diner's meal. This attention to ordering pays and like sister restaurant's China Doll and China Beach, the dishes here are generously-portioned and perfect for sharing.
The liberal use of herbs characterises the best dishes on the menu. A salad of jellyfish, pomelo, prawn and slow roasted pork belly is lavishly overflowing with Vietnamese mint and Thai basil. Chunky morsels of prawn, roasted cashew nut pieces and crunchy shallots complete an impressive dish of san choy bau. It is easy to understand why the salt and pepper prawns are one of the restaurant's most popular dishes – the tapioca flour batter is so light that the focus is less on the deep-friedness and more on the prawns' moist texture and slightly sweet flavour. The pink snapper fillet with ginger, soy and shallot, while simple, is one of the standout dishes. The vegetarian options don't let the team down, either. A simple stir fry of pumpkin, baby corn, tofu and cashew nut is blamelessly good – with the leftover sauce perfect to drizzle over rice.
China Doll has the wharf, China Beach has the beach and China Lane has bird cages. Each of these China-empire representatives offers the same infectious combination of great food, fine wines, exotic cocktails and prime real estate.