As a kid growing up in Canberra, no family trip to Sydney would be without a stop in Haymarket (in fact, almost all of my childhood memories of Sydney are of the same 3 or 4 streets in Chinatown).
And it's not hard to imagine why - after all, for my first-generation parents, the Burlington Supermarket (now New Yen Yen Supermarket) on Thomas Street, the shop next door selling pig's ears and chicken giblets, and the customary yum cha lunch at Marigold were all reminders (and delicious ones, at that) of our native Hong Kong.
Whenever we made a trip into Chinatown, I always remember us parking in the carpark of the Novotel (near The Goods Line), and walking past a small open-air Wilson Carpark that sat along Quay Street between Thomas Street and Ultimo Road. Even as a youngster, what stood out to me (and, no doubt, others) most about this carpark was that the facade of an old building still stood tall on its northern side (image below). I always wondered what this building was - and whether it would ever get a new life.
I've since been told that the building was actually the poultry section of Paddy's Markets from 1912 to the 1950s, before being converted into a warehouse. In 1985, the building burnt down, the memorable corner section of the facade saved and propped up by steel supports. More recently, the block has been redeveloped as much of the UTS/Ultimo area has, with sparkly new residential towers above, and student-friendly retail at street level.
One of the eateries in the revamped block is The Bun Gallery, which specialises in handmade buns and dumplings (which you can see being made from the street - hence the 'Gallery' part of the name). Being a lover of all things dumpling (and any excuse to avoid cooking during the week), I rounded up a couple of friends to check it out.
Upon entering, the first thing you notice is that it has a modern yet casual Chinese feel to it. Low tables and stools are dotted around the ground floor level (there's also a mezzanine level with room for larger tables of 6 or 8), with signage and newspaper-style wallpaper to make you feel like you're in you're in a Chinese hutong (alleyway).
After settling in and picking up a bottle of Pinot Gris from the BWS next door, we get down to business and start on a basket of Xiao Long Bao ($8.80 for 6). It arrives at the table with that textbook appearance - carefully hand-folded, pleated like a pair of 80's jeans, and delicate like a Terence Trent D'arby song. Like any XLB worth its weight, they're full of delicious porky flavour, and the wrappers are a good thickness - not too doughy. For me, they could have had a bit more soup inside - but maybe it's just because tongue's been burnt by xiao long bao so many times that I'm screaming out for more!
Next up is a round of The Bun Gallery's Signature Pork Bun ($2.30 each). These are simple - a meatball of pork housed inside a steamed bun - but oh are they satisfying. Whether it's the fluffy, warm exterior still radiating steam as it hits the table, the flavoursome pork inside, or just the joy of having your very own hand-sized bun to pick up and devour - they're a must-have.
Of course, when it comes to eating with your hands, nothing quite beats chicken wings (okay, maybe mud crab or lobster - but I ain't rolling in hunnid dolla bills yo) - and the Xixi Marinated Chicken Wings ($7.00 for 4) sure hits the spot. Flash fried for extra crispiness, they're dusted in an aromatic, slightly spicy seasoning that complements the chicken perfectly.
One of my must-orders at any dumpling house is Wontons with Chilli Sauce, and the ones here ($8.80 for 6) don't disappoint. The wontons are plump and juicy, with the tails of the oh-so-soft wrappers curling around them as if they want to be closer to the meat as well! The housemade chilli oil is a winner too - it has a noticeable kick, but there's depth in the flavour thanks to some salty and sweet components.
Before moving on to a couple of mains, we gobble down a plate of Pan Fried Dumplings with Pork and Cabbage ($9.80 for 6). They're perfectly fried with crisp, golden bottoms; and great to dunk into a bowl of chinkiang black vinegar.
The Bun Gallery might specialise in buns and dumplings, but they have a whole other side to the menu with soups, rice and noodle dishes, and mains.
Being partial to a bit of old school every now and again, I can't go past the Salt and Pepper Squid ($14.00). In my experience, Chinese restaurants always nail this dish - maybe because the wok burners give the oil a bit more sting, maybe they use more rice flour for extra crunch, or maybe it's the combination of fried garlic and shallots that's generously sprinkled over the top. Whatever it is - it hasn't turned me off it after all these years, and The Bun Gallery's version hits the spot.
Lastly, we fill our bellies with the Stir Fried Flat Noodle with Tender Beef ($11.50). The noodles have a nice little char to them, there's a salty soy flavour that hums throughout the dish, and the tender beef (yes, the name of the dish doesn't lie!), sliced omelette and bean sprouts provide a great variety of textures.
The old building facade may not be there anymore (nor, let's be honest, the dodgy looking carpark. Did I mention it was surrounded by barbed wire?) - but thankfully, great little eating joints like The Bun Gallery have taken its place.
79/61-67 Quay Street
0434 834 688
I dined as a guest of The Bun Gallery; however, all opinions are my own.