I Ate Bugs at Billy Kwong

IMG_0125

Let me start by saying that the dish you see above is not an actual dish served at Billy Kwong, the Chinese-Australian restaurant in Sydney where I ate my first meal after the five hour flight from Perth. It’s a dish that the manager hastily assembled at the end of an incredible dinner (one shared with my old friend and neighbor, Ameer) to allow us to sample the various bugs used as garnishes and flavor-enhancers for a panoply of dishes we didn’t get to try. Do not, by any means, be scared off by that plate. Instead, let me seduce you with the food we did eat before we get back to the bugs at the end.

More than any other meal I had planned for my trip to Australia, this was the one I was most looking forward to. Kylie Kwong is a trailblazer in Sydney: she fuses traditional Chinese recipes and techniques with indigenous Australian ingredients. Her menu contains everything from wallaby tails to saltbush cakes (both of which we tried) and she fuses them seamlessly into the Chinese cooking traditions she grew up with. (For a taste of Kylie’s personality, watch her cooking show on Hulu; it’s pretty great.)

IMG_0101

Here’s Ameer at the table at the start of our meal:

IMG_0105

And here’s our first course, Homemade Chinese Pickles:

IMG_0106

These had a lovely balance of sweetness, acidity, and heat. The crackers were crispy and light.

Next up? Freshly shucked oysters steamed with ginger, shallots and biodynamic sesame oil.

IMG_0107

Note that word “biodynamic”: Kwong is concerned with sustainability, which will bring us back to the bugs later. As for these oysters, they were adulterated in the best possible way (don’t tell Jerry Fraser).

The steamed vegetable dumplings were beautifully prepared:

IMG_0108

But, look out, here comes our first encounter with bugs: Crispy House Cricket and Prawn wontons with Sweet Chili Sauce.

IMG_0109

Yes, those are crickets on the wontons. What are they doing there? Kwong, I would guess, might say they’re there for flavor. I mostly think they add texture, an extra crunch to the crunch of the wonton which is filled, as advertised, with prawn. If I ate this blindfolded I’d never know I was eating a cricket wonton.

Far more fascinating, actually, were these crispy organic saltbush cakes with homemade chili:

IMG_0111

When I was on the indigenous tour of King’s Park, I got to taste a saltbush leaf. Even though you expect it from the name, it’s shockingly salty. In fact, our tour guide explained that if soil is over-salted because of proximity to salt water, a farmer can plant salt bushes to extract the saline from the ground. That gives you an idea of what these cakes are about: salty and green-tasting, they’re something you can only possibly eat in Australia and that’s what I loved about them.

These were delicious, whatever they were (I’m having trouble referencing them with the menu, though they may involve “black fungus”):

IMG_0112

This is Sung Choi Bao of Certified Free-Range Pork, Ginger and Mushrooms:

IMG_0113

Tasty stuff. But the real break-out dish, in this sequence, was the Homestyle Fried Biodynamic Eggs with Organic Tamari and Homemade XO:

IMG_0115

I watched Kylie Kwong make this on her show: she fills a wok with hot oil and cracks eggs into it. Because of the depth of the oil, the hot fat surrounds the eggs on all sides and creates something unlike anything you’ve probably experienced. They’re crispy, crunch on the outside, moist and soft-yolky on the inside. It’s a masterpiece of a dish and maybe one of the best things I’ve consumed in 2013.

But the best of all was this dish: Red-Braised, Caramelized Flinder’s Island Wallaby Tail with Black Bean and Chilli.

IMG_0118

What to say? Imagine the most succulent, mouth-wateringly tender piece of braised meat that’s then laquered with a sweet glaze and rendered crisp. That’s what this is and I couldn’t stop eating it. Better than the best ribs you can imagine and made with an ingredient you can only find in Australia. This is a dish that deserves a standing ovation.

And, really, so does the duck, Kwong’s most famous dish:

IMG_0122

The skin is rendered crisp and it’s paired with plum and quandongs, again an indigenous ingredient that I was able to sample in Swan Valley. The American equivalent might be a kumquat.

An important thing to note is that we got all of this food for $95 a person by ordering “Kylie’s Banquet.” You’d be crazy not to order that because the duck alone costs $49, the wallaby $34. The value is undeniable. Plus you get dessert:

IMG_0130

That’s poached fruit (very nice) with something that tasted like a frozen stick of unsalted butter. On second thought, the dessert isn’t the biggest selling point.

And then came the bugs.

Here’s what happened: after chatting with the very nice restaurant manager for a bit, I inquired about the other bugs that Kwong uses in the dishes that we didn’t have (dishes like “Cantonese-Style Fried Rice with Roasted Meal Worms, Crushed Wood ‘Roaches,’ and Chilli-Cricket Sauce”). Would it be possible to sample a few of those, just to see what they taste like? She was more than happy to oblige:

IMG_0125

At 12 o’clock you have dehydrated ants, at 2 o’clock the crickets, at 4 o’clock the mealworms and at 9 o’clock the wood roaches. As we sampled, the manager explained the various flavors we might pick up on–citrus from the ants (it hits you after you crunch through them), a woodsy note from the wood roaches (makes sense). Frankly, these all just tasted crunchy to me, like scary potato chips with little hits of hard-to-identify flavor.

Kwong’s reasoning for using bugs is that it’s the next step in sustainability. I wonder if it’s mostly a marketing gimmick (one dessert, that I’m incredibly grateful we didn’t try, comes crawling with green ants that you have to stun by pinching or they’ll bite you).

Even if it is a gimmick, the rest of the food proves that Billy Kwong is the real deal. As I Tweeted then and will reiterate now, this was easily my favorite meal of 2013. If the bugs bring the restaurant more attention, then it’s attention well-deserved. This is Australian dining at its best.

You may also like