There can be something uninspiring about restaurants that set themselves up in the ground-floor space of a modern commercial building. It’s often to do with the fluorescently-lit retail vibe that can be hard to shake, even for the most accomplished of interior designers. While some resign themselves to a minimalist white palette, others try to camouflage the starkness with dark tones and heavy furnishings that just feel out of place. And then there are the few that take on this kind of design challenge with gusto.
In a corner tenancy with two white and two full-glass windowed walls to contend with, the interior of Bai Long Store might have fallen into that high-risk stark category. But with careful planning, the creators of this space have managed to find balance.
While the main ceiling remains white around the edges, it features a deep and darkened vaulted centre. A suspended timber indoor garden structure hanging from the ceiling reflects blonde parquetry style flooring in the centre of the dining space, where a mix of chairs and pale green booth seating provides flexibility for large and small group banquets. And then the clever use of Japanese wooden shingles, covering wall surfaces between customers and back of house, provides a level of warmth, accentuated through voyeuristic peep-hole views to flaming burners of the kitchen (which is quite appropriate, as I’ve heard that these timber tiles were incorporated to depict dragon scales whipping around the exterior).
The story that underpins Bai Long is one of wind, earth and fire. It’s a modern day East meets West fusion of spirit and, most importantly, the culmination of an adventure in food discovery. This is an adventure into the belly of Bai Long, the white dragon.
This journey starts with a selection of cocktails that provides us with a tempting taste of the East. The Mangolita is a blend of mango sake and tequila with golden flower tea that is as refreshing as it is fragrant. A round of Pearjitos elevates this typically citrus-driven cocktail with pungent pear sake as its base, a generous dash of Stolen rum and another tea infusion called Bi gai. If it weren’t for the immediate buzz of these bright, blended beauties, you’d confuse these drinks with juices.
Another beauty is the salmon and kingfish sashimi served in star formation of alternating slivers, entwined with thinly-sliced red onion, flower petals and micro shisho – a delicate herb that offers a light fennel flavour that is an unexpected pleasure and match. This all sits in a translucent pool of truffled soy that elevates the dish as it seeps across the plate and merges with droplets of wasabi puree (you should approach with caution – this is undoubtedly the real stuff and packs a spicy punch).
Duck bao is a simple affair. Two light and fluffy pockets are filled with Peking duck, cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce, and are devoured as quickly as they arrive.
I didn’t believe that beef tataki could be plated beautifully until now. Usually presented as slices of barely cooked meat casually splayed on simple plates, Bai Long’s version is a tartare-style dish with the main ingredient hidden beneath a crispy rice cracker, a quail yolk and impossibly thin slices of apple. Wasabi is mixed with mayonnaise that reduces the heat and leaves the plate resembling an artist’s palette highlighting various hues of cream and green.
Crackle belly is roasted pork with a Sichuan apple sauce and a generous side of a roughly-hewn cabbage salad. The pork has been butchered to ensure the perfect balance between flesh, fat and skin – the delicious texture of the interior meaty layer is bettered only by the resounding crunch of the crackling. The sauce takes the traditional combination of pork and apple to new heights with the addition of the peppery Sichuan and the salad provides freshness that makes us feel a little less guilt with each bite.
There are certain dishes that will remain etched in your culinary memory. I have tried mapo chicken before, but only the cubed tofu and heavily spiced variety usually dished out at cheaper Chinese establishments. I’ve also heard of the magic examples of mapo perfected by chefs like Dan Hong and Neil Perry but have never had the pleasure to try one for myself.
Bai Long’s version features a generous base layer of the silkiest soy egg custard hidden beneath a minced Sichuan chicken with spring onion and coriander, and topped with a scattering of fresh herbs. Each scoop into the shallow bowl reveals a delightful golden layer below, and each mouthful is more pleasurable than the last. The dish is meaty, but not heavy, and although the gravy looks hearty it offers only complementary flavour and seasoning that has us considering seconds.
This experience takes me back to the days of the Korean Mapo Restaurant not because of its name but the Gouger Street eatery (which closed its doors in 2013) was an early pioneer of quality Asian cuisine in Adelaide. It has been sorely missed until recent additions to our culinary scene brought back the same level of taste and talent. Bai Long may be housed in a ground floor tenancy of a commercial television building, but what they lack in location they make up for in flavour, style and flair.
And just like the white dragon in the Bai Long story, it’s their time to soar.
Bai Long Store
80 Hutt Street
Hours: Breakfast: Friday to Sunday, 8.30am to 11.30am Lunch: Tuesday to Sunday, 12pm to 2.30pm Dinner: Tuesday to Sunday, 5.30pm to late
Photography: Sia Duff
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