What: Papillon Chinese.
Where: 290 Darby Street, Cooks Hill; 49293102.
Hours: Monday to Friday 11.30am to 2pm. Monday-Thursday 5.30pm to 9pm, Friday and Saturday 5.30pm to 9.30pm; closed on Sunday.
Chef: Owner Phillip Lui.
Wines: BYO $2 per person.
Wheelchair access: No.
WHEN we first moved to Newcastle from Melbourne five years ago, one of the things I sorely missed, apart from excellent coffee on almost every corner, was the lack of good, affordable Asian eateries. In Melbourne, I could buy delectable fresh prawn and pork spring rolls at one of the best (and cheapest) Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray for $6 a serve, or happily line up with the hungry hordes at Supper Inn, a nondescript Chinese restaurant selling knockout Cantonese food at bargain basement prices.
So Newcastle's dearth of good Asian eateries was something I lamented before discovering a couple of reliable go-tos: Paul's Asian Affair and Phat Monk in New Lambton. A couple of years back, I also stumbled upon Phillip Lui's Papillon Chinese, which has been operating for 15 years at the quiet end of Darby Street.
The softly spoken Phillip, and his outgoing wife Cathy - she was his accountant for a decade before they met face to face after his wife passed away - run this happy, family affair where customers are known by name, and they do a roaring takeaway trade. Sure there's the usual Cantonese fare - sweet and sour pork, chicken and cashew nuts, fairly average fried rice - but the more adventurous diner will be richly rewarded.
Since I first tried Lui's shantung chicken, I've had to fight the urge to order it every single time we dine here. Crisp and golden on the outside and succulent on the inside, the chicken literally falls off the bone and is complemented by a sweet soy, vinegar and wine sauce. Add steamed rice, a good rosé from Vintage Cellars across the way, and it's a match made in heaven.
Ching yay-oong dow foo (steamed beancurd) is another memorable dish consisting of steamed tofu stuffed with mince prawn, soy sauce and a side of chilli.
The san choy bow ($18.50) is a meal in itself, more than sufficient for two, with tasty stir-fried chicken, diced vegies and fried vermicelli. It's served in giant crisp iceberg lettuce cups, which you roll up and messily eat with your fingers.
Lui's Layongo-Bo - deep-fried eggplant wedges stuffed with chunks of prawn seasoned with finely chopped Chinese condiments and herbs - is another legendary dish. Both it and the Butkin Nup (Peking duck) must be ordered in advance (ring a day ahead). The Peking duck is served in two courses and costs $54 for four people. The first course consists of duck which has been marinated and cooked overnight, served in home-made crepes with cucumber strips, shallots and hoisin sauce, while the second is stir-fried duck and vegetables served in crunchy lettuce cups. Sensational.
Another favourite is the black bean pork ribs cooked with rice in a clay pot ($19). Flavoursome, tender and filling, the claypot and fermented black beans give the rice an earthy, nutty flavour. Again this is another dish you need to order in advance, but we struck it lucky and it was available the night we dined.
Papillon Chinese's decor is light and bright but nothing to write home about, which makes it feel even more like favourite Asian eateries I frequented in Melbourne. These often had fluoro lighting, laminated tables and a TV blaring while you dined. But who cares about the fixtures when the food and the welcome are this good?