- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Paul Gosney
- Designer Dreamtime Australia Design, Sibella Court, Justin Hemmes, Bettina Hemmes
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This article originally appeared in Inside issue 75: The Hospitality Issue.
The theatrical is never far from the fore with the Hemmes Group nor, for that matter, with Michael McCann. As such, new Sydney restaurant Mr Wong ticks all the boxes for an experiential immersion in Chinoiserie that does not disappoint. The red lantern clichés have been neatly sidestepped with a palette informed by the jade and moss shades of the French Colonial era of Indochina.
Located on the lower floors of the Heritage building housing both Establishment Bar on George Street, and Palmer & Co on Abercrombie Lane, the space previously contained Tank nightclub – where the details of the building were largely hidden. “When you go into a club, the lights are dark and the ones that are on are flashing. You don’t experience the beauty of the room,” explains Justin Hemmes.
To create the nightclub in 1996, the lower floor had been excavated from 1.5 metres a further two metres, exposing stone footings below massive columns. The columns, which had rotted, were all painstakingly replaced with ironbark – necessitating the jacking up of the entire building for each column. The monolithic beauty of these structures is now a statement of some considerable elegance within the restaurant, rather than a place to put your drink or have a dance as they had been during the Tank incarnation.
Effectively, the transformation has highlighted the beauty of the structural elements, while creating a solid backdrop to the finessing of the interior. “I wanted to create a traditional Cantonese restaurant within the old space that was Tank nightclub, which had some fantastic existing heritage fabric: decayed walls, striking columns, exposed beams and rafters. We’ve also got some catacomb ceilings and low archways and little rooms. We had wonderful bones to work with,” says Hemmes of the decision to work with the building’s antiquity. Indeed, the structural variations throughout the restaurant allow areas of intimacy for a variety of group sizes, while the larger rooms, though sufficiently ample for a sense of occasion, are not overly so.
The restaurant’s engagement with the street delivers an equivalent to the archetypal Asian experience of discovering a culinary gem having followed a series of back streets. To this end, no signage is evident until diners arrive at a smallish embedded entranceway. The restaurant is then revealed in stages, with the entirety of the kitchen open for viewing, including the incredible duck oven. This theme of exposed machinations is carried through- out with an oyster bar, dumpling kitchen and bars all making the internal world one of visual variation. This is further explored with the openings introduced on the laneway side of the restaurant. “One of my main goals around developing it as a restaurant was to open up the space all the way along Bridge Lane to activate the laneway. So any arches that were bricked up or blocked off or had double-glazing have all been redone and brought down to ground level, with full-height metal frames and glass windows, so that everything opens up onto the street,” says Hemmes.
The sensibility of the restaurant is exceedingly engaging, with a profusion of subtle elements coupled with grandiose gestures. Again, Hemmes was clear on what the objective should be. “I wanted to have a warehouse feel to it, but with a Shanghai Colonial vibe going on. I didn’t want a traditional Chinese-looking restaurant; I certainly didn’t want a modern Chinese restaurant. I wanted something that was very sympathetic to the existing fabric, which lent itself to this Colonial look and feel.”
Running with Hemmes’ vision, Bettina Hemmes conceived the idea that the look should be closely informed, though not dictated, by the French Colonial style with a soft jade as the primary palette. The dark timber floors have been inset with deep aqua cast cement tiles, while wall-mounted, Celadon-inspired European vases sit charmingly filled with flowers throughout. Furniture, too, has stepped away from the clichés with a custom-designed French range of woven plastic seating akin to Colonial woven cane, but with the addition of a luminous green-blue. The bathrooms, in particular, are a delightfully theatrical take on tradition, with individual booths featuring hand-carved doors by Athol Wright of Country Design, who was also responsible for the hand-carved bars. Stylist Sibella Court has added the quintessential touches of Asia with a wall of Chinese hardware on the upper floor, while elsewhere her hand is evident with elegant touches throughout.
The lower floor, while continuing many of the upper floor themes of colour and furniture, has a much higher ceiling. This has been addressed with several large vertical statements, including a veritable cabinet of curiosities of Asian staples on several walls. A beaded curtain, made from large seedpods sourced by Court and dyed in Ecuador, is a particularly elegant solution, as is the wall painting of an Asian woman by Murray Parsonage, Kris Zimitat and Mayriel Luke of The Painted Image. Indeed, the slight red of the woman’s lips is one of the only occurrences of red in the restaurant and is stunningly effective for being so.
Previously, fire escapes and stairs running parallel to the street cut the lower area into portions. Dreamtime Australia Design’s Michael McCann felt that reordering the circulation would present more dynamic options, including the idea of a wine cellar within a staircase. As such, joining the upper and lower floors is a timber and steel staircase wrapping around a three-storey tower (the lower floor is ostensibly two storeys) of glazed wine storage. “It gives you a lot of great depth of action and all these fun things happening: let’s make wine the feature. It gives the spirit of entertainment and fun; it brings on the personality of a place,” says McCann. Heated on the outer side to prevent condensation, the lower half, stocking white wine, is chilled, while the upper half remains at room temperature for red wine.
One of the great delights of Mr Wong is its ability to surprise both in its own right and also as an extension of the Hemmes brand – which evolves and shifts to meet the zeitgeist. It is charming, delightful and altogether embedded within the fabric of the building without regurgitating past successes. From broad design gestures to the tiniest intriguing details, it is clear that Mr Wong has been devised with the visual and the gastronomic entertainment of the guest in mind – leading to a thoroughly immersive and well-executed dining experience.