Edit: This is a review of the earlier, not particularly great original menu served at Darlings. For the more recent and vastly improved menu, check out the more recent review here.
Alissa and I are massive fans of Varnish on King. Ostensibly a whiskey and wine bar, the quality of the food that they serve is as impressive as their drinks list, with their Beef Short Ribs and Sweet Potato dishes being some of the most memorable and satisfying dishes we've eaten in the last year. So when we heard that Varnish's owner Andy Freeman had just opened an Asian Fusion venue in the form of Darlings Supper Club, we quickly added it to our list of places to check out. With a Truffle Degustation at 1907 and the final service of Dear Friends taking priority due to their limited nature, our planned dinner at Darlings fell by the wayside. Additionally, with early reviews a bit mixed, we decided to give them a bit of time to settle in before we finally popped in for an impromptu dinner in early September.
Located in what used to an unremarkable steakhouse and then a tapas bar, the venue's neon sign is difficult to miss as you walk down Lake St. The wooden sleepers on the outside and the stylish interior design continues Freeman's obvious love for bare brick and exposed wood evident at Varnish.
With the dinner a very spur of the moment decision, we had already had gin and tonics around the corner at Frisk. so we were not able to sample any of their sake, spirits or wine. Perusing the menu did reveal a characteristically strong list, with many Asian Whiskey's represented (yes, you can come here for a Suntory time!) and a compact but well considered wine list that was a good match for the style of food served. We went with two glasses of their Lemon Ice Tea instead, and were please with the well made ice tea. Too often Lemon Ice Tea is too much lemon and not enough tea, but Darlings got the balance of lemon to tea to sugar ratio just right.
Kangaroo is a staple protein for Alissa and I, so we just had to try the decidedly fusion Triple Peppered Kangaroo with a Spicy Plum Sauce when we saw it in the dumplings section of their menu. As interesting as it sounded, the idea unfortunately just did not work. It wasn't horrible, it just completely missed the point of what makes a great dumpling. Har Gao, Sui Mai, Gyoza and Xiao Long Bao all have their own individual characteristics, but are united by the fact that the best are pleasantly plump and juicy. The Kangaroo dumplings on the other hand were dry, and had a weirdly gritty texture thanks to the pepper. With Kangaroo being an inherently easy meat to dry out, perhaps Alissa and I should have known to stay clear, however my feeling is that if its a dish that doesn't work, it shouldn't really be on the menu. I don't think the idea is a lost cause - I can for example imagine a Kangaroo Xiao Long Bao or even a nice smokey Kangaroo Char Siu Bao - but when the excellent sweet and sour balance of the Plum Sauce was the best thing about a dish, its hard to really recommend it.
Schezwan and Salt Squid with Lemon Grass Gel fared better, but was not without its own problems. Alissa and I had incredible Black Pepper Squid at Vietnamese restaurant TQR in Nedlands less than a week earlier, and the Darlings Squid just didn't reach the same level of excellence. The crispiness of the outer coating was decent enough, but it wasn't as crunchy as TQR's. Likewise, there was a juiciness to the squid pieces at TQR that Darlings just couldn't compare to. Additionally, the Lemongrass Gel, while lovely in isolation, seemed too subtle for the Squid's own subtlety of flavour, and Alissa made the discovery that the Plum Sauce from the Kangaroo dish made a far superior dipping sauce.
Being massive fans of Varnish's Short Ribs, we knew that we just had to try the Asian Spiced Sticky Pork Ribs served with Baba Ganoush and Bok Choy. Thankfully, this was a genuinely excellent dish that showed the promise of what Darlings may yet be. The rib marinade was the perfect level of salty sweetness and spiciness, with the meat itself wonderfully flavoursome and tender. I really dislike super thick stalks of Bok Choy, so I was happy to find that the dish only used the upper end of the stalks in the dish or smaller leaves. The most brilliant innovation of the dish was the use of Baba Ganoush to emulate Braised Eggplant; it fit in seamlessly, and was a delicious secondary component. This is the kind of food Alissa and I were hoping for more of at Darlings, and would be something we would definitely order again if we came back.
We ended on the Chilli Roast Pork Noodle, which sadly was very disappointing. Again, it was tasty enough but it was nothing special; I've made better stir fried noodles after a long day at work, and I could have had a similar or better experience ordering takeway noodles from Wok In A Box. The Pork included was sliced far too thickly to be practical, and I felt that some thinly sliced Char Siu or Siu Yuk would have made it a lot better. The most egregious aspect of the dish was the price - at $25 Alissa and I could have order a bowl of hand made noodles each at either Kitchen Inn or the even better Noodle Forum. The only time I can remember paying $25 for a bowl of noodles was for the Super Mega Ramen at Gumshara in Sydney, and in that instance the price was justified since the price of admission included ridiculous quantities of Chashu, a Barbecued Pork Belly Skewer, a whole Pork Belly Rib and the best bowl of ramen I've eaten in Australia.
The Verdict: Good
Although Alissa and I had read some less than great reviews, we went into our meal at Darlings Supper Club with an open mind. I'd hoped that I'd be able to say that I disagreed with the particularly harsh verdict of Whitney at Dinewhitme but I left with a similar sense of disappointment, both in terms of quality (which was just good) and price (which would be pricey even for better Asian food). I understand that they are a venue that stays open until 3am but $82 for what we ordered seemed outrageously expensive considering we didn't have any alcoholic beverages. With so many better Asian restaurants close by in the Northbridge area, it made the price to quality issue all the more irritating - especially when you consider that Clint Nolan's Pleased to Meet You has a similar Asian Fusion Bar approach, is walking distance away and is streets ahead of Darlings. Its a shame, as the drinks list is impressive, the staff were lovely and I believe in the overall idea, but at current the food just doesn't live up to how great it could be.