The Happy Palace pitch is ’80s suburban Chinese. It’s the brainchild of Josh Lefers – the guy behind Big Dog Creative, beer-in-a-bag Doss Blockos and Legend condoms – and Jerome Borazio of St Jeromes Laneway festival and Ponyfish Island. While it’s kind of a joke premise (the pair are better known as party-starters rather than culinary geniuses) there’s actually some substance here.
Between the cocktails (not this venue’s strong suit, stick to beers like 2 Brother’s kicking fresh Kung Fu rice beer) and waiters all wearing matching ‘Nigel’ nametags, you’ll find mapo tofu that holds its own. The delicate cubes of silken bean curd sit in a fiery sauce filed with chilli, pork mince, black beans and the zing of Sichuan peppercorns. Fat pork ribs are all crisp skin and sticky meat falling off the bone, and you just can't argue with a bowl of crunchy, salty battered school prawns as a beer snack.
You can thank head chef Kim-Maree Moore for that. She’s done time at mod-Asian warehouse Seamstress so she’s well able to conquer a prawn toast.
But then fresh minced prawn captured between fried bread and a nutty sesame crust is a no-brainer win. As are fried chicken drumettes for dipping in fragrant hoisin served American-style in a take-out box.
It's not revelatory, and some dishes stick to the East-meets-western-suburbs brief a little too well. Lemon chicken has thick batter made soft with luminous strange citrusy sauce that has a satay edge. And duck mu shu is more capsicum, onion and bamboo than anything else – it’s fine, just not $22 well spent in this part of Chinatown.
But this is one of those destinations we’re seeing a lot of lately where it’s more about the fun than the food. It’s a great space, withits tables embedded with Mahjong tiles and chopsticks, and huge
dragons sprawling across the walls. There’s a breezy deck for snackers and smokers and with the chandeliers, lazy Susans and deliver-everything-at-once-then-try-to-clear-it-10-minutes-later style of service, they’ve nailed some ‘80s nostalgia, (even if the crowd here is predominantly made in the ’90s).
Is it for you? If you value kitschy fun enough to pay a little extra for it, and are just after a beers and easy eats, then yes. Otherwise, the new Dainty Sichuan is but a stone’s thrown away.