Restaurant review: Madam Woo, Christchurch
I kept hearing good things about Madam Woo. The chain restaurant's tentacles (there are five now) stretched to Christchurch in mid-February and locals who loved it on their Queenstown visits were loving it at home.
It feels like the place for a spontaneous 'let's go' meal, rather than a 'hey team, can we find a day next month when everyone is free?' meal.
Even the booking system gives a nod to this. Half the tables can be booked and half are saved for turn-ups.
The steady drumbeat of "it's really good" meant one Friday night we said 'let's go'. We rang and Madam was booked out. We popped along anyway and got a table straight away. Woo hoo.
The restaurant lives on the ground floor of a new two-storey building set back from the street. It houses an odd couple, with lively Woo in the bottom bunk and more solemn French restaurant St Germain in the top bunk.
Madam Woo's dishes are styled around a Malaysian street food thread, which gives wide scope, because that brings in a bit of Chinese, Indian and so on.
It's loud. The polished concrete floors, big window area and low ceilings create that "crack" sound. It felt like a jack hammer when a shrieking woman fired up several tables away, but I did admire her innate projection skills.
The decor is stylish, with bird cage light shades complete with perches and potted plants in brass planters on shelves overhead. Wooden slats divide the restaurant and bar areas. Music was thumping.
And the food? Well, it might be a chain restaurant with co-owner celeb chef Josh Emmett nowhere in sight. But this was some of the most enjoyable Asian food I've had in Christchurch for a long time. There are pockets of better dishes elsewhere, but for sheer big flavour and authentic tastes, it was consistently great.
The smiles came right from the starters. Sesame flavoured, chunky, chewy pork and prawn
sui mai came alive with a dip of Yamasa soy sauce. Grilled turmeric chicken on skewers really tasted smoky and grilled, although the peanut satay sauce was surprisingly bland, and skimpy in quantity.
We swapped out the roti for a lettuce cup for the pulled pork hawker roll. The pork was sweetly spicy and was topped with a gutsy salad that included shredded lettuce, spring onion, pickled cucumber, coriander and chunky slices of raw chilli.This dish really packed a flavour punch, a mouth-buzzing punch.
Beef rendang is my favourite Malaysian dish, and you rarely get a good one because it takes time and a full range of spices to do right. Madam Woo's was done right. Big chunks of fall-apart beef in an aromatic, spicy, reduced coconut cream sauce was served with coconut rice, and no-one will ever feel hungry after eating one of these.
A Malaysian chicken salad was a much lighter option. This came as a mound on the plate in the style of very finely sliced cabbage mixed with chicken, chilli, peanuts, cucumber and shallots, plus crispy fried shallots, alldressed with a savoury, limey sauce. It was a classic salad done well.
Pork belly chunks stir-fried with asian greens in oyster sauce and covered in crumbs of crackling (the belly pieces were without crackling) was a simple Chinese-style dish that was generous and tasty.
Fried banana chunks with icecream and a Vietnamese drip coffee (with condensed milk) ended an enjoyable meal. Also I rate the light but hoppy Woo Brew, brewed for the restaurant by Hallertau. It goes well with this food.
Not so enjoyable was the way the waitress plucked finished dishes away even while some were still eating and even wiped the table down around them. I don't think we were that messy. I wondered if it was a hurry up. That last-minute coffee was my effort to help keep the last eater company.
We asked why it was called Madam Woo. The waitress said she gets asked that a lot. And ...? Truthfully, I don't know, she finally said. A mystery. But it's no mystery why Madam Woo is so popular with this mix of atmosphere and great food.
AT A GLANCE
255 St Asaph St, central Christchurch
Open daily for lunch and for dinner from 5.30pm to 10pm
Price range: Starters up to $14; mains up to $29: desserts up to $12
Cost: $113 for three (excluding drinks)
Wine list ★★★