Feb 7, 2023 Restaurants
The first thing that arrived at the table, a swift four minutes after we put in our order, was the Lucky’s egg foo young. Egg foo young is usually a circular, squished down egg omelette with vegetables inside, one of those Western-Cantonese phenoms that you’d get at a Chinese/fish- and-chip hybrid takeaway. At Lucky 8, we saw in the photo component of a digital menu it was depicted as a singular square block of tofu. It came in a gloopy, corn-starch-forward sauce that tasted like hot-and-sour-soup. We dutifully split this into two, including the lone shrimp sitting on top, since the menu indicated everything was to-share. These confusions were a sign of what was to come.
Lucky 8 is a new bar and restaurant in the middle of Ponsonby Rd from the team behind Dominion Rd’s Mr Hao . You can find it in an upstairs site where Wo Hop, a dumpling and yum cha restaurant, used to be. Whereas the lack of street frontage obviously did Wo Hop no favours, Lucky 8 capitalises on it by branding itself as a sort of hidden “speakeasy”, although there is a gigantic black beckoning cat on the rooftop. The stairs upwards are painted black, as are the Maneki-neko-esque figurines; they lead to a dark, bustling dining room: tables have a low-hanging spotlight dangling above them, while the centrepiece is the bar, from which $8 cocktails are poured from the tap and sent away to the people who ordered them on their phones.
Most things (except wine and some other specialty drinks) are $8, which seems particularly wild in this inflationary age. It is a smart marketing tactic, in more ways than one — along with being affordable, it also makes you forgive a lot of its sins, like the fact my Mei Mei cocktail had so little alcohol, my booze-detecting cheeks hardly get a tinge of rouge (see: Asian flush). What else would you expect for $8?
There’s this tweet I think about when we’re directed on how to order. ‘NO ROMANCE WHATSOEVER to pulling a restaurant’s menu up on my phone via QR code,’ @ rachelcomplains complained. There are some advantages to it, yes — you can order more, whenever you want, and you don’t even have to speak to anyone if you’re feeling particularly unsocial. But it’s so perfunctory and sad, tap tapping away on an app that wouldn’t initially let me order the cucumber salad because I couldn’t press what spice level I wanted it at. Having not spoken to any of the servers prior to this, it felt like I had to suffer through this problem quietly and on my own, even though I probably could have just hailed one of them down. After that little hiccup it did, however, work very smoothly; we got everything we ordered, delivered with speed. With more rampant staff shortages in hospitality, it’s possible we’ll see more and more of this digital-first solution, though I’m not convinced it’s what people want.
The dishes here are tapas, meaning small plates of fried and steamed things, skewers and dumplings. After the “egg yoo fong”, we got in quick succession a peppery beef cheek served atop a slice of fried potato, pork belly fries, salmon wrapped in a banana leaf parcel, abalone and squid in soy sauce and chilli chicken. The food is all tasty, don’t get me wrong — flavourful bites obviously meant to be eaten with copious amounts of on-tap cocktails.
But it’s not a place you go to be wowed by the food itself, which I think has been limited in scope and execution by the concept of the restaurant. For example, the pork belly fries are crunchy and addictive, but they taste like just fried batter, without any actual pork in them (I think they were mostly just the fat sliced off the belly). The abalone and squid dish is served cupped in a paua shell for effect, though the bouncy crunch of abalone is muted, because each tiny piece is less than a cm long. (But again, what do you expect for $8?) My favourite plates were the banana leaf salmon, which came with a little dipping sauce that had the flavour kick of nuoc cham, and Hao’s chilli chicken — a balancing act of spicy, salty and sweet.
All around me, people were huddled together in groups over cocktails served in teapots, talking, catching up, competing with the loud background music (and, mostly, winning). Their skewers and plates were there as a support act. It seems like an ideal place for a dinner that’s easy and an uncomplicated good time — inoffensive, with a hype-fuelled buzz that does add something dynamic to the dining experience. It’s like a trendier, more social-media friendly Go Go Music Cafe.
When the first dish arrived, and both my friend and I stared at this one piece of tofu, and then we tasted the piece of tofu after clumsily cutting it in half with our pair of chopsticks, and I said, “This is the sort of thing you’d go to a Cantonese restaurant and get a huge plate of for $18,” she leaned forward and said to me, gently, “This is just not for you.” And she was right. Lucky 8 wasn’t purpose-fit for a quiet 5.30pm dinner after work.
But come here around 9pm, with a large group of friends, and I suspect the vibe could be very different. It’ll probably be very fun.