Depending on your point of view, Cina either suffers, or benefits, from its split personality. Named after the Malaysian word for China (pronounced chee-na) and with an extensive offering of dishes from both cuisines, plus an unpretentious range of fusion cuisine, its appeal is broad. But on a first visit the choice seems overwhelming and the quirky menu with its oddly named dishes doesnt invite confidence.
This three-year-old restaurant has recently changed ownership Eric Wong and Stephen Lao have moved on but new Russian owner Ibrahim Chaudkhuri has retained many of the existing staff, including manager Suzanna Zeng, who is omnipresent the night we dine. Chinese chef Andy Rong heads the team. His Malaysian counterpart is Hwua Tan, who has worked at the restaurant for two years.
The floor staff is smooth, efficient and remains courteously in the background. Theres charming concern over a teapot getting cold, attentive wine refills, and obvious patience as we mull over the lengthy food and wine menus.
Trying to sum up this vast menu in a single visit, we opt for a collection of dumplings (14 are on offer) and the aromatic lamb skewers from the entrée list. Some dumplings are more impressive than others.
The Cina dumpling, in a mixed dumpling entrée, has a dense, wheaty outer and an earthy braised pork filling, which are pleasant enough separately, but dont marry well. A pork-and-prawn shui mai is more delicate and its traditional flavour combination more pleasing, while a crab meat dumpling is juicy, tender and well-executed. A plate of six pot-sticker dumplings is probably the star.
The pan-fried pork dumplings arrive on a decorative Chinese-style plate, with an elaborate garnish. Their bottoms are crisp and nicely caramelised and their generous, juicy fillings are enhanced by their dark, acidic vinegar accompaniment.
Our final entrée, a pair of lamb skewers, was Malaysian influenced and the thin pieces of spiked meat were topped with an onion and capsicum salsa that lifted the piquant spice mix.
Again trying to lift the lid on Pandoras box, we hedged our main choice bets by opting for a beef rendang, the Asian basil chicken and the my choice is your choice king prawns it was either that or the you are on my way beef tenderloin. We could offer no explanation for either dish, but gave points for the inventive naming.
The poultry dish was a hit. Its Asian basil namesake was crispy and fragrant and the tender meat, cooked with ginger, spring onions and a slightly sweet soy sauce, finished in a clay pot was spicy and succulent.
The beef rendang was a milder curry than expected, its satay-like sauce rich and viscous, but the generous serving was marred by slightly chewy meat. The king prawn dish was also unsparing on quantity and the shellfish were of excellent quality. The menu description Malay-style crispy fried prawns tossed with coconut sand was apt, but it didnt prepare us for the overt sweetness of the otherwise excellent batter.
We finished with a fried-ice cream ball for a bit of '80s nostalgia and werent disappointed.
A family-friendly atmosphere, an extensive well-priced wine list, a BYO wine licence, considerate, well-timed service and an endless list of menu choices that are comforting and challenging ensure Cina is a place customers will return to again and again with family, as couples, with friends and to celebrate occasions. Surely thats the benchmark at which suburban restaurants should aim. That some dishes are better executed than others, and that some choices will be more satisfying, make the process of discovery more intriguing.
Cina, 1183 High Street, Armadale
Chefs Andy Rong and Hwua Tan
Prices Entrees $6.20-$12.80;mains $19.80-$32; desserts $6-$10.80
Open Daily noon-3pm; 5.30-10.30pm
Bookings 9824 4102
Cina is a study in contrasts. The orderly, white-clothed tables at the entrance to this shopfront restaurant are empty. Yet beyond the blush-coloured wall and the single incongruous rustic log table, the hum of voices is obvious and the tables are full. The muted red wall at the front of the room gives way to soothing greens in varied tones beyond. Rustic terracotta tiles cover the entrance way, while pale, polished boards feature at the rear. One message, however, is clear: calligraphy, cheerful Asian art and unusual lighting features vie for attention in the main room, but the bottles filling every available shelf or ledge and the quality stemware lined up beside them announce this restaurants dedication to quality wine.