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This Chinese barbecue restaurant showcases the food of the north-eastern Qiqihar region.

Dani Valent

13.5/20

Chinese$$

There are many differences between running a dog-grooming business and a Chinese barbecue restaurant, but ex-canine-coiffeur James Wang is doing well with his transition from clipping, trimming and patting to chopping, tossing and pouring.

Wang Wang BBQ – a collaboration with chef Rex Wang, no relation – opened in December to showcase the food of the Qiqihar region, where both men were born. Qiqihar is a large city in Heilongjiang, the enormous, north-eastern Chinese province that borders Inner Mongolia and Russia, close to North Korea.

Charcoal-fired barbecue has been a common way to gather and eat in homes there for centuries, but it’s now becoming increasingly popular in restaurants, there and elsewhere.

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The city’s commerce bureau said last year that there are 21,000 Qiqihar barbecue restaurants across China. I only know of a couple in Melbourne but, with Korean barbecue so popular as a convivial dining option, this seems like a great time to introduce the broader population to something a bit different.

Grill your own meat on the tabletop barbecues.
Grill your own meat on the tabletop barbecues.Bonnie Savage

Wang Wang is a smart restaurant in an attractive Victorian corner building, with exposed brick walls and terrazzo floors softened by box-shaped lanterns and the warmth that emanates from domed tabletop barbecues.

Exhaust vents hang from the ceiling like hungry snakes: they do a great job slurping up stray wisps so you go home infused with the delights of the experience rather than the smoke that’s key to it.

The menu steers diners towards wagyu meal sets (from $119 for two). They’re fine if you want a meat-fest, but I think it’s better to order a la carte so you can balance your grilling with other dishes.

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The “traditional Qiqihar BBQ” plate (sliced Angus-beef cube roll).
The “traditional Qiqihar BBQ” plate (sliced Angus-beef cube roll).Bonnie Savage

But grill you will. The key meat plate is “traditional Qiqihar BBQ” ($28), a bowl of Angus-beef cube roll, a reasonably lean cut that’s sliced very thinly and briefly tumbled in oil, chilli, onion and herbs. It’s served raw like all the barbecue meat here: you cook it yourself in a minute or two, then dip it into various condiments.

A soy, chilli and garlic dipping sauce is Rex Wang’s family recipe. There’s also a trio of sesame flavourings: sesame oil, sweet-sour sesame paste and a crumble of roasted seeds, crushed peanuts and cumin, plus other secret ingredients suggested by Xiaomei, James Wang’s mum.

Other beef cuts include juicy chunks of wagyu intercostal (between the ribs, $29), fibrous, thick-cut tongue ($29) and easy-melting, fat-threaded karubi ($28), a Japanese-style rib sliver that cooks in seconds.

Go-to dish: Pork belly.
Go-to dish: Pork belly.Bonnie Savage
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I was charmed by the pork belly ($26), carefully chosen for its neat layers of fat, thick-cut and hung on tiny hooks to resemble a porcine clothesline. Let it cook on one side, flip it to cook to a slight crisp, then snip it into sweet morsels with the provided scissors.

Wang Wang doesn’t pretend to be traditional. Offal is a big part of Qiqihar menus, but there are no hearts, lungs or intestines on offer in Malvern, which is probably wise.

Mouthwatering chicken with Sichuan pepper.
Mouthwatering chicken with Sichuan pepper.Bonnie Savage

There are some dishes from other parts of northern China, added simply because they’re favourites. The mouthwatering chicken ($16.80) is a cold entree of juicy, boneless thigh marinated in numbing Sichuan pepper.

A gizzard starter ($12.80) is as offaly as things get: the sliced chicken organ is chewy (it’s supposed to be) and served in a zingy carrot salad.

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With Korean barbecue popular as a convivial dining option, this seems like a great time to introduce Melbourne to something a bit different.

Unmissable Qiqihar-meets-Melbourne dishes include bam fan ($16.80), medium-grain rice mixed with garlic oil, wagyu cubes and diced ham, plus a semi-fried egg that lends a yolky creaminess. It’s a beauty, similar to Korean bibimbap but also displaying a keen focus on rice that reflects Rex Wang’s training as a sushi chef.

Gada soup ($16.80) is a hangover cure in Qiqihar, but I would eat this for lunch, dinner and in my dreams. (The most sensible way to have it here is after your barbecue.) Made with tomato, egg and a chicken-stock base, it’s finished with little dough droplets: you feel the proximity to Russia in this sturdy, comforting and shareable tureen.

Qiqihar is extremely cold in winter and households tend to store food – including fruit – outdoors to preserve it. Pear is denatured by freezing, slightly thawing and freezing it again so it becomes almost sorbet-like: it’s a refreshing end to a meal, especially if you’ve gone hard on fat-laced wagyu.

This is the Wangs’ first restaurant and you can feel a little inexperience in the service. The concept is strong, though, the excitement palpable and the food great. There may be more shaggy dogs in Melbourne with one less clipper on duty but the canine world’s loss is, most definitely, Wang Wang’s gain.

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The low-down

Vibe: Convivial, DIY barbecue

Go-to dish: Pork belly ($26)

Drinks: The one-page wine list is disorganised, jumping from white to red and back again, but there’s decent drinking on it. Mocktails and cocktails have on-theme flavours, such as jasmine and lychee.

Cost: About $140 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

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