I’ve always loved Chinese restaurants – from our neighborhood take-out operations to the high-end, red-lacquered palaces in New York and San Francisco. I remember my first trips to Hong Kong and Shanghai, and how thrilling they were.
But more often than not, Chinese food is a disappointment. Maybe because so many Chinese restaurants dumb it down for the non-Chinese. It may also owe to the public’s belief that no matter how good the ingredients are, and how much skill goes into their preparation, prices should match those of the little takeout place down the street. Faced with a clientele that simply won’t pay for quality, the restaurants serve up an inferior product by necessity.
But hope springs eternal, and on a recent trip to Melbourne, I had a chance to visit the Flower Drum, a 40-year-old shrine to Cantonese dining, reputed to be the best Chinese restaurant in the country. I’d heard of this place. I’d seen it written up in magazines. This was one for the bucket list.
So the moment we booked our tickets, I called for a reservation and was told they were booked out for the next three months.
Unwilling to give up, upon arrival in Melbourne I asked the concierge (this is why we stay in fancy hotels) to work his magic.
“Impossible,” I was told as he hung up the phone. “They’re booked solid –”
“–for the next three months. Got it.”
Well, I tried. And I grieved. And I moved on.
The next day, while on a walk Joanne and I stumbled upon the Flower Drum around 2:30 p.m., and I figured, What the hell, I’ll see if they can work us in that day.
“Absolutely,” the manager told us. “What time would you like to dine?”
I told him 7:30, and he said, “Fine, we have a lovely table for you.”
So we arrived promptly at 7:30 and were escorted into a basically EMPTY restaurant (even by 9 p.m., the place was maybe one-third full).
Again: WTF? (I’ve yet to figure this one out)
Taking our seats at what was indeed a lovely table, I felt incredible anticipation. Sure the room décor felt a bit clichéd, and the service, while prompt, professional and efficient, didn’t feel all that special, but this was THE Chinese restaurant in the whole of Australia!
And the menu was certainly enticing – filled with dishes and ingredients I’d never heard of: Papspaly Pearl Meat? Barramundi Noodles? Bring it on! It all sounded very esoteric, refined, authentic (although, let’s be honest, authenticity is frequently overrated).
So how was the food?
Well, the Peking Duck was a WOW: crispy, crispy-skinned duck with a deeply flavorful plum sauce, thin pancakes, cucumber and spring onion, the best I’ve ever had. (Sorry, Nankin).
The Papspaly pearl meat, a kind of cross between abalone and scallops, was delicious – how could it not be?
The Barramundi noodles, though, were kind of weird – extruded from a slurry of fresh water sea bass with spring onions, asparagus and garlic. Served cold. Bland. I slid those over to Joanne’s side of the table.
Other dishes were more pedestrian, but good – King Prawns with sweet chili oil….filet mignon with Szechuan sauce…E-FU egg noodles with shiitake mushrooms and garlic chives.
Dinner ran about $100/per person, although we spent more because of all the wine we drank (What can I say? I married a lush).
So was it worth it? Was my bucket list item fulfilled?
Not by a long shot. I’d certainly go back to Flower Drum. Our meal was perfectly pleasant, and the menu offered plenty more options that sounded intriguing.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the pleasures of the Chinese kitchen just aren’t available to diners who aren’t Chinese, or dining with Chinese, or knowledgeable enough about the cuisine to ferret out the good stuff or convince the staff to make the dishes as they’re actually meant to be eaten.
Who do I blame? Primarily the unwashed masses of Caucasians who have sent dishes back to the kitchen for being too spicy, too oily, too weird. As an operator, I know what it costs to have to remake a dish or substitute one for an unhappy diner. It makes sense that restaurants of this type would anticipate what the masses want and give it to them. But they also share some of the blame, because today’s diners – even ones like me – have evolved over the past few dishes. We’re no longer afraid of a little oil the way we were in the past? We can handle the heat and even embrace the gelatinous on occasion. I think we’re ready for the real thing.
In the meantime, I’ll just have to content myself with fake Chinese – the Orange Chicken…the Broccoli Beef and Kung Pao Shrimp. Joanne and I have gotten take out for years from Great Wall on France Avenue, and it’s always satisfying. Hell, I’ve even heard about this place at the mall called Panda Express. We’ll have to try it.
W T F
17 Market Lane, Melbourne, Victoria, 3000
+61 3 9662 3655