If you are someone who grew up eating Chinese food that was recreated by your Austrian mother from the ‘Women’s Weekly Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook’ like I was then you may have found that something was missing all these years. It’s not that my mum was an inept cook (quite the contrary), but for the first 15 years of my life the only Chinese food I ever ate was from recipes in this book.
I loved it. Anything that wasn’t meat and two veg was perfect. No matter how sweet or salty or spicy or even unknown it was, I just loved it all. There was a time when I was quite the fussy eater but anything from the aforementioned book was magic, and I spent quite a lot of time in the kitchen helping out and learning what I could.
Fast forward many years of eating and discovering food and we come to Flower Drum. I knew very little about it other than it was a consistently awarded Chef Hat venue that happened to serve traditional Cantonese food. Apart from those two attributes nothing else mattered; I had to go there one day just to see what all the fuss was about.
With a not so early breakfast at Cumulus Inc. that we had just indulged in and a not so late dinner reservation at Vue de Monde to come booking in lunch at Flower Drum was a little ambitious to say the least. But there was an easy way to do this, order à la carte and everything will be fine. Ha! Not sure we know what à la carte actually means because as usual we ended up ordering the Chef’s Signature Banquet – all 5 courses of it. When in Rome…
Chef’s 5 Course Signature Banquet – $135.00 per person / with matching wines $180.00 per person
- Baked Crab Shell – Fresh mud crab cooked in turmeric sauce together with a hint of onion and garlic then baked in the shell of a blue swimmer crab
- Quail Sang Choi Bao – Minced quail meat cooked together with Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and spring onion, served in a lettuce leaf
- Sauté Seafood w Ginger & Spring Onion – Live South Australian crayfish coupled with pearl meat, prawn and scallop, stir fried in a wok with ginger and spring onions
- Peking Duck – Tender pieces of roast duck wrapped within a pancake accompanied by spring onion, cucumber and a touch of plum sauce
- Grain Fed Eye Fillet w Szechuan Sauce – Black Angus eye fillet beef cooked medium rare or to your liking and dressed in a spicy Szechuan sauce. Served with seasonal vegetables and special fried rice
- Choice of Dessert
- Fresh Handmade Almond Cookies served with Chinese Tea or Vittoria Coffee
Baked Crab Shell – Fresh mud crab cooked in turmeric sauce together with a hint of onion and garlic then baked in the shell of a blue swimmer crab.
As soon as the crab dish arrived we knew it would be an epic afternoon of eating. The blue swimmer shell was filled with the mud crab flesh and quite plump with a grilled cheese topping. Initially it was the ginger that caught my attention but that was soon replaced with the lovely mud crab. Hints of garlic and turmeric were peppered throughout and accentuated by the cheesy crust.
Quail Sang Choi Bao – Minced quail meat cooked together with Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and spring onion, served in a lettuce leaf.
There was so much love of the ingredients list in the next dish we were unsure if it would be possible not to like it. As expected it was everything we wanted. Quail is such a great meat for Sang Choi Bao; just like pork its flavour carries through and all of the sweetness and saltiness of the sauces just accentuate it more. Oyster, soy and Shaoxing wine all marry to the quail and along with the small textural treats everything simply worked so well in the crunchy lettuce cup.
Sauté Seafood w Ginger & Spring Onion – Live South Australian crayfish coupled with pearl meat, prawn and scallop, stir fried in a wok with ginger and spring onions.
Immaculate is what I would call the presentation of the sauté seafood. Not a hint of char or caramelisation just precision cooked seafood that was stir fried yet looked steamed. To the surprise of our waiter pearl meat is something we’d had before – and even more surprising was that we’d had it as sashimi. Again hints of ginger permeated throughout and it was hard to miss the silky sheen of corn flour but above all it was the clean and distinct flavour of each different piece of seafood that came through.
Peking Duck – Tender pieces of roast duck wrapped within a pancake accompanied by spring onion, cucumber and a touch of plum sauce.
Wheeled on up was a wooden table adorned with quite an impressive number of gadgets – oil burners, steam bowls and even plates. Peking duck pancakes were made in front of us and served the moment they were ready. Plum sauce was the key to making the whole dish amazing. Yes, the duck was great but you can get great Peking duck all over town. It is hard to find a decent bottled plum sauce and harder to make a good one yourself.
The pancakes were so good and the theatrics and skill shown serving this dish were top-notch. On the second serving our waiter was able to execute the plum sauce shaped as a plum quite well. We loved it all – from our waiter wanting a percentage of all profits made on our photos of him to the fact that we got two pancakes handcrafted in front of us. Being the massive duck fan I am I was fairly sure that this was going to be the standout for the afternoon.
Grain Fed Eye Fillet w Szechuan Sauce – Black Angus eye fillet beef cooked medium rare or to your liking and dressed in a spicy Szechuan sauce. Served with seasonal vegetables.
Beef and spice are such a glorious combination. How could it be even better? Cooked medium rare or even rare. Opting for rare I made sure this wouldn’t affect the overall harmony of the dish and was happy to be informed it was as the chef intended. As the dishes came out there was a little swap made – mine was medium and Lex’s rare – but with such a fine cut all was forgiven. Sadly there was no spice for me, not even a little. Even the tongue numbing Szechuan pepper was missing. The Black Angus was gushing with flavour but the sauce was little too tame to make this the star dish I had hoped for.
Special Fried Rice.
So what happens next on a five course menu when you are pretty sure you’ve eaten a little too much? Special fried rice happens. Some may call theirs special but I think that’s just because it makes it sound better than it is. However, Flower Drum do make it special. It was hard to find a single grain of rice stuck to another and with a hearty amount of egg, prawn, bacon and shallots around it made for the best fried rice I have had in a very long time.
Peking Toffee Apple w Ice Cream – Lightly battered apple covered in molten toffee and dipped in ice. Served with Rickett’s Point organic cinnamon ice cream.
Other than the way the steak was cooked there were no options in the Chef’s Banquet until dessert. What to choose from when everything sounded good? We needed to ask what the favourites were. Straight away the Peking toffee apple was suggested – deep fried apple in a light batter with caramel strand (spun sugar) decorations made at the table. It is easy to see what makes this such a favourite! Sugary, crisp batter on soft poached apples, sticky, crunchy caramel and a fine cinnamon ice cream. Top-notch.
Mango Crepe – Fresh Kensington Pride mangoes and mango pudding wrapped in a crèpe. Served with slices of fresh mangoes, mango sorbet and a mango passionfruit sauce.
Another recommendation was the mango crepe. It was impossible to say no with such and epic mango line-up. Even though all the other elements were bigger and better in the flavour department the subtle little crepe was nothing less than perfect. Soft, moist and cooked impeccably I would have been happy eating more of these even though I was getting ridiculously full by this stage.
Fresh Handmade Almond Cookies served with Chinese Tea or Vittoria Coffee.
Just in case we weren’t done there was tea and coffee on offer to go with our almond cookies. For me it was the end. I sampled a cookie, enjoyed it and hung up my napkin. I was done. Not even coffee could tempt me, there was no way I could fit it in after such a comprehensive meal.
In the years since I have moved on from the Women’s Weekly meals of my youth there have been many adventures in Chinese cooking. But none have had that moment where you think “this is what it is like to eat Chinese food in China.” I won’t pretend to really know what that is like, yet, but compared to the Chinese food I have eaten in the past Flower Drum felt the most pure I have had to date. Their service is impeccable – attentive yet never overwhelming, polite and considerate and never imposing.
Was it a smart move to eat so much after a late breakfast and before a dinner degustation? No way. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
17 Market Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9662 3655
Flower Drum Website