Melbourne, Australia — In my lifetime as a left-handed diner, only three restaurants in the world have taken note, quietly transferring tableware to my left, to make dining a bit more comfortable. The first was Taillevent in Paris, the second was Lai Ching Heen at the Regent Hotel in Hong Kong, the third the famed Chinese restaurant, Flower Drum, in downtown Melbourne.
Flower Drum is often called the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world, famed for its gigantic King Island crab meat (monsters that weigh up to 8 kilos) and some of the finest Peking Duck to be found on this planet. The elegant restaurant, filled with Chinese antiques in a warm, classic setting, is also known for its consistency.
The brainchild of now-retired Gilbert Lau. The restaurant is now in the hands of longtime chef Anthony Liu, who oversees a well-trained brigade in his long, narrow kitchen, a spot abuzz with searing woks and a quartet of chefs who roll by hand each and every pancake to wrap around the outstanding Peking Duck.
The landmark, 25-year-old restaurant has a refreshing, old-fashioned air, and is often filled with regulars who come for the duck and lemon chicken. We began our feast with a trio of dim sum-style dumplings, a delicate, moist crab dim sum wrapped in the thinnest of pastry, crab-rich and steaming hot, ready for dipping into a sublime, ginger-laced vinegar sauce. The food here not only stands the test of time, but sets itself aside for its high standards of excellence: A case in point is the fantastic local scallop dumpling, feathery, delicate, and seasoned with a fiery, first-rate XO sauce. These, along with a fat shrimp dumpling seems right at home with the chilled, nicely acidic Pipers Brook Chardonnay from the island of Tasmania.
Drunken squab followed, deep and dense poultry meat paired with the most delicious mung bean pasta, all slippery, spicy, full-flavored. Plump Tasmanian oysters were teamed up with spicy vermicelli, all chewy, briny, and spicy, well matched with the 2002 Australian Katumara Chardonnay, lightly touched with a kiss of oak. There’s no question that Flower Drum’s Peking Duck is among the finest in the world, with those hand rolled pancakes steamed tableside, filled with slivers of young 12 to 16-week old local ducks, carefully raised to be moist, and less fatty than most. As the restaurant’s able wine steward, Thomas Chung, notes “We send our ducks to the gym!” A perfect wine match for the duck is the young-vine pinot noir from the Australian Yabby Lake Vineyard, Mornington Peninsula, vintage 2002.
A finale of whole steamed trout – rich and almost cod-like in texture – was not only gorgeous but delicious, topped with a colorful sauce of fresh coriander leaf and plenty of garlic.
The first time I met Melbourne chef Greg Malouf and was introduced to his signature modern Middle Eastern cuisine, I knew I had a culinary soul mate.
What was there not to love about chickpea battered zucchini flowers served on a cumin-braised lentil salad? Or sage-fried potatoes with sour cream and cumin salt; or Greek-spiced roast rabbit with a warm salad of crushed saffron potatoes and olives spiced with a touch of cubed Armenian sausages. It’s food with a history, a purpose, an audience, gently massaged and updated for the way we want to eat today.
In his cozy and elegant downtown Melbourne restaurant, Momo, Malouf serves food with a distinct personality and plenty of flair. What I love is that all the ingredients are quite familiar to anyone who loves Middle Eastern fare, but no one puts the pieces of the puzzle together like he does.
My hand’s down favorite of a recent weekday was his colorful vegetarian main course, brought to table in a colorful terrine. In the 60’s we might have called it a vegetable casserole, but the combination and melding of flavors were pure ambrosia, a finely tuned blending of soft squares of Moroccan-baked eggplant, chickpeas, artichokes and goat’s milk cheese, anointed and united with a bright golden poached egg on top.
I loved as well the idea of the Greek-spiced rabbit, teamed up with a colorful and fragrant salad of saffron-infused cubed potatoes, chunks of sausage and a nice dose of olives.
The zucchini flowers were golden and perfectly fried in a thin chickpea batter and stuffed with the Greek cheese, haloumy. The accompanying cumin-braised lentil salad was typical of Malouf’s ability to create deep, intense flavors from simple ingredients, lifting lowly lentils to grandeur, assisting them with a complex blend of tomatoes, onions, olives, lemons, thyme, and parsley.
The Red Emperor
At lunch time each day The Red Emperor – a bright and modern Chinese restaurant with a panoramic view of Melbourne’s skyline and the Yarra river with its well-tended walkways --- serves up what is considered the city’s finest dim sum feast. The menu includes no less than 100 different dim sum delicacies, with a few specialties, such as fried garlic prawn dumplings and cheese-baked scallops available only on Sundays.
But a weekday lunch feast was plenty for me, with a sampling of more than a dozen painstakingly prepared Chinese snacks, including ethereally light pork and prawn-filled dumplings, all crispy and not a touch greasy, made for dipping in their fiery XO sauce. Sesame-topped barbecued pork dumplings were fashioned from Chinese lard-based puff pastry; while I’d give five stars to their dumplings filled with a generous mix of scallops, chives, and prawns. The mastery of the chefs was shown in their crystal dumplings, made with gluten-free flour, and showing at least nine pleats in the tiny, almost see-through pastry, here filled with a classic shrimp mixture. At dessert, the flakey, light pastry reappeared, the name of a heaven-sent custard tart. Diners have a choice of choosing piping hot items from the rolling trolleys, or ordering from the vast menu, all the while enjoying the sun-kissed view of the river, listening to soothing Chinese classical music as they feast.
17 Market Lane, Melbourne
Telephone: 61 3 9662 3655.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.
Basement 115 Collins Street, Melbourne
Telephone: 61 3 9650 0660
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
The Red Emperor
UR3, upper level
3 Southgate Avenue, Southbank
Telephone: 61 3 9699 4170
Open daily. Dim sum at lunch only.