Adam’s folks will be flying off to Vietnam in a few day’s time so Adam and I decided to celebrate their going away/Christmas by shouting dinner. Now, the problem with Adam’s parents is that they only seem to like eating out at Chinese places, despite the plethora of brilliant non-Chinese eateries that exist in Melbourne. This can be rather annoying as there aren’t particularly many Chinese places on the higher end of Melbourne’s restaurant hierarchy as Chinese cuisine, I’m afraid, tend to be unexciting and not all that innovative. Even the best Chinese restaurant in Melbourne, Flower Drum, can only differentiate itself by using top ingredients to produce good quality Cantonese fare rather than go very left-of-centre like some of the more creative chefs such as Wickens, Bennett and co. I mean, I can’t see Anthony Lui pulling off something like Kevin Rudd face-shaped lobster meat in a soy consomme topped with grated lotus roots and shaved abalone. Or any Chinese chef for that matter.
In the end, we decided to go to Bamboo House on Little Bourke. A Northern-Chinese restaurant which has been around since the 80s, Bamboo House has been popular with generations of politicians, suits and gweilos for as long as I could remember. A rather plain-looking restaurant sits across the street from the more hip and happening Longrain (definitely on my list of places to visit!); it’s a place that doesn’t seem fancy at first but looks can be deceiving as the interior is plush without being too stiff and formal.
It took us a while pick from the menu because 1) there was no quail on the menu which annoyed Adam’s dad a little and 2) I couldn’t choose between the tea-smoked duck or the Peking duck. In the end, the Peking duck prevailed as Bamboo House earned a mention in The Age‘s list of top Peking duck restaurants.
The duck was the first to arrive ($36 for half a duck, which gave us each two pieces). Although the waiters had already cut the duck in the kitchen, they folded the duck in the pancakes on a little bench next to our table. Each of us were given a plate with two decent-sized serves which tasted just as nice as I had hoped. The pancakes were warm, the sauce tangy and the duck crispy with a perfect ratio of meat-fat-skin. The only thing that I would’ve picked on is that the meat was perhaps a tad dry, not moist and juicy like Flower Drum’s. Other than that though, fantastic.
The next dish to arrive was the seafood in birdnest ($33), which was disappointingly small for the price we paid. Fresh prawns, sliced rockling fillets and scallops mingled with too many vegetables, all sauteed and tossed into a basket made out of fried potato noodles. While it tasted okay, this was definitely not the best birdnest I’ve had and didn’t think that it was worth $33 given how small it was. Heck, you could get bigger heads of lettuces for free when you order spring rolls at Vietnamese restaurants.
Szechuan beef was next (somewhere between $24-29). Sliced skirt steak pieces were dry-fried with a seasoning that was tangy and spicy, but not too overpowering. A successful Szechuan beef, in my opinion, is crispy on the outside yet moist and chewy on the inside but this was not what we got. I reckon the beef was way too overcooked which meant that we got rock hard beef instead. Having said that though, Adam’s mum reckoned his dish was her favourite – she loved the seasoning so much that she was willing to overlook the texture of the beef which was not dissimilar to the Murray-Darling at present.
The last dish was stuffed beancurd (“with prawn roe”, according to the menu) which was something like $22. What it was doing in the “Vegetarian” section, I have no idea… I mean, the last time I checked, prawn was definitely not a vegetarian dish. In fact, I could see at least three other dishes in the vegetarian section which had meat ingredients – mushrooms and prawns in oyster sauce, was one. Bloody stupid. Clearly this restaurant is not for the vegetarians or those that only eat Kosher food (read: pain-in-the-arse diners). Anyway, the stuffed bean curd was inoffensive and well, good, but Supper Inn makes a better one, at a slightly cheaper price.
Although we all had a great time, we all felt that Bamboo House wasn’t worth the $149 we paid (which included all of the dishes above, plus rice, plus drinks). As with most cases, you could get better food at a cheaper price elsewhere in Chinatown. For me, the dish that was probably worth the money was the Peking Duck – the only reason I could see myself making a return visit (that and also to try the apparently awesome tea smoked duck). I also noticed that a lot of Bamboo House‘s patrons were Westerners – something that Adam’s parents seemed a bit suspicious of. Whether they’re there because they really thought that Bamboo House‘s food was special or whether they only come here out of habit because their parents took them here for special dinners in the 80s when it USED to be good, I would never know. To Bamboo House‘s credit though, they are featured in the current edition of The Good Food Guide (14/20) so they can’t be that bad. My guess is that we probably picked the wrong dishes and should’ve gone for their supposedly awesome dumplings (the problem was that Adam and I had already had dumplings for lunch at Dumplings Plus – review coming soon) or their jellyfish dish.
Meanwhile, I found the service to be very good for a Chinese restaurant. Friendly, patient waiters who provided attentive service (such as discreetly refilling water glasses and tea cups without us noticing) made the dining experience that much better for us. Certainly not Flower Drum standard service but rather close to it, something that places such as effing Shanghai Dumplings on Tattersalls Lane can learn from!