My mum had her birthday over the weekend and my dad will turn another year older tomorrow, so what better way to celebrate than with some food (the ONLY way our family celebrates, heh). After hearing good reviews from my Aunty Emi about this “super fantastic new duck restaurant” in Nunawading, we decided to try it (we being my family plus Adam). Strangely and fobbily named Happy Cook, this place hasn’t been around for too long. Established by the same guys who ran the once-famous-now-irrelevant Fortuna Village in Chinatown, however, it didn’t take long for word to get around about this place and so when we made the booking for dinner on Sunday night, we were told that it was going to be busy and that there were strictly two sitting available: one at 5:45pm and one at 7:30pm, the former which we chose.
Situated on busy Springvale Road amongst a row of old school op shops, locksmiths and other small businesses reminiscent of Nunawading’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon population, the Peking restaurant is a bit of an eye sore. But although the bright Christmas lights and the shiny disco ball in the very small restaurant may send some of us into giggles, the atmosphere is generally inviting particularly on such a cold night.
Happy Cook is supposedly famous for its Peking duck. Apparently it’s now “the” place to go for good-value Peking duck, rather than the very inconsistent Old Kingdom in Fitzroy. In fact, Happy Cook’s Peking duck is so in-demand that one must pre-order a duck or two before they come here or they will miss out. That’s what dad did when he made the booking and so all weekend, I was looking forward to trying just how good this duck was. Come Saturday night, however, and mum is on the phone to Aunty Emi (the one who recommended this place). Aunty tells mum that it’s in fact the crispy aromatic duck that’s good, rather than the Peking duck and so dad rang the place again to cancel the Peking duck request.
Presenting the “Crispy Aromatic Duck.” There were six of us at the table, but we only ordered half a duck because Kenneth hates duck ($25 for half a duck + 6 pancakes, $48 for a whole duck + 12 pancakes). Basically, the set up is exactly the same as a traditional Peking duck, the only difference being the way that the duck is cooked. The duck is soaked to get rid of the fat before being deep-fried, which lends to its very crispy texture (both skin and meat). Frankly, I found the crispy aromatic duck way too dry for my liking and I actually missed having that little bit of fat that one would expect to find in a good Peking duck. As for the aroma? Well, there wasn’t any, really. I could taste the slightest hint of five-spice powder and Schihuan peppercorns, but that was it. I think I’ll stick to Peking duck next time.
That was our entree. The rest of the dishes were to arrive after we had finished our duck. 30 minutes after the duck had been cleared, however, we were still waiting. I would have been less pissy if it weren’t for the fact that EVERY OTHER TABLE had their dishes already, including those who had actually ordered after us. It took a bit of “where’s our food? this ain’t good enough”s from my dad to the waiter but finally we got there. We weren’t happy about waiting so long for relatively uncomplicated dishes to arrive and whether the wait was actually worth it is a bit of a jury question…
In the foreground, you can see a plate of sauteed gai lan (Chinese broccoli) which wasn’t actually on the menu (so I don’t know how much it was), but the kind waiter was lovely enough to prepare it with garlic for us. It was nothing to bitch or sing praises about. In the background is a dish called “mock crab” ($19.80). The waiter explained that the dish was invented in the Qing Dynasty by some guy who wanted to please the visiting ruler at the time by making his favourite dish, which happened to have crab in it. Now, this was in Beijing where one could not get fresh crabs to make said dish so he whisked together some egg yolks and some fish meat and did something to it so that the texture resembled that of a crab… and voila. To me, this dish was nothing more than scrambled egg whites whisked with fish and scallops but strangely enough, it wasn’t too bad especially with a bit of vinegar to break up the saltiness of it. Definitely a must-try, just for the experience.
Pan-fried beancurd in shrimp roe ($15.80). This was an interesting interpretation of stuffed beancurd. Rather than heaping the shrimp mixture on top of the beancurd so that it created a puffy pillow, the shrimp roe seemed to be mixed into the batter before being fried so that the skin was a nice, crispy layer of subtle shrimpiness. Yum.
Special combination stir-fried hand-made noodles ($13.80). There was a decent selection of noodles which made it hard for us to choose one, so dad randomly chose the most gweilo of them all (don’t ask me why). Actually, the hand-made noodles were really nice. They were the same size as Hokkien noodles but made with wheat and very delicate. I would have much preferred trying their Shanghai noodles or dan-dan noodles because the combination of overcooked char siu and seafood extender isn’t exactly appealing but oh well, next time…
Of course, we had to order a beef dish because my brother hates pretty much everything when it comes to Chinese food… except beef. We ordered a Mongolian beef ($16.80) which was surprisingly quite good, again very delicate, sweet and succulent. One of the better versions. My only gripe about this dish was that the menu said it was going to be “hot” … and it wasn’t.
The bill was around the $110 mark, which is reasonable for a group of six (and we were all very full). Although none of the dishes were actually very spectactular, they were all well-balanced and made for a very pleasant dinner. Again, I have to say that I’m sure the dinner would have been a lot better had we ordered the Peking duck as it seemed like the way to go (90% of the tables were having it). Because of that, I’m making my parents not listen to Aunty Emi again when it comes to eating out because seriously, how can someone who thinks that the Indian food at Shoppo’s foodcourt is the best Indian in Melbourne? Pfffft. Again, the service may have been slow but they were really nice which is refreshing for a mainlander place, plus the restaurant was spotless. I won’t be here for a while (my dad is still pissy about having to wait 30 minutes between courses) but if I’m in the area and feel like Peking duck, I would no doubt give Happy Cook‘s a go.