17 Market Ln
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9662 3655
Everyone knows the Flower Drum song. No, I’m not referring to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version; I’m talking about the one that stormed up the Melbourne restaurant charts in the 80s to the tune of ‘Greed Is Good’ and ‘Lunch ain’t for wimps.’ Unlike Bananarama and Toni Basil, however, this Flower Drum song was not content to remain a one hit wonder. No way. As Australia battled through shoulder pads, a Keating government and a Kiwi invasion by the name of OMC, Flower Drum continued to churn out good ol’ Chinese favourites such as Peking duck and A Really Good sweet and sour pork. But then it all changed. Like a teenager outgrowing the Hanson boys, so did Melburnians. They were sick of the tired bling bling decor that once upon a time impressed 80s diners, they were sick of unimaginative (albeit good quality) food and finally, they were sick of traveling up an elevator that took a century to take them from the ground floor reception to the dining room on the first floor. Enter Jason Lui, maitre’d extraordinaire who saw that Flower Drum needed to get with the times, and in came the new and improved ‘Drum.
Okay, so we were still stuck with the opulent but cliched decor and the elevator was, unfortunately, not going anywhere (figuratively and literally). But that was okay. When I heard that there was to be a new menu, you can imagine how excited I was. Like a teenager who had just scored tickets to Usher’s concert, I was on the phone making a booking for the Dinner Crew and a few sundry diners. And on the day of our Spring dinner, thoughts went through my head. Will it be better than my last dinner at Flower Drum 2.5 years ago? (my writing certainly is *cough*) Will they still play Richard Clayderman on the restaurant’s speakers? Is Mimi still manning the reception? My answers were finally answered in a boozy dinner that lasted almost four hours.
Pure XO sauce. Lovely.
The first and most important change I noticed was the menu. It was about a third the size of the original one. Gone were the sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken dishes and in came unusual-sounding dishes such as the sauteed sea conch meat with ginger and shallots. After having sat through several six-course Flower Drum banquet dinners, you’d think that I wouldn’t pick the banquet menu this time around but what did I do? Picked the effking Spring banquet menu. This time, though, they had the four-course option available for $99 which came with two entrees, two mains and a choice of dessert (which meant that there is technically five courses, so WTF?!). Given that the six-courses banquets often left me battered and bruised, I and most of my dining companions with the four-course option. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have taken it because it was pretty much the same as the six-course banquets. Yeah, I know, the ‘fck were you thinking?!
I was still kicking myself for being sucked into ordering the banquet as I sipped my glass of O’Leary Walker ‘Polish Hill River’ riesling from Clare Valley ($11). Full of bold citrus flavours with a hint of acid, it was as fresh and vivacious as Dianna Agron’s character in Glee.
I didn’t have to sulk for long because my first entree arrived pretty quickly. We were presented with a plate of assorted steamed dumplings: a har gow, a xiaolongbao, a siu mai and a prawn and spinach dumpling. It goes without saying that although Flower Drum is a two-hatted restaurant, it does not specialise in dumplings and this was evident here. They were fine, but if they were presented to me at a credible yum cha restaurant, I would not have been TOO pleased…
I also ordered an entree of pearl meat in addition to the banquet. $25 for several measly slices of pearl may seem pricey to most but when you bite into the succulent pearl meat, couriered from Broome, which has been thinly sliced and gently stir-fried with ginger and spring onions, you can understand why this dish is such a delicacy. The meat is flavoursome on its own but if required, oyster and shrimp sauces are provided for extra flavour.
Dave, being the wise guy he was (well, is), decided that he wasn’t going to conform so he went the full-on a la carte. His first entree was the duck wontons (three for $13.50) which were described on the menu as “Chinese ravioli.” Even though Dave was unperturbed by them, I thought they were delicious. The duck meat inside was delicate as was the braised duck reduction that provided the dumplings a subtly tangy pool to swim in. A hint of sundried tangerine zest prevented the filling inside from being too mellow. A well-executed dish.
The second entree in the banquet was the SA King George Whiting, a dish that I enjoyed 2.5 years ago. Nothing’s changed – the spice-dusted batter was light and crispy, and the fish beautifully cooked right through. It went perfectly with my riesling as well as the fresh lemon juice and five-spice salt provided.
After an extended intermission, we were treated to the obligatory Peking Duck. Like clockwork, we were presented with a piece of duck neatly wrapped in thin pancake, trimmings, hoisin sauce and all. A dab of plum sauce was on hand for additional flavour … but not that we really needed it. The duck, so seductively juicy and moist like a (insert whatever analogy you may so wish to include here) and everything else from the fresh cucumber and spring onion to the pancake to the hoisin played their part in making this The Best Peking Duck in Melbourne. Disagree as much as you want, I firmly uphold this statement. That is all.
One was obviously not enough so we got two pieces. Mmmmfffffmmmm.
Our final main was the grain-fed Black Angus eye fillet with Szechuan sauce. In hindsight, I should have requested the Cantonese pepper sauce instead. Not that the Szechuan sauce is terrible or anything (it is far from it), but I do prefer the pepper sauce. Not to worry though as this dish was beautifully cooked medium rare, as recommended by Lui and his team, with the light yet spicy pepper and chilli-ridden sauce complimenting the meat well. I did notice that they went easy with the sauce compared to last time and I think it was a good move as I was still able to taste the natural flavours of the beef, which was pre-cut for us to make things just that little bit easier.
Our steaks were accompanied by a bowl of okay-but-not-fantastic fried rice.
For dessert, Dave and I chose the Peking toffee apple with ice cream. I’m not sure what made the toffee apple “Peking” but whatever, to me it was delicious and that’s all that mattered. Each apple segment, was deep-fried in crunchy batter before being dipped in toffee and ice. Served with a creamy scoop of Rickett’s Point organic vanilla ice-cream before being decorated with a spider web of toffee, it was a dessert that was sinfully sweet and sour (but mostly sweet) at the same time… and almost worth getting a tooth decay for.
The other girls on the table had their eyes set on the mango crepes with mango ice-cream as soon as they opened the menu. Although I enjoyed my toffee apple, the girls clearly had the better dessert. Everything about the dessert was perfect, from the chewy and supple crepes to the fresh mango slices to the mango ice-cream. Fresh strawberries and a passionfruit and mango puree completed the package to ensure that this dish, unlike Bananarama, would not become a Flower Drum one hit wonder.
At this stage, always-busy Matt had left so we shared his dessert, a platter of fresh fruit. The ‘Drum normally charges $13.50 for this dessert and although it’s full of good-quality luscious pieces of sliced fruit, it’s hard to believe that the entire plate would be even half of $13.50. Also, is it me or does the fruit platter get smaller and smaller?
Finally, we were given almond cookies to nibble on as we drank the last dregs of wine and organised the bill. I’m a huge fan of Flower Drum’s almond cookies but the others are not so I managed to get more than my fair share of almond cookies to keep me happy.
If you’ve been to Flower Drum in the last 10 years and have just read my post, you’d be somewhat correct to assume that Flower Drum has not really changed its tune. Despite a promise of a “new and improved” menu, the four-course banquet, while fantastic, had not really changed except for slight decreases in quantities of sauces and other elements. Think Finn Hudson’s cover of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jesse’s Girl’ – same ol’, same ol’. In saying that, the a la carte items that I managed to try on the night were nothing short of magnificent. If they totally revamped their banquet menus to include some of those sorts of dishes, instead of churning out the same old stuff, then we’d be talking. Still, they’re obviously trying and I’m glad they are. Flower Dum was the first hatted restaurant I had been to so it does hold a soft spot in my heart and I want it to do very well. Next time though, I will refuse to look at the banquet menus, and just stick with my gut instinct and go fully a la carte. Or dare to ask the kitchen to surprise me.
Oh, and the service is still exemplary. Really, you’ll never find better service elsewhere in Melbourne.