222 Exhibition Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9078 9781
I am not a fan of buffet restaurants, however my parents love them. And because it was their birthday weekend way back in July (their birthdays are only three days apart), they decided that they wanted to go to a buffet restaurant for their birthday dinner.
We normally eat in the ‘burbs for these sorts of dinners as my parents are too lazy to drive into the city these days unless, of course, they really have to. However, my brother had to be at a certain place in the city at a certain time that Saturday night so the dinner had to be in the CBD. Eating at Crown or The Langham was a no go because parking cost too much and dad refused to pay. And if you thought that my parents would be open to my suggestion of parking at my secret free parking spot and tramming, then walking to Crown, then obviously you don’t know my parents very well.
In the end, we decided on the city brand of China Bar Signature, the younger sister of the already established buffet restaurant of the same name in Burwood East.
I may turn my nose up at buffet spreads with their limited variety and questionable freshness of food but I couldn’t help but utter an involuntary ‘wah!’ when I saw the spread here.
And so the carnage began. My family and I were led to a table in a not-so-central area where the only way we could see what we were eating was via a spatter of meek red lights. For $69 a head (which, according to my parents, was ‘wah, so expensive!’), we feasted on an array of seafood items, dumplings, rice dishes, fried and steamed proteins of various kinds and lots and lots of desserts. The food was essentially the same as what we had during at lunch at the Burwood East branch all these years ago but obviously with more variety (given that it was dinner and we were, of course, paying double).
I started off with some roast meats. The roast chicken and duck are what China Bar franchises all over town do pretty well and the ones I tried on the night were no exception. Both the chicken and duck meat were juicy and the skins crispy like awesomeness. I wasn’t expecting much from the Peking duck so I was surprised when I realised that it was actually not half bad; in fact, it was pretty damn tasty.
The steamed dim sum at China Bar are usually reliable. Although you would undoubtedly be able to find better har gow or siu mai dumplings in Melbourne, it’s hard not to go into a China Bar Signature restaurant without picking up at least a couple of steamers of dim sum.
If there weren’t heaps of other dishes to try, I would have picked up $69 worth of siu mai, har gow and scallop dumplings. Unfortunately, I had to limit myself to one of each (well okay, I did have two har gow steamers).
I picked up what I reckon was China Bar’s version of a mini hybrid claypot and Taiwanese three-cup chicken. The chicken thighs were served with Chinese sausage and ginger on rice and steamed in a small bamboo steamer. It wasn’t the best rendition of this dish but I was happy with the size of this dish – it didn’t fill us up but it was enough to give us a fair sample.
Of course, no visit to a buffet restaurant is complete without trying a few deep-fried goodies. I had the prawn wrapped in fried beancurd, crumbed prawns, pork dumplings and a fried prawn ball coated with almonds, all of which actually tasted decent. To make myself feel healthier though, I also grabbed some slices of salmon sashimi and a grilled salmon sushi. I was also pleased to see more unusual forms of sashimi available such as the ark shell sashimi (which I had a little bit of, but undecided that I wasn’t a huge fan of because of the too-crunchy texture).
We shared a plate of sautéed greens to make ourselves feel even better.
We then worked our way through the richer dishes. By this stage, we were starting to fill up so we could only afford to have bite-sized portions of everything. The stuff I sampled (pineapple fried rice, fried quail, fish in ginger and spring onion sauce amongst other things) were actually better than the stuff you find at your local Smorgy’s – it was fresher, hotter and ‘less artificial-tasting.’ You won’t expect hatted cuisine here but I’m quietly confident that everyone can find at least one dish that they would be happy with here.
Their chawanmushi (Japanese steamed egg custard) with shitake mushrooms, chestnut and prawns was okay. It wasn’t the best I’ve had, but I was glad to see it being offered. Not pictured was the shark fin soup that my parents and I shared. While we suspect that fake shark fin was used, we were nevertheless happy to treat ourselves to a bowl.
Once we decided that we had enough savoury dishes, we went straight for dessert. A waitress then asked us if we could like a soufflé. We didn’t see any soufflés in the dessert cabinet so we guessed that they were made to order. My sister and I decided that we’d share a soufflé, so we requested a chocolate one. Big mistake. The soufflé did not even have a ‘rise’ and it was very dense and egg-y, rather than soft and fluffy. The chocolate sauce that was poured into the make-shift hole on top didn’t really do much to improve its taste either. Next time, we’ll be saying ‘no.’
Dad decided to go all Masterchef -y with his desserts. He had a chocolate macaron (‘not that nice’), a bit of croquembouche and some mango jelly. His favourite dessert, however, was the tau foo fah which he kept having seconds of.
I had a coconut jelly topped with kiwi fruit, a green tea mousse, a honeydew sago pudding and a crème brulee that had not been blow-torched. All, except for the crème brulee, were better than okay and were portioned perfectly so that we could spare room in our tummies for other desserts.
I should also mention that the city restaurant has a second storey where more food is located. Given how full I was, I never got around to venturing upstairs but from what my brother told me, it’s a haven for hot pot and grilled meat lovers.
My parents had a ball during dinner and even I had to admit that it wasn’t so bad. My mum is already in talks about taking her sister there the next time she’s visiting the country (i.e. next year) while dad was quick to recommend China Bar Signature to his friends. While my parents weren’t fawning over lunch at the Burwood East restaurant, they definitely did enjoy dinner at the city branch. They couldn’t stop raving about the food after we had left, and even stopped making disparaging comments about how ‘expensive’ the whole thing was (of course you would if you were being shouted dinner!).
I may be a buffet restaurant hater but if I had to recommend a buffet restaurant in the city, I’d recommend this one. I like that it’s in a convenient location and that they serve a great variety of food for the price charged per head (if you wish to pay less, weekday dinners are $55 and lunches are even cheaper but with less variety). While I won’t be coming here every second weekend, I will not be quick to say ‘no’ should I get invited to eat here further down the track.