Saturday, 1 November 2014

Melbourne Series - Flower Drum - exquisite Chinese in the heart of Melbourne

Melbourne is a city where the restaurant rules, a place where there is almost a never ending supply of fantastic dining spots to enjoy.  You could literally eat at a new restaurant every night and never need to revisit any.  But it's refreshing to know that in the hotbed of Melbourne eating, there are some stalwarts that almost transcend the dining scene and enter legendary status.  There is a restaurant that has most certainly reached legendary status in Melbourne that I've had on my list for such a long time, one that I've just never been able to get into....  The Flower Drum.

'Flower Drum' is known in China as a traditional dance, famous for its beauty and elegance and it's these traits that have been incorporated in philosophy of the restaurant.  One of only three The Age Good Food Guide three hatted restaurants at the moment, The Flower Drum has pretty much been the major constant in fine dining in Melbourne.  You only have to look at it's history to understand the scale of it's magnificence.  Not only accredited as restaurant of the year by the Good Food Guide from 1999 to 2002 and again in 2004, it topped the Gourmet Traveller restaurant of the year in 2002. Flower Drum also made the world's top 50 list by Restaurant Magazine in England from 2002 to 2005.  And of course its kept either two or three chef's hats for as long as anyone can remember!

The magic of the Flower Drum started when in 1975, Gilbert Lau opened his soon-to-be-famous restaurant in Chinatown on Little Burke Street.  Setting high standards for himself and his team, Gilbert brought Cantonese food to the people of Melbourne and was able to compete with the more established European fine dining establishments.  Looking to capitalise on its popularity, Gilbert moved the Flower Drum to larger premises in Market Lane and appointed Chef Anthony Lui as the restaurant's executive chef.  It was in 2003 that Gilbert sold his beloved restaurant to his three employees,  including Chef Anthony Lui, and they have continued to provide Melbourne with the finest of Cantonese cuisine.

I'd only made my decision late to try to get into the Flower Drum and was incredibly lucky to score a table for four, on a Thursday night, the same week of the reservation.  I'm pretty sure it was the final table available. It had been an interesting first day at the National Auscontact Association conference and I was feeling a little drained from the flight to Melbourne earlier that day.  In fact, knowing that I was finally getting to the Flower Drum later that evening was the key driver getting me through the day.  I was dining with some friends from Brisbane, who were also attending the conference and equally excited to be eating in on of Melbourne's most iconic restaurants.

We approached the little red door in Market Street that signified we'd arrived.  I didn't really know what to expect, but as we walked up to the door, it was opened for us by a smiling doorman who ushered us into the worlds slowest lift to rise one floor to the main dining area.  Stepping out of the lift was like stepping into a time vortex, it looked like an 80's movie set and sure did remind me of my visits to Hong Kong in the 80's with my family.  We were greeted by more smiling faces and ushered to our huge table in the centre of the restaurant and given some menus to look over.

I'd already made up my mind that we'd be opting for the 'Chef's 6 Course Signature Banquet' and was happy that the group deferred the decision on dinner to my 'better' judgment.  While we were sitting around waiting for our drinks and banquet to arrive, the most peculiar thing happened.  Two of the table's four white napkins were replaced with black napkins, seemingly randomly.  More strange was that my white napkin was already spread across my lap, yet our waiter subtly took it from my lap and replaced it with a black napkin - we never figured out why... (if you know why, please let me know!)

After years and years of waiting to taste the incredible food from the Flower Drum, I was jumping out of my skin as the first course of the banquet arrived.   Served in an upturned crab shell sitting atop a bed of lettuce and cabbage our first dish was a crab mornay, but it didn't look the refined dish that I'd been expecting from a three hat restaurant.  In fact, it looked a little sloppy...  My first little taste dispelled any notions that the crab was anything but a triumph.  The sweetness of the crab was evident and blended nicely with the sweet mornay sauce.  We were given little spoons to dig the flesh out of the crab and I found myself all too soon scraping out the last of the crab.  From the looks of my dining companions, they enjoyed the crab as much as I did.

Up next was another dish that didn't look as refined as I'd hoped, but the lightly battered South Australian King George whiting was sublime.  There was no doubting that the whiting was fresh, it still had the taste of the sea about it.  There were three decent sized pieces of whiting on the plate sitting atop of some deep fried spring onion and chilli with a lone asparagus spear sitting on the side.  I thought the fish was beautiful and the sweet light batter gave a little crunch and texture. However, I did find the lone asparagus spear a bit of a mystery that didn't add too much to the dish.

I started to see a little more refinement in the next dish of quail, which was presented in a perfectly circular lettuce cup.  The quail had been diced and cooked in traditional Cantonese spices that were very sweet, which in combination from the sweet flesh of the bird lent itself to being a very light and sweet dish.  The idea was to roll up the quail in the lettuce cup and then get your hands dirty while stuffing your mouth.  One of our group had taken a call when the dish came out and was distractedly picking at it with her chopsitcks - much to the chagrin of the rest of the table!  We all had a good chuckle about it once she'd finished her call.

Entrees over, it was time to get into the serious stuff and our next dish was the sautéed seafood with ginger.  The dish was presented on a deep sea oyster shell, which was beautiful. The oyster shell was packed with lobster chunks, king prawn, scallops and pearl meat which had been lightly stir fried in a wok with ginger.  The ginger was not at all overpowering and was quite subtle, allowing the fresh fish flavours to stand out.  Interestingly, the lobster pieces were still in their shell, so we needed to pick up the pieces and suck them out....  It was a beautifully presented and delicious start to our mains.

Before we kicked on with our next course, our waiter brought over a Peking duck for us to view, before moving to the side to prepare meal.  We were of course having the very special Peking duck, roasted, sliced and then wrapped in a pancake that included spring onion and cucumber.  It was very ordinary looking on the plate, but I guess it's not too easy to make a 'duck wrap' look sexy - but there was an attempt to make the plum sauce look like a floating swan, so that was kind of kitsch and cool. Although it didn't look spectacular, it was in fact a simple and stunning example of how Peking duck should taste.  Sweet with a gamey flavour that was enhanced by the plum sauce.  Simply delicious, and what was better, there was two serves of the duck, so we got to repeat the experience again!

Last dish of the banquet was probably the best..  The grain fed eye fillet with Sichuan sauce was Black Angus filled cooked a perfect medium rare and was smothered in a spicy and slightly sticky Sichuan sauce.  Served with broccoli and snow peas, the dish was characterised by it's flavours and not it's presentation, which to be honest, was a little bit disappointing.  I soon forgave the presentation once I started to taste the incredibly tender beef and the beautiful sauce.  The comments from around the table ranged from 'amazing' to 'I didn't realise beef could be so tender'. I had to agree, the beef was about as tender as it comes and was equally delicious.

Dessert was included as part of the banquet and we each decided on a different option.  I was feeling quite full by the end of the meal, so I decided that a simple dish of fresh strawberries and ice cream would be a delightful way to finish the meal.  It was too...  But there was definitely nothing spectacular about the dessert, it was simply sliced fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream.

It was quite late by the time we'd finished our banquet, but the consensus around the table was that it had been the best example of a Chinese meal many of us had eaten.  There were a lot of satisfied looks in that contemplative time between the finalisation of the meal and the arrival of the bill.

While we were waiting for the bill and finishing up, I took a walk around the Flower Drum and found a wall that was partially hidden, but shouldn't have been.  It was essentially an awards wall, with all of the accolades that the restaurant had picked up throughout it's history.  It was actually more than a wall, there were so many awards that they spilled onto most of the surrounding area. As I stood in awe of the history of the Flower Drum, I was able to reflect on the meal.  It had been spectacular, there was not doubt but not in the way I'd initially expected.  I'd been thinking that each dish would be immaculately presented, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, and had been a little let down. But as sat sit, typing the blog and reflecting, I realised that my expectations were outlandish and I appreciated the simply divine food that I'd consumed.

I'll always remember my Flower Drum meal, it was definitely the best Chinese meal I'd consumed and, as you'd expect from a three hatted restaurant, the service was supreme.  Apart from the strange change of some of our napkins from white to black, we were well looked after by expert wait staff who knew how to look after diners.

Flower Drum was also the last of Melbourne's three hat restaurants that I'd been trying to get to and completed the set.  The last city for me to conquer and sample all three hatted restaurants is Sydney - I think I'll have to start planning....

The crab dish presentation was a bit scruffy - is it just me, or does the lettuce look a bit like a crab claw?
The King George Whiting was simple, fresh and delightful
The perfectly circular lettuce cup made eating the quail much easier - it was delicious
The seafood was fresh and the oyster shell was beautiful
The duck looked boring but was incredibly tasty - the plum sauce looked cute
Lots of our food was prepared next to our table
Beautiful little container held the tables soy sauce
Doing the sugar work for the deep fried apples
The deep fried apples looked messy but were pretty damn great
Table setting - looking very authentic (except for the spoon) 
There were lots of nooks and crannies ready for diners
The red door to the Flower Drum

Flower Drum on UrbanspoonFlower Drum


  1. Black napkins usually go with black trousers during fine dining to reduce noticeable lint.

    1. Cool, thanks for that, I was wearing jeans, but they were dark!


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