Din Tai Fung

Shop 130, 3/F, Silvercord, 30 Canton Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2730 6928

While it wasn’t the one I was most excited about, this was to be my first experience with a Michelin-starred restaurant. More about the other one late … I’m guessing most of you know the one I mean.

Anyway, @eatnik, @alexlobov and I met up at the Silvercord centre, a big, shiny shopping centre, much like all of the other big, shiny shopping centres in this area of Tsim Sha Tsui. Having come in at the wrong entrance, @eatnik and I weren’t sure if we were in the right place, as all we saw were hoardings promising a newly renovated food centre, coming soon!

We rounded the corner, however, and across the atrium lay the promised land. Encased, of course, in glass. This is Hong Kong, after all.

There were already quite a few people waiting, so we grabbed a ticket and waited for our number to be called. Din Tai Fung has a clever system where the ticketing numbers are split up by how many people you have in your group, and thankfully about three groups who were waiting for tables of 3-5 people must have pulled out, because the number advanced pretty quickly after the initial twenty minute wait. You can also grab a copy of the menu to peruse while you wait, which speeds up turnover I guess, but also has you salivating in anticipation. I guess the long-ish waiting also builds anticipation, so much so that we all cheered when our number was called. Alex suggested we belt out a chorus of ‘We are the champions‘ when our number was called, but we thought that might be going a little too far.
We were shown to a table towards the back of the restaurant, and incidentally greeted by every staff member we passed – service is clearly a significant part of why Din Tai Fug is Michelin-starred here – and presented with a second menu. There were a couple of clear ‘must-try’ dishes, namely the xiao long bao and the chilli wontons, and Alex spoke highly of their signature dan dan mian (spicy sesame noodles).

But we started off with some cold dishes: green beans fried with minced pork, and cucumbers with chilli oil.

The beans were good, but a little strange, as I’m more used to this dish being served hot. But the beans were plump and sweet, and the mince was nicely salty. The cucumber chunks were great. Cucumber is such a versatile and refreshing food, and I really should be eating more of it. Here, the freshness of the cucumber married well with the richness of the chilli oil.

Then the rest of the dishes started arriving, in quick succession. There’s a strange service hierarchy at play at Din Tai Fung. Beyond the usual distinction of waitstaff/bus-person, there’s a further distinction between the type of waitstaff, which was apparently signified by whether or not the waitress/waiter was wearing a white floppy hat. Those saddled with this hat appeared to be responsible for bringing food to the table, on a tray, and then waiting while another, hatless waitress/waiter would offload the food from the tray and place it on the table. It seemed unnecessarily complicated, but it also added an amusing theatricality to the dining experience.

So the next dishes to arrive were the xiao long bao. We ordered two serves of the standard ones, as well as one of the ones with crab roe inside. There’s also a truffled xlb on the menu, but given the amount of food we were ordering for three, it seemed a little too extravagant. And truth be know, I’m not sure truffles are my favourite thing, when paired with the other Chinese tastes on the table.

These xlb are pretty phenomenal. The flavour’s just right, the skin is wonderfully delicate, and of course, they’re sufficiently soupy. Given their reputation for xiao long bao, it’s not really that surprising how good these were, but I’m still very glad the reputation is, in my opinion, deserved.

Next up was the dan dan mian. Alex insisted that we try this, though it wasn’t really to my liking. I found the tahini-like sesame flavour of the sauce too overpowering, and though it would have been better if it was a bit more salty and spicy.

I ordered the hot and sour soup, which was a bit of a mistake, because again, it lacked any real spice, and also could have done with some more umami. Perhaps the few days I’d been in Asia had already increased my MSG tolerance.
The chilli wontons were great, though I think I actually prefer the ones at Hu Tong here in Melbourne. These just didn’t seem as meaty, somehow.
Despite most of their food seeming quite Shanghainese to me, Din Tai Fung is actually a chain which originated in Taiwan. So Alex suggested we try a pretty typical Taiwanese dish – pork chop on egg fried rice.
This sounds horribly gwai lo, but in fact, it’s pretty awesome. The pork chop is perfectly fried – I’m pretty sure deep fried – and the fried rice was amazing. Soft yet not sticky, well seasoned, and not oily at all, the simple strands of lightly scrambled egg and diced spring onion were well restrained and cooked to perfection.

Oh yeah, we also ordered some other dish of vegetables – snow pea shoots with garlic, I think? – but it wasn’t so memorable. It only made it to the group shot!

This was all that the three of us left behind, in the end:
I’m glad there’s a Din Tai Fung in Sydney, as I’m not sure I can wait until the next time I get overseas to go again.

Sam Tor Noodles

1/F, 30 Pottinger St, Central

Team Fatty (that is, @eatnik and I) are off and running. Merely hours after @eatnik’s 4:30am arrival – I had arrived the previous day – we headed off for our first stop in what is shaping up to be a food journey of epic proportions. Listed by CNNGo’s guide to Hong Kong as having the best chilli oil in Hong Kong, it was pretty obvious that this place was going to be high on our list of places to visit.

We arrived at around 9:30am, and the place was bustling, but not too busy for us to get a table right away. We shared a table with a middle-aged HK lady, who seemed bemused by how excited we were about the chilli oil, tasting it on its own before mixing it in with our noodles.
To call this Hong Kong’s best is a pretty big call, and I’m not sure I entirely agree. Sure, it’s very good, but it wasn’t the crazy symphony of chilli flavours which CNNGo had me expecting.It was reminiscent of the crispy prawn chilli which @msbaklover had introduced me to recently. Salty but mildly shrimpy (this sounds weird, but trust me, it’s a good thing) at the same time.

I ordered the beef brisket noodle. I like that (for me) it was the perfect breakfast size. Hearty, and satisfying, but not overly filling. And at $HK28 (around $4AUD) it’s an absolute steal. But that’s a trend you’ll be seeing a lot more of in these Hong Kong #fattyposts.

The flavour of the brisket was spot on. A good amount of five spice, but not too much. It was a tad on the oily side, but hey, when you’re on holidays, who cares!? I also love the egg noodles here in Hong Kong. They’re so much finer than the ones we get back in Melbourne, which somehow makes them better.

@eatnik had the wonton noodles (also $HK28), which came with four plump little babies sitting atop her bowl of noodles. On top of which, of course, she heaped a big spoonful of chilli oil.

Having decided early on in the piece that she wasn’t going to try to match my eating prowess bowl for bowl, she was kind enough to give me one of her wontons. They were succulent and tasty, with whole prawns inside.
It may or may not be Hong Kong’s best chilli oil – our jury of two is still out on that one – but Sam Tor is definitely worth a visit. The noodles are awesome, as are their fatboy wontons.

Cooking with Mum: Loh Baak Gao

When I go to yum cha, one of my favourite items is the loh baak gao (that’s my Romanisation, in case you’re wondering; it might be wrong, but that’s how it sounds to my ear). It’s often referred to as radish cake in English. Something is lost in this translation, because goh in Cantonese refers to something creamy or gelatinous in consistency. It’s used variously in the words for cream, toothpaste, and various (usually steamed) desserts involving glutinous rice flour.

But enough with the language lesson. Loh baak gao is a savoury dish, with a dense texture, not unlike a flourless chocolate cake, but not as heavy, and not quite so heavy. It’s usually cut into tiles and pan-fried at most yum cha services. And while I love it there, not surprisingly, very few restaurants make it was well as my mother, in my opinion. So imagine my surprise – and I’ll admit, disappointment – when mum revealed to me that she didn’t have some arcane family recipe for the dish, but rather her version came from a Chinese cookbook!

Anyway, here’s the recipe (adjusted slightly by Mama cloudcontrol).

– 600gm rice flour (mum says the red packet, not the green packet – that’s glutinous!)
– 60gm potato starch (you can use cornflour instead if you want)
– 1.5L water
– 1kg white radish/daikon (I really still don’t quite get the difference some days)
– 4-6 Chinese sausages
– 150gm dried shrimp
– 100gm shiitake mushrooms (optional – a good alternative if you’re making this for vegetarians)
– 1 small knob of ginger
– 2 tbsp vegetable oil

You’ll need a wok, and a big steamer. Also a deep metal dish, or a baking tin. A spring-form tin here is very useful.

1. Soak the dried shrimp in a little boiling water.

2. Peel and julienne your daikon. It doesn’t have to be super-fine, but this will affect the texture of end product. I’d recommend you need it at least as fine as 5mm, if not finer. But it’s a preference thing. Some people like the end result a bit chunky.

3. Dice the Chinese sausage and/or shiitake mushrooms.

4. Add about 1L of the water to the rice flour.

5. Using a broad knife or cleaver, smash the knob of ginger, like you would a clove of garlic before you skin it.

6. Heat the wok (med-high heat) and add the vegetable oil. When it starts smoking, add the knob of ginger. A few seconds later, add the Chinese sausage. Fry this off until the sausage starts to brown.

7. Drain the dried shrimp and add to the wok. Also add the shiitake mushrooms now if you’re adding them. Continue frying for another 30 seconds or so.

8. Add the daikon, as well as the remaining water. Turn the heat down to medium, and continue to cook, stirring regularly. You’ll need to cook this through for about 5-10 minutes, until the daikon has softened a bit. It doesn’t need to be fully cooked yet, just kinda limp and a touch translucent.

9. At this point, remove the ginger and then add in your glutinous flour mixture. Be careful to continue stirring as you add; you don’t want it to cook on impact with the wok.

10. Continue cooking, stirring constantly. When the mixture takes on the consistency of a runny dough, it’s ready. Remove it from the heat.

11. Use a spatula or chan to transfer the mixture into a greased metal dish or tin. Transfer this dish to the steamer, and steam for about 45 minutes.

You can check if it’s done like any cake: an inserted skewer should come out clean.

Let it cool, and then slice it up. It’s easier to cut if you’ve refrigerated it for a few hours. You can just heat it up in the microwave or steamer, or you can pan fry it. Use a pan on a relatively high heat – no-stick is good, or else don’t skimp on the oil. You want the edges a bit crispy.

The way I was brought up eating it (which I still maintain is the best) was in the Vietnamese bot chien style, pan-fried with eggs and diced pickled radish and spring onions.

Plume (Maribynong)

200 Rosamond Rd, Maribynong
Phone: 9318 6833

Whenever people ask me for yum cha recommendations, Plume in Doncaster always gets a mention. It’s a bit of a trek, but over the years, it has remained reliably good. So when Penny suggested impromptu yum cha at Plume over in Maribynong, I immediately said yes. Even though I was over the other side of town on an(other) Ikea mission.

Expectations were high, which in fairness, probably wasn’t fair.

The one thing Plume Maribynong has over its Doncastrian sister is ample parking. It backs on to the Knifepoint shopping centre car park, so it’s easy even on a Sunday afternoon to find a park. We arrived at around 2pm, which is towards the end of the yum cha session. I’m hoping that somewhat explains the lacklustre fare with which we were assaulted.

First up was my favourite – deep fried taro dumplings.

The flavour of the filling wasn’t bad, but the entire experience was somewhat let down by the fact they were lukewarm. Lukewarm fried dumplings? That would be strike one.

Henry was keen on the fried calamari tentacles, which I’m not a huge fan of, mostly because they always come in a huge serve, and everybody only ever wants one or two, so the rest sit there getting cold, until there’s a lull in the service, and then I fall into the trap of having another one while we wait for more dumplings, and am disappointed when I find their only characteristics are rubbery and oily.

So this would be ball one. Not Plume’s fault, I’m just not a fan.

Chicken’s feet. What I love about going to yum cha with seasoned tea drinkers is I don’t need to worry when ordering weird stuff that I’m going to end up eating it all myself.

These chickens feet were flavoured quite well, though felt like they could have done with more time cooking. The skin was soft, but nothing was falling off the bones. First base, just.

The others ordered some congee, but it being a morning-after-drinking, I had no time for that ‘healthy’ stuff. The fat content quite plainly wasn’t high enough. So I won’t comment on its quality.

Apparently Penry go to Plume primarily for the sui gao (prawn soup dumplings – like big won tons). They’re not a part of the regular yum cha fare circulating the restaurant in carts; you have to order them specially.
One bite, and I could see why they keep going back. The dumplings are plump and springy, with huge chunks of prawn meat. Second base.

The bao cart rolled around, and since we were only a table of three, I had to choose between the char siu and the egg custard buns. I went for the char siu, because we weren’t ready for the sweet stuff yet.

What we got was the sweet stuff anyhow. While bao dough is supposed to be sweet, this is usually offset by a savoury char siu filling, which has an elemnt of sweetness to it, but also a hefty amount of salt. The char siu at Plume was too sweet for my liking. A bit disappointing, as the surrounding bun was reasonably soft and pillowy.

Then came the dumpling parade.We went for the classics: siu mai, haar gao and one of my favourites, the prawn and chive dumplings.

The siu mai were a little odd, with chunks of pork instead of a smooth texture formed by finer mincing – we all know I approve of mincing, right? – and Penny and I agreed that the skins on the haar gao were far to thick. The chive and prawn dumplings, however, were great! With more tapioca starch in the skins, they had a more delicate, glassy appearance, though upon biting into them, I found this was also due in part to the fact the skins were thinner as well. The filling was super tasty, and still stickily moist. In fact, I think the gloriousness of these dumplings outweighs the disappointment of the other two, so Plume just managed to sneak third.

We had to order the haar cheong fun (steamed rice noodle), which you would think would be a good thing – it’s made to order, it must be better, right? Wrong. The noodles were thick and claggy, and just a general fail. Strike two.

Rather unimpressed by the mixed results, we thought we’d just move onto dessert. I ordered the yum cha classic maanguo bou-ding (mango pudding).
OK, three strikes, and you’re out! The pudding was far too firm – too much agar? – and generally a bit bland. There were a couple of chunks of mango in it, but overall there wasn’t enough mango flavour.

Similarly, Penny’s doufu faa (tofu dessert) was disappointing. The tofu wasn’t smooth enough, and in a dessert which is pretty much about the quality of the tofu, there’s pretty much no redemption after that.

Henry did promise to make some homemade tofu sometime though, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s a shame that the food was so sub-par, because Plume is such a convenient place to head for yum cha. As I said, I hope this might have something to do with the fact we came towards the end of the service. I’ll be back, but next time I’ll be sure to go earlier. Hopefully they might get a home run next time.

Plume on Urbanspoon

Wonton House

181 Russell St, Melbourne
Phone: 9662 9882

Ambiguity is an interesting thing. Sometimes, it works for you. Like when you’ve just had your tonsils out, and you you’re in too much of an oxycodone stupor to specify what sort of ice cream you want, so your mother buys three different tubs. And sometimes it works against you, like when you visit a food court in a small shopping centre, and there’s an ‘Asian’ outlet.

The menu at Wonton House suffers a little from the second kind of ambiguity. Makes you lose focus. And often leads to mediocrity. Walking into the restaurant, I expected your typical Hong Kong style Chinese restaurant. And while I understand that, like Melbourne, Hong Kong too has food trends, I should have been wary of the xiao long bao on the menu. But I couldn’t resist.

To be fair, they weren’t that bad. But they were mediocre, at best. The flavour was a little lacking, and the skins were too thick, even though they were beautifully pleated. But in hindsight, I should have just stuck to the more Hong Kong style dishes.

I was catching up with Mr C after not having seen him in years, so I’d forgotten that he had dietary restrictions. Nothing crazy, just no seafood. Anaphylactic shock style. So the calamari and the prawns were out. We settled on a couple of classics – of different definitions. First up, a dish from my childhood. For those of you who know me well, this doesn’t necessarily bode well. My family owned a Chinese restaurant in country Victoria while I was growing up, so I have a soft spot for what I lovingly referred to as ‘bastardised Chinese food’. The sort of food that was on the menu at our restaurant, which as a Chinese family, we never ate at home.

So we ordered the beef and vegetables with cashew nuts.

To be fair, this dish isn’t in the canon of bastardised Chinese food. Though chicken and vegetables with cashew nuts is, so we’re in the ball park. And again, it’s not really that bastardised, because there are certainly versions of it in China that I’ve seen, but it’s on the bland and safe side of what Chinese food can be. Spin doctors might say ‘restrained and subtle’, but let’s be honest, it’s less adventurous than what Margaret Fulton brought to the table decades ago.

Wonton House’s version is even less inspiring. The meat had quite obviously been tenderised with soda, a common practice in many Chinese restaurants (and why chicken with cashew nuts is a superior dish) and the whole dish was not only bland, but rather oily. I have no beef with oil – see what I did there? – but in a dish like this, it’s simply not necessary.

The other dish we shared was deep-fried chicken ribs with chilli and salt. Hard to mess this dish up, and Wonton House certainly delivered the goods on this one. A mountain of chicken ribs arrived at the table, wonderfully crispy, with MSG action that was noticeable, but not overwhelming, and the chillies were not too fiery. Fiery chillies are great in some dishes, but I prefer a milder chilli with this dish, because it’s good to be able to eat the slices along with the chicken.

All in all, I think Wonton House is a reliable option, but it’s more of a fall-back position than a go-to attraction. And stick to the Hong Kong style menu items.

Wonton House on Urbanspoon

Spice Temple

Crown Entertainment Complex, Southbank
Phone: 8679 1888

Let’s just say Spice Temple was always going to be a hard sell for me. I understand that Neil Perry is was well-respected chef who has an extensive knowledge of Chinese cuisine. But in the same way that one of my friends has an inexplicable disdain for anything that encroaches on ‘authentic’ Thai culture – inexplicable because he’s not Thai – I have an underlying issue with a ‘Chinese’ restaurant without any Chinese staff in sight. And I’m also not really one for the fine dining scene, except for on special occasions.

But this was a special occasion. It was the divine Ms D’s birthday, and she booked for Spice Temple, so who am I to deny one of my BFFs? We started out with a drink at Nobu in the bar area, another place I’ve yet to try. This meant we were running a bit late for our 8:30 booking, which turned out to be just as well. When we arrived at Spice Temple, our table was apparently not ready yet, and we were escorted downstairs to the bar area to wait.

I’d just like to note that the bar area is in the basement, while the dining area is on the ground floor, at entry level. This, to me, seems a little odd. I guess it’s an efficient use of space, but it feels odd to walk downstairs to hover at the bar for five minutes, only to be led back up the same stairs to your table. Surely the basement could have been made the function room, and the bar could occupy the rather incongruous boardroom setup which is presumably the ‘private’ function space? I say ‘private’ because it’s shielded from the entry by a rather sparse curtain of glass beads. Anyway, we were off to a rocky start.

I’ll do a complete about-face right now and say that I love the fit-out of the restaurant. The vertical blinds of raw unfinished slabs of timber give a warmth to the room at night, and along with the interesting battens on the ceiling, make what is actually quite a large space feel quite intimate, acoustically. It was nice not struggling to hear anyone at the table speak, despite it being quite a busy night at the restaurant. The dim, moody lighting also helped, and I’d highly recommend the restaurant for a date, if only for the atmosphere. In fact, there was a couple over by the faux stucco brick wall who were definitely dating it up that night. I’m going to apply the word canoodling here, and leave it at that.

So, the food. We started off with the Lamb and Cumin Pancake.

Cumin-spiced lamb mince sandwiched between two thin crepe-like sheets of what I think was a rice-flour pastry, this entree wasn’t a great start to the meal. The mince was a bit fatty (but that’s authentic!) and it was a bit hard to handle – the pastry was a bit soft, and the mince wanted to fall all over the place. It came with a chilli paste, which had a nice medium kick; a kick which hardly warranted the warning from the waitress that it was only for people who liked spicy food. She obviously didn’t know who she was talking to.

Then the mains started arriving, in reasonably quick succession, but with eight people at a table sharing dishes, I think it would have been wiser to bring at least three dishes out simultaneously to begin with, instead of one at a time, leaving us to sample the dishes in a piecemeal way. We also had to ask for the steamed rice to be served, once the second dish came out. Not to make too many assumptions, but I don’t think that would have happened at a Chinese restaurant run by Chinese people. Rice is the staple, around which the meal is built, people!

Anyway, the first dish to arrive was the stir-fried wagyu brisket with baby eggplant and chilli.

Oh, by the way, the reason most of these photographs will be of half-eaten dishes (or of my potion in my bowl) is that:

a) I’ve been chided for straying from my original vision for this blog, and
b) I was seated at the ‘wrong’ end of the table, and the waitstaff seemed to think it appropriate to serve most of the dishes up the other end of the table, which would then work their way down.

But yeah, the brisket was good. It wasn’t particularly amazing, and I really don’t understand the point of wagyu if it’s brisket (the way wagyu mince in a burger perplexes me) as there wasn’t much of a flavour nor textural difference from non-wagyu brisket I’ve eaten in the past. I did really like the baby eggplant, though. Nice little slices with plenty of crispy skin, and melty, oily flesh.

Next came the ‘Hot and numbing crispy duck’, which was in my opinion, neither not nor numbing. In deciding what to eat, as a table, we’d concluded there would be some serious Szechuan pepper action in this dish.

Maybe the ‘Hot’ referred to the temperature at which the duck would be served, though even there, I’m not so sure. There definitely was no chilli, or even pepper, heat to this dish. There also was a lack of any real Szechuan pepper presence, and it seemed mostly like an apologetic Beijing-style sauce; slightly sweet, a little tangy. The duck itself was well-cooked, though it didn’t seem ‘particularly Chinese’, according to one of our dining party, to which I replied, ‘That would be the lack of star anise’. As with all poultry, I prefer the thigh to the breast, so the fact this was all breast was disappointing to me. Some things get lost in the name of ‘refinement’. I’d prefer to deal with bones, thank you Mr Perry.

Next up was the Hunan style crisp pork belly with fresh and dried chillies and mushroom soy. We decided pretty quickly as a table that we were going to get pork belly. Then there was the question of which pork belly to get. A stupid question, in my mind. ‘Why both, of course!’ But others at the table were convinced there were other items we needed to try, so we settled on the Hunan one.

This dish was really quite good. I’d happily eat it all on my own. As you can see, I managed to score an almost exclusively pork fat piece of the belly. WIN! The diced beans and mixture of fresh and dried chillies were a nice foil to the luxurious faaaatttttt….. *drool*

Despite Ms P being adamant there was table over there who had a fried whole fish, we could find no such dish on the menu, so we settled for the whole steamed Snapper with black bean and salted chilli.

A pretty classic dish, executed well. The fish was perfectly steamed, and the chilli and black bean was plentiful. The rest of the table was a little perplexed when I started in on one of the fish eyes, but I was brought up not to waste a thing, and fish eyes are a textural joy. When a fish is fresh, and has been cooked just right, there should be quite a bit of gelatinous tissue in the eyeball, though watch out for the hard, pithy centre of the eye.

On the waitress’ recommendation, we ordered the stir-fried quail and peanuts with steamed egg custard. She was talking up the lusciousness of the egg custard as if it were some revelatory thing; again, I don’t think she knew who she was talking to. Steamed egg custard is quite a pedestrian, homely dish.

Not to say that it isn’t wonderful, when prepared well. It completely is! I found the Spice Temple version a bit too runny, however. The quail and peanut topping was good, but the gaminess of the quail was somehow lost, and I think leaving the skin in the mix would have been a good idea. Oh, and it didn’t help that I recently had a more exciting version prepared by my friend Mr H at his home.

Finally, with some theatricality, the waitress brought out the mushroom hotpot. Hot pot of fresh shiitake, oyster, enoki and wild Chinese mushrooms, Yunnan style, to be exact. She explained the different mushrooms which were going into the earthenware pot, though she forgot some of the mushrooms’ names!

After the little presentation, we were left to divide up the fungal goodness ourselves.
I appreciate a good mushroom hotpot. I used to hanker for it regularly in Saigon, where there’s a chain of Japanese-style mushroom hotpot restaurants. While I’m sure the mushrooms in this hotpot were of exceptional quality, I think that somehow got a bit lost in the soy and chilli which dominated the flavour of this dish. Still, it was very tasty!
So what’s my final analysis? Spice temple does manage to serve up food that’s high quality, but it’s not particularly innovative. Which is fine, but there are a lot of other places which produce dishes of a similar quality, which are much better value.

So if I’m not paying more for some special and innovative food, I’d expect I’m paying more for a great dining experience? Unfortunately, this wasn’t what we experienced on the night. While the service was unfailingly warm and polite, it was quite often patchy. Wine glasses were left empty, and there were a number of times we were left craning our necks in search of a waitress for assistance. Perhaps they were a little short of staff? Hopefully these are just teething problems, and they’ll be ironed in the future. Still, I probably won’t be back soon. It’s just not my cup of oolong.

Master Restaurant

Shop184/ 83 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8796

When I was a kid, I’d come to Melbourne in the school holidays, and stay with my cousins. I’d hang out at comic stores, and go to the movies, and play games at Timezone. I remember one holiday, when I was about 10, my cousin and I spent all day at Timezone playing the skill tester machines. It seems our skills were pretty good, because we came home with a big bag full of stuffed toys. Which, to be honest, we didn’t really want, we just wanted to test our skill with the claw.

My nanna also lives with my cousin’s family, so when I’d come down to Melbourne, occasionally there was the odd situation where I wouldn’t be hanging out with my cousins, and I would go out with her instead. Usually we’d go to Victoria St, because it was a short tram ride away, and she’d buy groceries. And we’d stop in at a restaurant, and have duck noodle soup. I’m not sure, because to be honest, I’ve never really asked her, but I think it might be her favourite.

So whenever I have duck noodle soup, I feel an affinity with my nanna, and it’s definitely one of my favourite meals to have, especially when I’m on my own. Maybe because it always reminds me of her, and I don’t feel so alone while I’m eating? Oh gee, let’s not get into my neuroses.

Anyway, I was out at Footscray Market the other week, shopping for groceries, and on my way home, was lured in by the beautifully mahogany brown roast ducks hanging in the window. It was a Saturday afternoon, so most of the people were sitting down to yum cha, but yum cha for one isn’t much fun, and besides, I was after only one thing.

The duck I had that day was exceedingly plump, yet lean. The meat had a rich, almost musky gaminess to it. It was let down a little by a lack of fat, and the fact the skin was paper thin, yet not crispy. I think they’d rendered too much of the fat away. Or it was just a star athlete duck! Also not helping the cause was the fact that the duck was lukewarm, but a little patience, letting it sit in the piping hot broth, soon fixed that.

Not having tried any other roast ducks in the area (notably Golden Harvest, Hong Kong BBQ, and the stand in Little Saigon market) I’m not sure how Master stacks up. But I have a feeling there is better duck to be had.

Master Restaurant on Urbanspoon

1 + 1 Dumpling and Noodle

84 Hopkins Street, Footscray
Phone: 9687 8988

There are some Chinese restaurants which have dishes which are named rather poetically, like ‘Ants climbing a tree’, or ‘Duck with eight treasures’. Then there are places which write their menus much more pragmatically. 1 + 1 Dumpling and Noodle is one of the latter.

In fact, there is very little about the place which extends beyond the efficient and purposeful. The decor, as Mr S who accompanied me on the day put it, is like ‘a factory cafeteria’. With chairs and tables that look like they were bought from a shopping centre when the shopping centre decided to refurbish its food court, and rather unappealing pastel green walls, you’d be forgiven for being apprehensive upon walking through the front door. But, as with many Chinese restaurants, the decor doesn’t necessarily dictate the quality of the food.

But back to the menu. Browsing through, Mr S and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the ‘Big Dish Chicken’ (available with either half a chicken or a whole) which we presumed came on a big dish. So we ordered that, with a serve of the thick hand-pulled noodles.

As you can see, we were right. The meal came out on what was more of a platter than a plate. And this was only the half-chicken! When I first tasted it, I thought it was a little bland. Not a lot of seasoning, and generally uninteresting. There was a lot of potato, for some reason, too. But maybe that’s a Northern Chinese thing. Anyway, the interesting thing about this dish is the sly use of Szechuan peppers. You don’t really see them, as they’ve been mostly ground up, but you get a hint of the tangy, eucalypt-y flavour. As you continue to eat, you get the characteristically tingly and almost-numb sensation that Szechuan pepper creates on your tongue. So a dish that seems at first bland, actually gets better and more interesting as you eat it. What a novel concept!

As you can see, the two of us failed to finish the Big Dish Chicken between us.

We also had a side of the spicy cucumber salad. This was a little too salty, and not spicy enough, for my liking.
All in all, I quite liked 1 + 1 – it’s unpretentious, and the food is interesting. The hand-pulled noodles were (as hand-pulled noodles usually are) a highlight, as you pretty much can’t get that texture from machine-made noodles. I’m yet to try the dumplings, but my hopes are high, as it would be great to be able to get a Shanghai-style dumpling fix without having to leave my ‘hood for the bright lights of the big city.
1+1 Dumpling Noodles on Urbanspoon

China Red

Shop 6, 206 Bourke St, Melbourne
Phone: 9662 3688

Never one to miss joining in on a chorus, here’s my take on the recently(ish) opened China Red. Compare and contrast with that of Penny and Jess. Oh, and The Age. 1500 words due in at the end of the week.

A while ago, a colleague of mine told me how her husband had been to this place in Chinatown where you can order the food off touchscreens. I was immediately intrigued. She also said that he claimed they produced the best xiao long bao in the city. Doubly intrigued. So it took a little while, but I ventured down, and caught up with my old housemate La Singe for lunch one day. Before mid-afternoon karaoke. Because that’s how we roll.

We had some fun playing around with the touchscreens, and in the end, because we were both a little ill, we both chose soup noodles. Yes, we were ill, and karaoke was on. Because that’s how we roll.

I chose the venison noodle soup. It wasn’t that exciting, which is just was well, because bland food was what the doctor ordered. The venison was well cooked, though not particularly gamey – I like gamey, because that’s how I roll – which was a bit disappointing. The noodles were pretty good too, though I’m not sure if they were hand-pulled. Looking back at these photos, I’d have to say they don’t look it.

La Singe had the mushroom noodles – I think it was called something like ‘Eight Treasure’ mushroom noodles, but the flowery over-promising artistic licence is to be expected of a place which has a section on their touchscreen menu called ‘Melbourne-style Classics’. These classics include such gems as Sweet and Sour Pork, and Lemon Chicken. Yeah, Melbourne-style. If you live in Zone 2.
Anyway, La Singe really enjoyed her noodles, and the little bit of broth I tried seemed to be a lot more packed with umami than my own.

Next time I went back, it was with young Master Dumplings. Given it was the first time we met in person, I figured we should really have dumplings. So we tried the xiao long bao.

Penny’s right, and my colleague’s husband is, sadly, wrong. These are far from being the best in the city. HuTong‘s are streets ahead, and I think even Dumplings Plus‘ version are better. The main problem I had with China Red’s xlb was that there really wasn’t enough flavour. And there was a strangely consistent amount of cooked blood in each one. Not sure what was going on there, but texturally, it didn’t really belong.

The steamed dumplings were considerably better. While not stellar, if all your regular dumpling haunts are full, China Red isn’t a bad option. Again, the filling lacked flavour for my taste, but the skins were satisfyingly doughy.

We also tried the kim chi fried rice, which on the touchscreen, was adorned with one (out of a possible three, I believe) chilli. It didn’t live up to the advertised spiciness. Thankfully, the chilli oil provided at China Red is pretty damn good – there’s some Sichuan pepper in the mix – so we just adjusted to our own needs.
China Red is an odd place. The touchscreens are fun, and the food is decent, if not that great. The service is a little too attentive – on account of the waiters not having to take orders? – and plate clearance will be requested by staff before you’re finished. All in all, I’d go there again, but I’m not sure I’d suggest it to others. There are too many other good options in the vicinity.

China Red on Urbanspoon

Fu Long

942 Whitehorse Rd, Box Hill
Phone: 9890 7388

Family dinners out are an elastic-waisted pants sort of affair with my family. Indeed, I would think for most Chinese families, because the places we go tend to be filled with other Chinese families. Luckily, they don’t happen all that often. Else I’d be stuck on the treadmill a lot more often!

It was my grandfather’s birthday recently – I think he turned 82? I’m such a bad grandson – and the family all went out to Fu Long Seafood Restaurant in Box Hill – the comment that came along with the invitation in mum’s text message was “mud crabs $14/lb”. Colour me eager; though truth be known, I prefer duck to crab, it’s so much less work!

Extended family dinners are extended in both senses of the word. It’s a chance for me to catch up with cousins I rarely see, and to dodge questions about if I have a girlfriend from my aunts and uncles. The fact my sister just got married doesn’t help that line of questioning, but at least she’s now copping the “so when are you having a baby?” heat, so it’s sort of fair. The dinners are also extended in that it’s rare that we’ll have less than five courses, because, well, that’s the way a Chinese banquet rolls.

At Fu Long, we started with steamed oysters with an XO sauce. Some had chilli, some did not. The chilli ones were much better. Though in my opinion, you ruin perfectly good oysters by cooking them. Omelettes notwithstanding.

Next up was the first of two crab courses. Fried with chilli, salt and pepper. Not the way we usually have crab, but more on that later, this was quite good, though the cooks were a little too liberal with the MSG.
A fairly dry dish to begin with, the MSG didn’t help things, making me even more thirsty.

Luckily, the ‘spit soup’ as @thatjessho likes to call it, arrived at the same time. Shredded duck and bamboo soup, with the feathered egg and cornstarch thickness. Pretty standard Cantonese fare.

You can tell you’re at an extended family dinner of mine when someone requests chilli for the table. My cousin J insisted we needed this much chilli for a table of eight. She wasn’t wrong, actually. Next time, more fresh chilli, less chilli paste.

Then came the second crab course. The traditional Cantonese style with ginger and spring onions. Funnily, there were no noodles with this course, because as my aunt informed me, the noodles were an extra $4 per head, which is a little ridiculous when you’re charging $28 for a kilo of crab! It’s a shame, because the noodles are actually my favourite part of the crab dish. Crabby juices and ginger and spring onion all mingle and coat the noodles, making them supremely tasty. Oh well.

Then we moved on to the ‘dishes course’. After the seafood (and sometimes quail) courses, a succession of dishes arrive at the table, and rice is finally doled out. I kind of hang out for this moment, because I love my steamed rice. First up, fried whole flounder, with chilli, salt and pepper. Again, a bit too much MSG on this one.

Peking-style chicken ribs. This dish was so great. A good balance of salt, sweet and tangy, I kept coming back for more of these. At this point, I was happy there were mostly girls on my table. More girls = more food for me!

Fried prawns with – you guessed it – chilli, salt and pepper. You’d think the chefs here only knew how to do one thing! Again, crazily over-seasoned with salt and MSG. It almost felt like the MSG was burning my tongue just about now. The prawns themselves, however, were perfectly cooked, and super succulent.

Finally, a dish with a little moisture! There’s only so much rice can do in soothing over-worked taste buds, and I had to keep the beer-swilling to a minimum, because it doesn’t look good if you’re the family alcoholic. Even if you are, you should try to appear not to be. It’s a Chinese thing – saving face and all, you know? Seafood combination with mushrooms and pak choy.

This was OK, but the sauce was a little too gelatinous for my liking. Heavy handed with both the MSG and the cornstarch, I see… things did get a little better with the scallops with bok choy and XO sauce. I quite liked this, actually.

Then came redemption! Roast duck breast with pineapple. It’s a little odd to me to have roast duck at a Chinese restaurant without bones, but this dish won me over. By filleting the duck, the chefs take away the rib bones (duh!) which usually add a salty dimension to the duck. The result is a less roast-y, but funnily more gamey flavour, which was contrasted well with the sweet acidity of the pineapple sauce.

This was by far my favourite dish of the night. The duck was also sufficiently fatty, and the skin had been crisped up nicely (no doubt with a quick dunk in what must be an enormous fry vat, given the amount of fried food we ate that night! It’s not often I shy away from fried food – I figure if I just go to the gym more, i can eat whatever I want, right? – but the whole family was clamouring for something not fried after the prawns arrived on at the table.

Fu Long ended the banquet with a somewhat odd pairing of orange slices and vanilla ice cream. I decided to pass on the dessert, even though one should always finish a Cantonese banquet with fruit, and just ordered another beer. To hell with it, it’s probably better to be the alcoholic grandson than the gay one, right? Oh, whoops…

Fu Long on Urbanspoon