Supper Inn

15 Celestial Ave, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 4759

You’ve probably all been before. Or at least you know about it. Because, well, frankly, it’s as much of an institution in Melbourne’s Chinatown as Flower Drum and the Shark Fins. Supper Inn has been around for around as long as I have (about three decades) and apart from the fact that it serves up consistently good Cantonese food, its other big draw card is that it’s open until 2am. And we all know there’s a serious void for good food after midnight. Which is fine if you’ve just finished a Friday night bar crawl and will be sated by a souvlaki or dare I say the Dirty Bird, but it’s another thing when you’ve just finished a late shift at work and you’re craving something a little better than decent.

Mr N had just finished a late shift, and it was about 11:30pm when we walked up Little Bourke St towards Celestial Ave. It was chilly – the winds were blowing, and there was the first hint of misty rain in the air. We leaned into the wind and walked a little faster, the fluorescent beacon promising the hearty warmth of, for me, something close to comfort food.

We walked up the wood-panelled staircase, which always makes me think of Twin Peaks:

Lynchian references aside, it says something about the quality of the food when the decor is so unrelentingly bad. And on weekends, you can almost guarantee that there will be people lining up on these stairs, waiting for a table. Especially after around 11pm.

I still remember my student days, when we would line up and wait for a table, so we could have some soul-hugging congee after midnight, on a study break. But I’ve grown up now, and I cook my own soul-hugging congee. So these days, I go in for more of the complicated Cantonese dishes. And Mr N and I like to share dishes. Because sharing is caring. This night, we started with the Lo Hon Chai vegetables with duck.

Purists – or those who speak Cantonese – will know that the addition of duck makes this dish something of a contradiction, because the word chai here actually means vegetarian. We were a little disappointed with this dish, as it was rather bland. In honesty, I picked it because it wouldn’t be too flavoursome – you’ll see why below – but the flavours weren’t so much subtle, as dull. The duck was a little over-cooked, and there was too much pak choy and not enough fungus, for my liking. But as I said, I ordered it as a counterbalance to this dish:

Sweet and sour pork. Yes, I am Chinese, and I order sweet and sour pork at Chinese restaurants. Judge me all you want, but you know when it’s done right, it’s SO. FREAKING. GOOD. And it’s done right at Supper Inn. Unlike suburban Chinese restaurants – and regrettably, that of my family’s, years ago, in country Victoria – Supper Inn’s S/S Pk (that’s our restaurant’s old shorthand, don’tcha know) is more bold with the level of sour in its flavouring, which for those uninitiated, is how it should be. The pork itself was wonderfully crunchy, and the batter sparingly applied – again, unlike the poor versions where a small morsel of pork is trapped within a castle of batter.

Many would say that sweet and sour pork is the flagship of bastardised Chinese food, and they would probably be right. But as much as it’s been adjusted to Australian tastes over the years in many restaurants, it’s a dish which, when done right, can be a shining example of true Cantonese cuisine. And yes, before you pedants arc up, I know, it’s originally from Jiangsu.

Anyway, if you haven’t been, get yourself to Supper Inn soon, so you can call yourself a true Melburnian.
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Gold Leaf Preston

419 High St, 1st Floor Shop 7, Preston
Phone: 9470 2882

Recently, my friends Mr J and Miss C left our little metropolis for the big city lights of London. Over the past few years, we’d learned that while he would often be a no-show for drinks and weekend parties, Mr J was always present for yum cha. So it was apt that our send-off for him and Miss C was just such a dumpling extravaganza.

We headed to the suburban wilds of Preston, where covertly above an unglamourous little shopping arcade, lay one of the Northern suburbs’ hidden gems – Gold Leaf Preston.

The interior was distinctively more ‘glamourous’, with its recessed ceilings and mechanical rotating faux crystal chandeliers.

But let’s get to the food! Despite being relatively new, Gold Leaf Preston is one of those oldskool yum cha joints, with an army of waiters – the footsoldiers who refill your teapots, and handle special orders – and a strong artillery of cart ladies, who bombard each table with dumplings, buns, congee and offal. And then dessert. It’s a battle you just won’t win, but it’s a sweet, sweet surrender.

We were waiting for a few people who were running late that morning, but we started off with a cold dish of jellyfish and marinated baby octopus. It sounds a little confronting for brunch, I guess, but I love the texture of jellyfish!

Once the majority of our yum cha contingent had arrived, we tucked into the hot stuff.

My childhood favourite, haam sui gok, also known as ‘football dumplings’. Pork and mushroom inside a deep fried chewy, slightly sweet dough wrapping. These were a little on the lukewarm side of warm, and a little disappointing.

Steamed rice noodle with prawn. A yum cha standard, these were pretty good – not too pasty, and super slippery between your chopsticks.

Steamed dumplings with prawn and snow pea shoot. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! I love snow pea shoots, in any form.

Seafood parcels, and prawn and chive dumplings. The dumplings at Gold Leaf were consistently good, though I was a little put off by how many variations they had on offer before being presented with the classic har gao and siu mai.

Fried taro dumplings. These took over as my favourite after the haam sui gok got the boot. Filled with pretty much the same filling (pork and mushroom), the ‘wrapping’ is essentially mashed taro, which flares up into these crispy, feathery puffs when deep fried. These ones were pretty good, though I think the taro might have been cut with some potato, as it was a little too smooth on the inside.

Here comes the offal. Tripe on the left, and pork spare ribs on the right. The ribs at Gold Leaf are distinctive, as they don’t use the traditional black bean in the braising sauce, but rather another type of soya bean paste. Still very good, and a little more homestyle – my dad braises pork and pickled radish in this bean paste quite often.

Steamed shiitake and enoki mushrooms with tofu. This dish was a little bland – I ordered it because we had a vegaquarian on the table, but in the end she didn’t have any of it. I don’t really blame her – it wasn’t very good.

Whole prawns wrapped in beancurd skin and deep fried. I was starting to hit the wall by this stage, so I didn’t try any of these, but usually prawn + deep fry = WIN.

Ubiquitous chicken’s feet. Again, in a break from tradition, these chicken’s feet are prepared with soy and black bean, as opposed to the more commonly found bright red variety. They were quite good, though the skin wasn’t as loose or melty as I’ve had at other restaurants.

Prawn and ginger dumplings. I love these dumplings, even though the wrappers aren’t as delicate as the pearlescent har gao wrappers. It’s always a struggle to resist slurping up the juices in that little dish after the dumplings are gone.

Scallop dumplings. I usually like these, but Gold Leaf’s rendition had scallops which had obviously been treated with bi-carb to soften them, and had lost the meaty texture of a good scallop, as well as some of the scallop’s natural sweetness. A shame.

The classic siu mai. A pretty good dumpling, but not a standout, here.

The classic har gao. The skins were a bit too thick for my liking, but the filling was a good texture, and overwhelmingly prawny. That’s a good thing, in case you’re wondering.

Pan-fried dumplings. The skins on these were too thick, I felt.

Steamed roast pork buns. The buns were fluffy and sweet, and reasonably light, though the filling was a little on the bland side, for roast pork. Not bad, but I’ve definitely had better.

For dessert, there were the obligatory egg tarts, but for once I opted out. They looked pretty good, though, hey?

Gold Leaf is a pretty sure bet for competent and consistent yum cha. It’s not stellar, but if you get that craving every couple of months like I do, it will definitely satisfy. It’s probably mid-range in terms of price; about $20-25 per head to stuff yourself silly.

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Char Siu House

37 Errol St, North Melbourne
Phone: 9328 2812

Char Siu House is little Chinese restaurant, of the primarily Hong Kong BBQ ilk, in Errol St, North Melbourne. I used to live around the corner from here in 1996 when I first moved to Melbourne, and it was a bakery back then, I believe. But the times they a-change, and bread is replaced by pork. And chicken. And duck. So who’s complaining, really? Interestingly, Fungs Asian Food and Sushi Bar, the local Chinese takeaway joint in 1996, is still open and doing remarkably well. I remember their food being pretty horrible, but it’s been over a decade, so perhaps things changed there, too.

I stopped in at Char Siu House for lunch a while back. The ladies who run the place are lovely, even if there’s a bit of a Fawlty Towers-style feel to the way they yell things out to one another. But that adds to the charm of the place for me. It helps that I can speak Cantonese, too, I think. I don’t worry about what they’re saying, because I know it’s pertaining to the couple on the next table’s char kway teow. This time around, I sampled the BBQ hanging in the glass case at the front of the restaurant.

Roast duck and roast pork (not char siu, but the other kind, the belly pork with the salty, crispy crackling) on rice.The duck was nice and gamey, though a touch on t he salty side. The crackling on that pork was wonderfully crunchy, and the pork was fatty enough to make me feel a tad guilty. Then I got over and shoveled in the next mouthful. The servings are generous, though it seemed a little stingy on the cursory bok choy (underneath the mounds of meat in that photo). Chinese tea is free, as in all good Hong Kong BBQ joints.

While this place isn’t up to City BBQ or Rose Garden standards, it’s decent, and sometimes you just need a hit of meat with animal skin on it.

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Hu Tong Dumpling Bar

14-16 Market Lane, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9650 8128

So at the risk of becoming more of a dumpling blogger than a foodblogger, here is my long-overdue post about the dumpling munching that occurred for Mr E’s birthday. There was a massive table of twelve, hence an epic amount of food was ordered – for future reference, there are both positives and negatives for letting one person order for twelve. On this occasion, the positives were that the person in question knew her way around the Hu Tong menu, and clearly knew what she was doing; the negative being that we all ate until we could barely move. Oh wait, that’s just another positive! Anyway, on to the food. We started out with some snow pea sprouts with garlic.

Always a winner. Did leave me open to the trap of eating rice, however. My mother labels people like me ‘rice buckets’ (faan toong). I love my rice. A word to the wise: don’t waste your time with rice at Hu Tong.

Next came the state dumplings with brisket. This dish was my request, as I had tried it before, on my last visit to Hu Tong. If you’re in a small group, I think it’s a great dish to order, because you get dumplings, but also beef brisket in the one dish. WIN! The brisket is tender, well flavoured, and the dumplings get the chance to soak up some of the flavour from the brisket sauce/soup.

Some sort of vegetarian noodle dish. I didn’t bother trying that one, because by this stage, I had been made aware of what was to come. It didn’t look particularly exciting, anyway. Are you ready? We’re about to take off.

First up, wontons with chilli oil. Probably the dish of the night. I couldn’t stop going back for more, which was fine, because aforementioned person-in-charge-of-ordering (PICOO) had ordered SEVEN dishes of this. The wontons themselves were perfectly cooked, and plump with flavour, and chilli oil was probably the perfect accompaniment. Well played PICOO, well played.

The pan-fried dumplings arrived at our table, and people started digging in, before PICOO said, “hey, I didn’t order those!” “Oh well, too late.” They’re one of the stand-outs on the Hu Tong menu anyway, in my opinion. I love how they’re all joined by that slightly burnt pan-crust, like a bit dumpling crepe.

I believe these were spinach or vegetable dumplings. I don’t believe they’re vegetarian, but I could be wrong. I only had one of these – as you can see though, there were quite a few at the table:

Things had to be shuffled and removed from the lazy susan not long after, for the arrival of the king of Hu Tong specialties, the xiao long bao. A steamed pork dumpling with soup inside, this is probably the dish that sets Hu Tong apart from the rest of its dumpling competitors. I’m fairly sure you won’t find a better example of it in a Melbourne restaurant, though I would be somewhat ecstatic to be proven wrong.

Again, PICOO ordered SEVEN serves. Which in hindsight, wasn’t such a smart thing, as they started getting cold before we could skarf them all. And a good xiao long bao is a hot xiao long bao.

Now while dumplings are the main reason you go to Hu Tong, there are other gems on the menu. Though I’m fairly sure it’s more Sichuan than Shanghainese, this chilli chicken was awesome, regardless of its geographical cultural origins.

Unlike my first encounter with this style of chilli chicken many years ago at the original Dainty Sichuan in Smith St Collingwood, there was a generous amount of chicken on the plate – Dainty Sichuan’s version used to be about two thirds dried chilli – and was beautifully spiced. This would be up there as a perfect beer snack. Well, beer meal. It was a mammoth plate of chicken.

Ma po doufu. A classic dish – I defy anyone who doesn’t like tofu to try this dish and still refuse to eat tofu. Hu Tong’s version was good, but probably not the best version I’ve ever had, though I am partial to my mother’s. That sort of goes without saying.

Just another shot of the ensemble of food, so you get an idea of how much there truly was.

Finally, out came the Sichuan chilli fish soup.

Yes, they’re all dried chillies floating in that soup. It’s also full of Sichuan pepper, which has that wonderful eucalypt-meets-sour tang to it, and starts numbing your tongue after a couple of mouthfuls. I couldn’t handle too much of this soup – apart from already being full by the time it arrived at the table – but luckily there were some true chilli fiends at the table.

All in all, a fantastic night, despite having to wait for about fifteen minutes for a table, even though we had booked ahead. Definitely going back for more!

Hutong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Dumpling Sisters

229 Exhibition St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 1888

I was excited when I first came across Dumpling Sisters. I was walking home after going to the gym, and upon seeing the cutesy logo, I was ruing the fact I’d already stopped off for dinner right after my workout. I started tweeting about the place, assuring @jeroxie that it actually existed, and wasn’t a mirage of oily goodness in the wilds of Exhibition St. Well I finally got around to visiting it post-gym last week.

While I’m all for simple and unassuming decor, I think I would really have enjoyed eating at Dumpling Sisters more if it weren’t for the unrelenting fluorescent lighting. Combined with freshly painted white walls, it’s confronting in the same way an industrial factory cafeteria would be, I imagine. Or the way eating in a 7-11 would be. The service, however, was attentive and exceedingly smiley. Such a far cry from the surly demeanour of the staff of the-dumpling-place-that-must-not-be-named. I’m not sure if there’s a self-service station I wasn’t aware of, but I had to ask for a bowl for my dipping sauce. It came with sincere apologies and mild embarrassment on the part of the waitress.

I’m thankful it was a post-gym visit, because then I didn’t feel quite so guilty about ordering the pan-fried pork dumplings (12 for $7.80).

They were pretty good, but not the best I’ve had – probably in the league of Chinatown Dumpling, but not quite Shanghai Village, Dumplings Plus or Hu Tong. And I have to say, for pan-fried dumplings, there certainly was someting of a deep-fried quality to these dumplings. Which made me feel a little guilty, so I ordered a side dish of celery and peanuts ($3).

These are cold, and the salt is offset by the sweetness of the celery and carrot. Don’t be scared by the chilli flakes; it’s really not spicy at all. It was quite moreish, actually.

I didn’t find my first visit to the Dumpling Sisters (and yes, I think the owners are two middle-aged Chinese sisters) all that stellar, but it’s not a bad place, if you can get past the lighting.

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Noodle Kingdom

175 Russell St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9654 2828

This was a meal I ate last year, but Gem and Tris’ recent tweets about Noodle Kingdom (albeit in Preston) over the weekend reminded me that I had it in my photo archives. So the news is not current, but I assume very little has changed in the last 6 months. Except I no longer work in the CBD, so it’s only now and then that I get to lunch in the city. Woe is me, for the noodle lunch options in Parkville are pretty poor. And noodle lunch, how much doth I love thee!?

One of the things that sets Noodle Kingdom apart from its competitors is that there’s a chef in the front window hand-making noodles. I scarcely think I need to recommend this place further. I’ll just see you there!

On this occasion, I had the hand-made soup noodles with beef brisket, and because that gargantuan bowl of goodness wasn’t enough – say what!? – I ordered the leek puffs, too. They were a little disappointing, really. A bit oily, and the filling wasn’t at all interesting. I took to dipping it in my brisket soup, which tuned out to be a good idea!

This isn’t a place where you go for the service, or really the ambience either. Neither is fantastic, but neither is bad. You go for the noodles, and you stay for the chance that the range of Shanghainese style cold dishes will be available. I’d say the odds on any given day are 60-40 in your favour.

Noodle Kingdom on Urbanspoon

Dumplings Plus

269 Swanston St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 8181

Melbourne has no shortage of Shanghainese dumpling resturants. The infamous Camy’s, stalwarts Shanghai Village and Shanghai Dumpling Restaurant, as well as relative newcomers Chinatown Dumpling, North East China Family and Hu Tong Dumpling Bar. Dumplings plus fits into this latter cohort of Johnny-come-lately dumpling joints, which on the whole, are quite good at taking on the incumbent restaurants at their own game. Hu Tong in particular, but that post is on its way. Dumplings Plus also definitely holds its own.

Though the specialty of any Shanghai dumpling specialist is the xiao long bao – steamed soup dumpling – in my opinion, the staple is the pan-fried pork dumpling. Dumplings Plus scores high on this dish. Not too oily, and with the slightly thicker, chewy skin that denotes handmade wrappers, these dumplings were a joy. My one criticism was that the filling was a touch bland. But hey, that’s what the black vinegar and chilli are for.

One of our group was particularly eager to try the Shangahinese pork buns, which were interesting. They’re a lot like the steamed buns – bao – that you get at yum cha, only they’ve been par-steamed and finished off with a pan-fry. The filling had more flavour than the dumpling counterparts, though I found the dough a little heavy. Still, an amazingly filling entree, and great value at 2 for $4.50.

Next up were my favourite dish of the evening. The steamed pork dumplings with chilli oil sauce.The pork dumplings were similar to the pan-fried ones, though the steaming made the skins softer and more yielding. I was expecting something of an intense chilli hit with the sauce, but it was on the milder side of hot. Cleverly, the soy and chilli have been balanced with a fair dose of honey, which made the sweet-savoury-spicy dumplings incredibly moreish, and a quick dip in the sour vinegar dipping sauce made it a perfectly balanced mouthful.

Then came the xiao long bao. While not as good as Hu Tong’s, these certainly impressed the uninitiated at the table. I like that Dumplings Plus gives you the flexibility of ordering a serve of four or six buns, so you can tuck into them even if you’re eating alone.

We rounded out the meal with some fried rice, which was decent, if not all that memorable, and stir-fried rice vermicelli with chicken and (loads of – yum!) lemongrass.

All in all, Dumplings Plus is a winner in my book. While not as ludicrously cheap as Shanghai Village or Chinatown Dumpling, it’s still great value – five of us walked away stuffed, with drinks, for under $70. Some may call the seating a bit cramped, but ironically, I’m sure those same people don’t mind the communal dining thing which a lot of trendy restaurants deal in these days. Personally, I think the lack of personal space in a Chinese restaurant adds to its authenticity? Certainly that’s how they roll in China!

Also, one final note: the service, while a bit patchy at times, was lightning quick when it came to serving food. I believe the food started arriving at the table within 10 minutes of ordering. So it’s a good place to go if you’re in a hurry.

Dumplings Plus on Urbanspoon

Old Kingdom

197 Smith St Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 2438

It had been too long since I had last Peking Duck. Old Kingdom is a Melbourne institution, where Peking Duck virgins should go for the at-table theatre as much as for the duck itself. After the first time, though, the brash spiel of the servers becomes a little tiring, so we were thankful when the waiter just carved the duck and left us to our own devices.

The roast duck ($55) includes three courses – the crispy skin (and a bit of duck flesh) which you dab with hoi sin sauce, and wrap in the delicate crepes; a stir-fry with shredded duck meat spring onions and bean shoots; and a clear duck and vegetable soup, with silken tofu. I got a bit excited (and distracted with the red wine we were imbibing along with the duck) and forgot to take pictures of the last two courses, but it’s all about the first course, anyway. The crispy duck skin, crunching and releasing the duck fat, which melds with the hoi sin sauce and soaks into the crepes as you bite. Heaven.

A good rule of thumb is one duck between 2-3 people (depending on how much of a duck fan you are!) and it’s optional to have other things off the menu, but as I said to my friends upon arrival, “I don’t know why anyone would bother ordering anything else off the menu.” The Peking Duck is clearly the star attraction. It’s also best to book and order your ducks in advance, as it’s usually full. There are sittings at 6pm and 8pm on weekends.

Old Kingdom on Urbanspoon

Dinner at Spicy Fish

I’ve been here before, so this time around we didn’t order the eponymous spicy fish, nor the succulent dong po pork, and I vetoed the chilli chicken because it’s 2/3 dried chillies. Where’s the value in that?!

We had the eggplant and scallop hotpot (spicy, with a slightly sweet tang Рsuper tasty) and the fried string beans with minced pork and black bean, accompanied with the spicy Sichuan couple (ox to gue and tripe) and garlicky cucmber. All delicious, washed down with a Wirra Wirra ros̩ (not great) and an exceptional Langmeil Shiraz viognier.

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