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.