Neil Perry has eaten at Melbourne’s Flower Drum for a quarter of a century so he knows his way around the menu. Here, he shares his favourite dishes.
Longevity in any business should be celebrated. In the restaurant business, it should be honoured! To keep a restaurant at the top of its game for 40 years in this country is an incredible achievement.
I’ve been going to the Flower Drum since 1989 and this year the restaurant that was founded by Gilbert Lau is celebrating its 40th year in Melbourne and its 30th at the current Market Lane address.
What makes a restaurant a stayer?
It has to be the complete package – great food, a fantastic wine list and, importantly, exemplary service. The skill shown at the table by waitstaff has all but disappeared in most establishments but can still be found in the best Cantonese restaurants. And Flower Drum is certainly one of those. I put its food up there with Lung King Heen and Yan Toh Heen in Hong Kong, which, respectively, have three and two Michelin stars.
Original chef Anthony Lui leads the kitchen, while his son, Jason, is the consummate professional at the front of the house. This restaurant is a magnet for the powerbrokers of Melbourne and has seen mentionable and unmentionable deals done, I’m sure.
What I love most about the Flower Drum, though, is its consistency and craft of cooking. Here are my recommendations – if you have the opportunity to go, I hope you’ll try them. I’m pretty confident you’ll be blown away!
I always begin with the shallot cake; the delicate short pastry envelops spring onions that have been softened in a dash of sesame oil. All you need is a dab of chilli sauce or XO for the perfect start. Then the crab dumplings – these dainty wrapped parcels of crab, which are held together with a tiny bit of mousse and dipped in red vinegar, are served with ginger and are sublime.
I love the pearl meat, stir-fried with chives and served with oyster and shrimp sauces, or a version done with abalone or sea conch. This is the taste of the sea, a kiss of life and the sweetest taste there is!
Next it’s a toss-up between two squab (baby pigeon) dishes: “drunken” or barbecued. In the first dish, the squab is steamed and bathed in quality shaoxing wine and is awesome – meaty, slightly liverish and so tender. Equally good is the barbecue squab, which is poached in master stock, dried and then wok-fried until crisp. Sichuan salt and lemon is sprinkled on the crisp skin and the juices run down your fingers as you chew this marvellous bird to the bone.
Sometimes I’ll have mud crab with ginger and shallots (or a Murray cod steamed with ginger and shallots). I occasionally throw in a lobster with egg noodles and XO sauce. But I always have Peking duck. The combination of the crisp-skinned duck and the delicate, translucent pancakes is breathtaking, matched only by the skill of the waiters serving it. (As an aside, about half-a-dozen of the same waiters have worked at Flower Drum since I have been going. How many restaurants can claim that?)
To say that I have loved the Flower Drum for a long time is an understatement. For the past quarter of a century I have eaten there at least twice a year. There is no other Chinese restaurant in Australia like it – and, most certainly, there are none that have stood the test of time for all those years. To Anthony, Jason and the team: as a professional in the business and as a lover of great food, I salute you.