Flower Drum @ 17 Market Lane, Melbourne
22 July 2011
In the short existence of the Melbourne Culinary Journal, I have reviewed a number of Melbourne's iconic establishments. However, I am mindful that this Melbourne-centric blog could hardly be described as complete without a review of what is perhaps the most venerable of Melbourne institutions, the acclaimed Flower Drum.
Flower Drum has long been regarded as one of not only Melbourne's but Australia's premier restaurants. It once occupied a position in the list of the world's top 50 restaurants as compiled by the San Pellegrino guide. In the 35 or so years since its opening, it has built a tremendous reputation which is unparalleled in Australia, certainly by reference to time span. However, since the departure of founder Gilbert Lau in 2003, its profile has wavered somewhat. Reviews suggested that it had lost some of its previous lustre. Thankfully, its stock appears to be on the rise again, with a recasting of the menu by executive chef Anthony Liu resulting in warm praise. With that in mind, I had reason to be optimistic about our recent Flower Drum visit.
We started with steamed dim sum, sharing a scallop dumpling, a prawn, garlic and chive dumpling, a pork siu mai and a Shanghainese pork dumpling. It was an unremarkable beginning to the meal. While the dim sum were of reasonable quality, they were inferior to those found at yum cha restaurants around Melbourne – Golden Dragon Palace in Templestowe and Tao Tao House in Hawthorn, the latter ironically employing Flower Drum’s former dim sum chef, being notable examples. In that light, the $18 that Flower Drum charged for the four dumplings was, to put it mildly, fairly exorbitant.
Next to arrive was an item recommended to us by our waiter – an $18 dish of wild barramundi noodles, made with barramundi fillets, stir fried with diced Chinese pork sausage, garlic shoots, shiitake mushrooms, bean shoots and capsicum strips. It was a fairly good dish that was highlighted by the noodles which retained the natural sweetness of the barramundi and exhibited a pleasant elasticity. Lightly flavoured by the sweetly savoury sausage and the gently aromatic garlic shoots, the dish, to its detriment, lacked the characteristic charred flavour that normally accompanies a wok-tossed item.
For our next course, we shared a pork and prawn wonton soup and a hot and sour soup, for each of which Flower Drum charged $18.50. The wonton soup was a disappointment. The pork and prawn wontons were fresh but lacked flavour and succulent bite. The clear chicken broth was insipid and possessed none of the rich earthiness that would ordinarily be ensured by the use of high quality stock. Flower Drum’s rendition of the classic Szechuan hot and sour soup fared a little better. Containing abundant slithers of chicken, cloud fungus, bamboo shoots and bean curd slices, it compared favourably to the versions commonly found around Melbourne. At $18.50 for a serve, one would expect no less. However, while the ingredients were plentiful, the flavours, although balanced, were noticeably mild on both the hot and the sour fronts. It paled in comparison to our yardstick hot and sour soup in Melbourne, the one offered by Bamboo House.
We then had Peking duck, a Flower Drum signature. As expected, there was sense of theatre with the Peking duck – the portions were carefully prepared at the table one at a time to ensure that each was fresh and warm when consumed. That aside however, the Peking duck was good but generally unmemorable. While ticking all the usual boxes, with a generous slice of duck breast, fresh spring onion and cucumber, warm pancake and ample sauce, it was conspicuously missing crisp skin and unctuous fat – criminal deficiencies in $10 a portion Peking duck.
We then shared a $38 dish of crispy skin chicken, a classic Cantonese dish. Flower Drum’s version consisted of a whole fried chicken served with lemon juice and spicy salt. Continuing the trend for the evening, the chicken was pleasant but not particularly notable. The chicken had none of the velvety texture or the crisp skin that sets apart the very best examples.
Beef fried hor fun – flat rice noodles – is one of PiCi’s favourite Cantonese noodle dishes and was an inevitable selection. Like many of the dishes we had that evening, the dish was enjoyable but pedestrian. The rice noodles, usually long and thick ribbons, were reduced to meagre shreds and were overly soft – presumably the product of excessive time in the wok. Priced at $21, approximately double what one would ordinarily pay, the lack of quality was palpable.
We finished with a duo of desserts. First, we shared a dish of Peking toffee apple with ice cream. The toffee apple was whimsically finished at the table by being immersed in ice water to solidify the toffee. It was a solid dessert. The second item was Flower Drum’s take on traditional fried ice cream and was served with a fresh mixed berry sauce. It was an unfortunately presented dish with the puddle of berry sauce unappealingly resembling the by-product of a particularly heavy menstruation. The soggy and dense crumb coating on the ice cream did little to help matters. The desserts were both priced at $17 and given their relative simplicity, it was difficult to identify value.
In considering my views on Flower Drum, I cannot help but compare it to my experiences in Hong Kong and especially at Lung King Heen, a Cantonese institution considered by some to be the world's finest Chinese restaurant. That, unfortunately, is not a favourable comparison. While I was highly impressed by Lung King Heen's superb cuisine and its impeccably precise service, and left with an unequivocal intention to return, I was less swayed by Flower Drum. The food at Flower Drum is simply not of sufficient quality to warrant paying its relatively prohibitive prices. The fact that we paid over $200 at Flower Drum, after ordering very conservatively, is especially damning in light of the $70 per head that we paid at Lung King Heen for markedly superior fare.
In summary, Flower Drum delivers a reasonable but vapid experience. While the standard of its cuisine is generally high, it is not sufficient to distinguish Flower Drum from the plethora of good Cantonese restaurants around Melbourne. Flower Drum's quality of service is certainly a differentiating factor, but it is not, in my opinion, enough to justify the extravagantly inflated prices. Judging by the patrons in attendance during our visit, there is clearly a specific subset of the population which disagrees.