Most people have a Flower Drum story, and a view on its merits as a big night out. Back when I first ventured there in my mid-twenties it was a three star restaurant still at the height of reverence from most dining circles.
It was described to me at the time as a destination restaurant even for people living in China. Naturally, I took that statement with a degree of skepticism, but when your waitperson has been at the same restaurant for 25 years, there is an instant knowing that something is going particularly well, in a world where a year is a milestone in hospitality.
Fast forward almost one and a half decades and the knowing is of a different kind. These days I know that you should expect flawless service, and that the tasting menu will include Peking Duck and beautifully cooked beef. In the lead up, the reception when I mentioned Flower Drum was anywhere between excitement and a feeling the place is now passé.
It’s almost as if, in this dynamic world of constant change, that doing something well, over and over again, might be overrated. In a sense I can be guilty of this too, but an understanding of why focus and precision is beautiful in cooking terms was strengthened from my trip to Tokyo last year, and a few other instances here and there (often in relation to Asian food).
To my surprise, there was one change to the “four course” tasting menu tonight, which was no san choi bao, replaced by a crayfish omelette. This was the first course and a delicious introduction into the meal to come. The dish is perfectly seasoned (salt and pepper is provided, but not needed), with large chunks of juicy crayfish smothered by a fluffed egg white omelette. For a long and generous tasting menu, the richness of this first course is felt later in the meal, but I wouldn’t be offering a spoonful of that crayfish back.
Skipping over the service at Flower Drum would be like going to the Taj Mahal, taking a photo, and walking back out. It is intrinsic to the atmosphere in the room, almost prompting a sense of Zen. Like many things of beauty, it is hard to put your finger on exactly why the service here is spoken about like it won an Olympic gold medal. While tonight there is little chance our waitperson, Vincent, has been working at Flower Drum for 25 years like one of my first experiences, he is thoroughly trained.
The dedication and commitment to excellence here is astounding, but it doesn’t lead to a loss of personality. A good example is towards the end of the evening when we complimented Vincent on how well he handled our AGT Vouchers (I get a discount through work which is great, but the paper voucher has caused some issues!) Rather than accept the compliment with the same humility he had shown throughout the evening, he humorously said “thank my Manager” with a grin that he would have had no idea what to do.
The next course we enjoyed was the barramundi, with a glutinous shiitake mushroom sauce, and asparagus. I could see Catherine looking at the whole fillet of fish, and back at her chopsticks, and I was instantly brought back to the first time I ate fish here. “Don’t worry, it falls apart easily” I assured her, and sure enough, the fish parts in bite sized pieces perfectly held together for less sophisticated chopstick enthusiasts like myself. Besides the perfect fillet of lightly battered barra, the sauce shares the limelight with a huge lift that doesn’t mask the fish, but does add some punch.
At this stage we were finishing our Moorooduc Estate Chardonnay, displaying a good level of oak and some old school malolactic fermentation that we quite like. Next we switched to a half bottle of the Paringa Estate Pinot Noir from 2013. The Pinot is glorious, especially with the upcoming dish.
That dish is the famous Peking duck which these days is presented with some hoisin art. It’s a bit gimmicky, but delightful at the same time. Once you taste the Peking duck your mind shifts to how succulent the duck is, and how perfect the pancake packaging is. One day I would like to be able to be a regular here just to have the Peking duck. For now my two tastes, matched with the Pinot, are just gorgeous, leaving me to hunger for the next time I’m here, which will be sooner than 13 years.
Next comes the beef, and I really don’t remember it being this large? You are basically presented with a small steak, Asian greens, and a side of unforgettable fried rice. I like this fried rice better than both Lung King Heen and RyuGin, both owning three Michelin stars in Asia. There is a choice to upgrade the beef from local Black Angus to Wagyu which at $40 per head we didn’t do this time, and we were not regretting our choice because it is hard to imagine how the beef could be that much better. Using chopsticks, each piece melts in your mouth, the technique better than most steakhouses, and practiced for a considerable period of time with this 43 year old restaurant.
For dessert we are given a choice, which is never a great idea because the negotiation is intense. From the beginning I wanted to have the mango crepes and something a bit more on the edge. Serious contemplation followed as we tried to let our savoury courses digest. Vincent became involved in the conversation and incredibly swayed us to try the fried ice cream! According to wiki the origin of this dessert is America, but to my mind it has become something of a suburban Chinese restaurant cringe dessert.
Vincent was right. Not only did he realise we were going to share dessert (so organised for it to be split between our plates) but he was spot on that fried ice cream can be elevated to an adult dessert. This one is surrounded by sponge cake that has been compressed and then surrounded by breadcrumbs. It is complimented by a berry sauce and I will never say anything bad about fried ice cream again! The crepes are very nice, just as I remember them. Plenty of sweet mango filling, even though the season in Queensland has apparently come to an end.
The hours had passed and all of a sudden the buzz in the restaurant had dissipated as one-by-one the guests had made their way back on to Market Lane. As I finished my Grandfather Port (yes, a traditional meal needs a traditional port!) and Catherine her Jasmine tea, we knew we’d had a night to remember. There is something comforting about Flower Drum, and there’s no need to feel guilty about it.