Monday, January 15, 2007

Flower Drum

17 Market Lane Melbourne

How does one approach dining at Melbourne's renowned Flower Drum restaurant? Ideally with a bulging wallet and an empty stomach. I'd heard a lot of things about Flower Drum. Mostly, people coo about the service, and then hurry to add that the food is great too. This sits uncomfortably with the scourers of the Cheap Eat, the denizens of Victoria Street, the late afternoon market shopper. Why would you want to be waited on hand and foot? Doesn't it just get awkward? Especially when you're barely out of the Dishwasher Years yourself.

The first thing that happened, after being seated in the waiting area so our table could be adjusted from Table of five to Table of four when we had an unfortunate late cancellation, was that we were all seated at our table simultaneously. Four seats, four staff, holding four chairs and placing four bottoms on them with the grace of a square dance. Drink orders were taken. So far so good.

There was an awareness of hovering wait staff. Not weightless wait staff mind you, just wait staff who discreetly waited for a break in the conversation or an glass to be emptied and placed on the table to give way for a natural opening to approach the table. I can't decide whether this is too fussy or not. I must say I enjoy familiar and sassy wait staff too - like the waitress at Borsch, Vodka and Tears who took our order by straddling the back of a chair and downing several shots of vodka with us over the course of the evening's indulgences.

The light in the large divided room is quite subdued, and decorated with Chinese prints on the walls and the most immense and elaborate flower arrangement ever in the centre. Tables were placed far enough apart to not be party to neighbouring conversations.

After looking over the extensive menu (which had no marked prices) helplessly for some minutes the waiter suggested the set banquet. For the princely sum of $150 per head one could enjoy three set entrees followed by three set mains, fruit and tea. We negotiated a substitution (steamed dumplings for snapper) and we were off.

After enjoying a fantastic Pinot Gris, first up were the dumplings. Our table had a little side trolley which served as a workstation for our waiter, who assembled much of the food before serving. At the trolley our steamed dumplings were taken from their bamboo steamers and plated. As one would expect, they were translucent and perfect. I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten one of our entrees. But the last was definitely the quail san choi bao, which was perfect but probably out of all our dishes the one I would rate most easily found on par with "lesser" restaurants.

The mains started with the duck. And please indulge me here; after 37 years of eating quite well, and not being a crazed fan of duck, I have never tasted anything like it. If I go back (if I can ever afford to go back) to Flower Drum it will be for the duck. It was assembled side of stage: a soft floury crepe, smeared with a streak of plum hoisin was topped with spring onion, a strip of cucumber and a few pieces of deep crimson lacquered, crispy skinned Peking duck. We were told to "eat it like a sandwich", meaning fingers were allowed. It was heaven. The crepe itself was almost skin like in texture - not at all cold and rubbery, and there was a certain magic in the flavours. I used to dream of dumplings. I will now be dreaming of these little parcels of deliciousness.

By now, after two rounds of duck pancakes, I was beginning to feel quite full. Which was a great pity, as our lobster had just arrived. I turned down lobster. Do you see? I turned it down! I pushed it round my plate like a sulky 10 year old with a plate full of brussel sprouts. This was getting tricky. There was another course to go and I had no idea what it was going to be.

Off to our side of stage I saw our waiter slicing some steaks. Good gravy, surely we couldn't be expected to eat a steak at this late juncture? But indeed we were. Eye fillet, as tender as tofu, seared only enough to brown the outer, was sliced into fat strips and served. I've certainly never tasted anything like it, and it will be the second thing I go back to Flower Drum for. I'm not sure if it was wagyu beef, but it was impossibly succulent. My only regret is that I had eaten too much already and had to leave a portion of it uneaten. Wah!

One of the perks of the intense silver service was the warm damp towels served with each course. Much nicer than say, a shiny paper napkin of dubious absorbency.

If you want to eat at Flower Drum remember that bookings have to be made about three months in advance, which is about how long you should be saving your pennies for. And maybe cut down on the cream cakes for a while as well.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Saffron Cottage

Saffron Cottage
1531 Burwood Highway, Tecoma
9754 8388

"It's a bit pricey for Indian Takeaway", someone grumbled at me when we were discussing Saffron Cottage. And yes, it is a bit more expensive than a cheap'n'cheerful takeaway place with beaded curtains to stop the flies and sticky plastic tablecloths. Then again, it's rather better food than you'd get from such a place. In fact, it's a proper restaurant (proper, in my limited definition, meaning it has linen tablecloths, waiting staff in smart clothes, a decent wine list, and let's not forget: good food).

They offer takeaway at 15% discount on the eat-in prices. Mrs. Banttha and I have two young 'uns, so we tend to eat takeaway far more often than we get to go out to dinner - hence, much of our interaction with Saffron Cottage is via the take-away they offer. Recently, Mrs. Banttha's mother came up to mind the Banttha boys, and we skipped out to enjoy a meal.

The interior decoration is interesting - a mix of rustic (exposed beams and rough wood panelling) and refined (rather swish bar, neatly-set tables, the usual stuff). It's got a cosy feel, despite being quite large. During winter they have the open fires going - the tables near those go really fast. During warm summer nights, the back porch, with its view up to the Dandenong Ranges National Park, is the place to be.

A lot of the menu is standard Indian restaurant fare that any self-respecting Melbournian would know. In my books, this is no bad thing. My sister has more than once accused me of being Lister from Red Dwarf - nothing suits me better than a hot curry and a cold beer. I'm sure she didn't mean that I'm a slob.

The curries are great - tender chunks of meat, and full flavour - even in their hottest vindaloo, all of the flavours come through beautifully. When we dined there I had the lamb rogan josh, with a glass of merlot (their wine list includes some decent reds, quite a few of them available by the glass). Mrs Banttha chose the mango chicken - between two such tasty meals, there was a long silence at our table, punctuated only by the clink of cutlery.

Two curries + rice and a serve of roti bread will set you back about $40. Add a couple of glasses of red wine ($5 - $6 per glass) and maybe a couple of entrees, and you'll still come in around $60.

It can get a bit busy at times, so booking a table for a peak night (Friday or Saturday) would be a good idea.

Quick summary: decor inviting, staff friendly, food excellent, wine list decent. Criticisms? I have none.