Dining in the time of COVID-19 – Flower Drum, Melbourne
When your blog is all about heading to exotic places and writing about the food experiences, opportunities for dining in the time of COVID-19 have been few and far between.
On June 1 2020, in Melbourne Australia, restrictions were eased on dining in restaurants and cafes. Provided appropriate social distancing could take place, establishments were allowed 20 diners at a time.
Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband were champing at the bit; we immediately sought a table at a Melbourne institution and, without the slightest overtone of hype, one of the world’s great Cantonese restaurants – Flower Drum.
Since the sad demise of Dinner by Heston in Melbourne, Flower Drum is our go-to spot for celebratory food. Simply, the quality of the food and service is very, very hard to beat.
Two sittings for dinner were on offer. Given this was a Monday night, we opted for the first session, starting at 6pm – knowing we we’d have a 90-minute lease on the table.
We were in plenty of company. It seemed all 20 diners for this first session back were queued up on Flower Drum’s steep staircase waiting to be seated.
The dining room can also be reached by using a very tiny elevator – and possibly one of the world’s slowest. The staff told us they’d used the two-month hiatus to refurbish the lift. Greedy Girl can’t vouch as to whether it’s improved.
And so we sat down to eat; restrictions mean many restaurants have dispensed with menus but that didn’t faze us. After greeting the delightful Barry, one of the wait staff who always looks after us, we were told some of the restaurant’s dishes might not be available – given it was everyone’s first night back.
But we got all our favourites – and a surprise. More on that later.
Flower Drum has been established since the 1970s and remains the yardstick for excellence and innovation in Cantonese cuisine. You can get all the traditional dishes here, if such is your wont, but please don’t be scared to step out of the comfort zone and try some of the more amazing creations.
Our first course – the succulent pearl meat.
The respect for ingredients is always evident here. This is a byproduct of pearl production – the adductor muscle of the pearl oyster. It has a delicate flavour, not dissimilar in texture to a scallop, but sliced very thinly. It is served with asparagus spears and spring onions, with two dipping sauces – shrimp (on the left of the picture) and oyster sauce.
Gluttonous husband prefers to savour this delicacy ‘au naturel’ but Greedy Girl loves the intensity of the shrimp sauce in particular. Delish.
Second up – curried crab meat served in the shell.
OMG. This is amazingly flavourful spanner crab baked with a delightful coconut milk curry sauce. We didn’t think curry was a particularly popular ingredient in Cantonese cookery, until our friend from Hong Kong used it liberally in a noodle dish he prepared for us when lockdown finished here in Melbourne.
This is a dish you’ll want to lick clean – and that’s slightly tricky given you’re very likely to injure your tongue on the sharp bits of the shell.
Third dish was a surprise – the plate featured at the top of this post. It just goes to show how simplicity can be incredibly tasty.
These are thinly sliced scallops sitting on a bed of Crystal Jade (rice) noodles, dressed simply with sesame oil (and no doubt a few tricks of the trade). Traditionally the restaurant would serve this with abalone but that wasn’t available first night back. No dramas from our point of view – so delicious and everything complemented each other so well. Yum.
It was time for some meat – the dish our lovely waiter Barry describes as ‘Chinese souvlaki’.
Spiced lamb mince dressed with Chinese sauces and spring onions gets spooned into little bread pockets. As is the case with a lot of Chinese baking, the bread is ever-so slightly sweet and the combination is to die for. Another unqualified yum.
And then to our final dish for the night – something that’s probably been on the Flower Drum menu since day dot – steak with green vegetables and a spicy Szechuan sauce.
Gluttonous husband always orders his steak ‘blue’ and that’s a slight issue for Greedy Girl who’d rather the dear cow wasn’t still mooing. Ordering hers ‘medium rare’ was a slightly forlorn hope – both steaks came out very, very rare.
And while there’d been really no evidence of first-night back jitters or issues, as another waiter was plating this dish at the table, an over zealous colleague swooped on the bowl of sauce and spirited it away – before it had been spooned over the meat. A little bit of theatre.
Normally this dish comes with the restaurant’s signature fried rice, but we opted not to have it. As a result, we finished the night with a full and satisfied belly without feeling bloated.
And we were done; our 90-minute window had expired but it seemed there were fewer takers for the second sitting, so we weren’t rushed away. Normally we’d enjoy a bottle of Pol Roger at our Flower Drum feast but Greedy Girl opted for a couple of glasses of Moet, while gluttonous husband nursed a couple of beers, thinking we wouldn’t want to rush a very nice champagne. It turned out we probably could have sipped it at our leisure …
But we finished with some Jasmine tea and, of course, the traditional plate of almond cookies was brought. There were three each – a lovely little sweet treat.
It was so good to be out and about eating – and the staff were all delighted to be back as well. Dining in the time of COVID-19 may not be what we’re used to, but Flower Drum is a big enough restaurant to be able to cope well with social distancing – even when the maximum number of patrons increases to 50 per sitting this month.
Wherever you are, if you have the capacity to get out and support your local restaurants and cafes, I hope you will. It’s great to be back.
17 Market Lane, Melbourne