Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Enigma of Flower Drum - No Longer Concealing Their Identity?

I discovered Flower Drum way back in 2003 when it was all of the rage, part of every "best of" list along with movies like Japanese Story and Gettin' Square and the eponymous The Secret Life of Us on television. I never remember Claudia Karvan or Asher Keddie dining at Flower Drum when they were not arguing with their flatmates, husbands and friends so perhaps the show foretold something a bit more ominous about both the dining scene in Melbourne and the fickle public.

In its heyday, for a wayward visitor from Sydney who normally planned his Melbourne excursions with only a few weeks notice it was next to impossible to secure a table in the evening at this Cantonese restaurant. I had to settle for a table at lunch and usually it would be on a Saturday when I was nursing a self-imposed hangover that was still lingering from good times that were experienced at Circa the previous night. As my liver took more punishment over the last many years and Flower Drum started being shunned by the never-ending "best of" lists and awards ceremonies, a bit like Tom Cruise's career, I started to wonder why. There was no mystery as to the demise of my liver but for me Flower Drum losing its shine was indeed an enigma.

I began to frequent Flower Drum in the evenings on Saturday of all times with very little notice because like Tom Cruise's star, the hype and awards waned and availability of a table was assumed. For me though the quality of the produce and ultimately the product that was served remained consistently top notch. I have never proclaimed myself as an afficiando of Cantonese food, but I know what is average quality and what is bad because of shortcomings with my body. Large amounts of peanut oil or soy tends to irritate my senses a bit and the result is an itchy nose and on rare bad occasions an extremely loud sneeze. Every time I have had the pleasure of eating at Flower Drum, my allergies have never been affected which is a testament to their cooking style.

Over the years, the menu has evolved a bit. It has been cut down and a whole Peking duck is no longer available for purchase as per the menu, but you can always negotiate this menu shortcoming with the very attentive staff. It is easy to consume two perfectly prepared Peking duck pancakes and unless you indulge upon the spoils afforded by having a whole duck on-call to satisfy your taste buds and primal urges you will not leave satisfied. Dining at Flower Drum over the years inspired me to learn how to make Peking Duck myself, which was the subject of a previous blog post. The "Supreme" Shark Fin soup needs to be experienced at least once in your lifetime however at $160 per serve, it will turn out to be an addiction that you need to seriously monitor. It would be easier for a chronic smoker to give up the cancer sticks when compared to the desire you will have to keep coming back for more and more of this fabulous, if not politically incorrect soup.

I alluded to the service earlier. Over the years, it has remained consistently faultless. Although some would suspiciously wonder why there is always a member of the floor team standing in your general area seemingly looking the other direction. The staff act like guardian angels (if you believe that rubbish, but I needed an analogy after all) to make sure that your dining experience is perfect. This includes always having a beverage, sauce, cutlery or masking a faux pas that the clumsy diner makes on the tablecloth.

If you have a spare $500 you can announce with a few days notice that you intend to eat a suckling pig which would serve 6-8 people. Sadly, I have not gorged on this beast as of yet but it is on my to-do list of things to do this year.

In 1975, Gilbert Lau opened The Flower Drum in Chinatown on Little Bourke Street. In 2003, Gilbert sold the restaurant to Executive Chef Anthony Lui, William Shek and Patricia Fong. Some would argue this was the critical event that led to the downgrade of Flower Drum on all of the magic "best of" lists that seemingly dictate what is good, bad and ultimately make or break restaurants. I do not believe this was the cause though. After seeing Flower Drum evolve gradually after the sale, it is my opinion that Gilbert Lau assimilated Cantonese food into the Melbourne culture in a bygone era where Cantonese food was more of an exotic offering mainly aimed at minority families. With this assimilation into mainstream Melbourne culture, I believe Lau had to conceal his identity as a chef in order to "get along" in a very competitive environment and as a result after nearly 30 years built a consistent reputation for quality and service. I believe when Anthony Lui took over, he brought with him a new identity for the restaurant and has taken it to a place that is slightly different but realistically just as brilliant and is not effectively understood by the reviewers and so-called subject matter experts. I am confident that Flower Drum will feature on these " best of" lists again but for now I will take the opportunity to dine there without having to be denied a booking on a Saturday night. You should too.

Flower Drum, Melbourne

Flower Drum
Link to review
17 Market Lane  Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9662 3655
My Rating: 15.5/20
Service: 5/5
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Quality: 4/5
Value For Money: 3/5
Comment: Peking duck and perfect service

I still can be found on Twitter... @epicurean3006

At the time of this blog post, only 77% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Flower Drum. Most of the complaints I have read has to do with price but it is always compared and contrasted with dodgy takeaways. This is a shame.

Flower Drum on Urbanspoon