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China Tea House, Melbourne restaurant review

When struck with a relentless craving for duck, John Lethlean heads to China Tea House. This Chapel Street newcomer is surprisingly impressive, and its Peking duck excellent.

Funny how inspiring good food television can be. Really good food television. I'd been watching Heston Blumenthal's latest series of In Search of Perfection, the English chef's often-mad, no-holds-barred attempts at deconstructing Britain's favourite dishes and putting them back together, perfectly. It's nothing short of brilliant. Motivating.

He'd done chicken tikka masala - invented in Glasgow, apparently - right down to building his own tandoor in a carpark. He'd done hamburger, including making his own cheese slices with Marcel Petite Comte, flavoured sherry and a naturally occurring chemical for melting-under-heat consistency.

And now he was on to Peking duck, travelling to Beijing, visiting restaurants, talking to chefs and… having a whole lot of trouble back home in England reproducing that magic combination of crisp, maltose-burnished dark skin, no fat and juicy roast meat. But talk about a call to action. It was a case of put down the remote, grab a credit card and find me some duck, now.

I hit three different Chinese restaurants over the next week, inspired but, on each occasion, disappointed. Then I went to China Tea House. The circle closed. Yet another restaurant with the words 'Tea House' as part of its title (Melbourne has so many), CTH is a modest-looking place on Chapel Street, Melbourne's home to fashion retail.

And, yes, the Peking duck here is wonderful: the crisp, dark, fatless skin, the sweet meat, the balanced, quite savoury sauce, the julienne of spring onion and batons of cucumber, the pliable pancake, the assembly process, the whole shooting match when you put them all together in one fabulous bite.

But as I learnt over two visits within days of each other (you find good duck, you want more, and fast), there's a standard of cooking here that outshines many, many Chinese restaurants in Melbourne.

What's surprising about the quality of straight Cantonese food here is that, strictly speaking, this is not a straight Cantonese restaurant at all. As I understand it, CTH, which opened earlier this year, has two chefs: one from Hong Kong and another from Thailand. And the menu - the big dinner menu, at least - which supplements a smaller collection of pure yum cha-style dishes available all day, embraces the cuisines of both. Right alongside red curry of duck (a Thai standard) is roast duck - pure, classic, mainstream Hong Kong.

But I didn't know any of this first time round.

I went with friends, loyal regulars, who did just about all the ordering save for my lunging frequently at passing steel steamer trolleys. It was Sunday lunch and I was particularly hungry. So as far as I knew, the restaurant, staffed by uncommonly friendly waiters and hosts, was true to its name and appearance; another Cantonese place in a city crammed with them. And so it passed as we made our way through a series of quite predictable - but utterly exemplary - standards.

We did steamed dumplings of just about every kind, and each time they were simply outstanding: beautifully made with springy, crunchy, fragrant fillings and thin, pliable, perfectly cooked wrappers steamed or fried for just the right amount of time and delivered pronto. The condiments ranged from the predictable (chilli bean sauce, soy) to the greatly appreciated (a brilliant, hammy XO sauce and toasted, crunchy chilli oil).

We did chicken feet with fresh chilli and sweet soy sauce rice-noodle rolls (cheung fun) filled with barbecue pork that rate as highly as any I've eaten in Melbourne.

We did those deep-fried dumplings the hosts so pragmatically list on the menu as 'football dumpling', which works regardless of your code provided you ignore soccer: crisp, oil-free shells with a hot, gluey filling of minced pork and shiitake.

We did roast pork of rare quality - and that duck. Oh my, that duck. I genuinely don't think I've enjoyed yum cha as much since visiting Spring Moon at The Peninsula Hong Kong a couple of years ago for a little solo lunch, killing time waiting for a connecting flight.

Then my friends ordered something called 'chilli fried rice' they assured us we'd like. I mean, good old-fashioned Chinese fried rice is every foodie's guilty secret pleasure, isn't it? The bogan old-school kids' dish that just happens to be very satisfying when it's done well - not that we admit to it.

It came and it conquered, crammed with Thai basil, a vibrant Thai fried rice with plenty of mild fresh chilli, onion, green pepper, chicken and whole prawns, served with thick sticks of cucumber, wedges of lemon and coriander garnish. We weren't in Kowloon any more.
We shared a Beaujolais - because CTH is completely comfortable with diners who BYO at a $6 per bottle corkage - and the whole thing was a really happy, eye-opening experience. Friendly, relaxed, professional, great food and fantastic value for money.

There's a moment on your maiden voyage with certain restaurants where you just know this is the start of a long-term relationship. I felt it quite distinctly.

Naturally, I booked for dinner two days later, not that a booking was really necessary. Chapel Street South Yarra may be the city's fashion Mecca but its reputation for restaurants is dodgy and, for reasons unfathomable to me, CTH is not roaring. At night, anyway.

But it was a chance to take in the modest, deep space: white-tiled floors, bamboo screens and micro-gardens, rouge pillars, lanterns and contemporary Chinese paintings, all set against an aural backdrop of classical Chinese violin of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon genre. It's not flash, but it's not oppressive, either: clean, light, pleasant and modern. The furnishings are of a heavily grained timber and the crockery is informal and rather stylish. Welcoming.

China Tea House has a wine list; the prices, as at most licensed Chinese restaurants, are super-fair but the selection, in this case, is dull. It's the kind of joint wine collectors are going to love. Somehow we ended up with four bottles of red between three. Still, my William Downie Mornington Peninsula 2006 pinot noir with the mandatory Peking duck and a couple of good friends will rank as highly in my memory as any 2008 food and wine moments.

And, having despatched more of the dishes we'd enjoyed so much first time round (prawn and chive dumplings; steamed ginger prawn dumplings immersed in a gloopy ginger sauce; steamed scallop dumplings; more chilli fried rice), I wanted to explore some of those things from the dinner menu. The less-Cantonese side of the fence.

'Tofu scallop' is a rare hybrid: pieces of fried tofu sit in a deep-sided bowl with a moat of soup you could only describe as a Japanese-style dashi pungent with bonito flakes. On each piece of tofu - and there are four - is a slice of scallop meat and a piece of fresh chilli; the whole lot is crowned with a crunchy nest of fried kaffir lime and julienne leek.

That red curry of duck is as good as any I've had in Melbourne: a rich, deep and balanced clay-coloured gravy of 101 spices and roots, pockmarked with bamboo shoot, Chinese roast duck, fresh (almost raw) zucchini slices, tomato,green pepper and a little pineapple. And a dish of stirfried squid and vegetables (beans, peppers, onion) pungent with chilli, Thai basil, garlic and fish sauce, is a clean, sugar-free olfactory blast with springy fish, crunchy vegetables and that ever-so-slightly confronting saltiness of fish sauce or shrimp paste.

It couldn't all be brilliant, of course.

Worryingly, a couple of main courses get the 'we must give this dish a fancy title' treatment. 'The Scent of Mango Chicken' and 'The Tale of King Prawns' may be perfectly fine dishes, but still.

A dish of chilli and sesame-cooked spinach with sweet-sticky Indonesian soy, topped with salty fried tofu and fresh chilli, is less special than its previously consumed tofu sibling, and the desserts - a green tea jelly peppered with red beans, and flaky Chinese custard tarts - aren't going to set the world on fire. But they are good examples of uncompromised dishes, which is what China Tea House is all about.

You just won't dream of them the way you might with the duck. Or the pork. Or the siu mai. And you almost certainly won't see Heston Blumenthal doing a whole In Search of Perfection program on coconut jelly. Banana fritter with ice-cream, well that's another matter entirely. Anyone got Heston's number?

China Tea House

352 Chapel St, South Yarra, Vic, (03) 9826 1055.
Cards AE DC MC V.
Open Daily 11am-11pm
Prices Dim sum $4.80-$6.80; entrées $7.50-$12.50; mains $19.50-$26.50; desserts $5-$8.
Noise Peaceful.
Vegetarian Yes, plenty.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Great cooking, even better value for money.
Minus Too quiet, too bright.

China Tea House

352 Chapel St, South Yarra, Vic, (03) 9826 1055.
Cards AE DC MC V.
Open Daily 11am-11pm
Prices Dim sum $4.80-$6.80; entrées $7.50-$12.50; mains $19.50-$26.50; desserts $5-$8.
Noise Peaceful.
Vegetarian Yes, plenty.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Great cooking, even better value for money.
Minus Too quiet, too bright.

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