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The drum to beat

After 35 years in the business, Australia’s pre-eminent Cantonese restaurant has a new menu and even more energy than ever, writes Michael Harden. Peking duck, anyone?

It starts with the prosaic ground-floor entrance with its unkindly lighting and slightly disembodied feel. Then there's the inexplicably lengthy ride in the poky lift, which allows you plenty of time to start questioning whether you have, in fact, come to the right place. And then, when the lift doors finally open, there's the money shot: a grand, warm-hued, red-carpeted series of dining areas that stretch off into the distance, busy with a fleet of waiters, lacquered wood detailing glimmering from every corner, generously spaced damask-dressed tables and sculptural flower arrangements strewn about and the unmistakable waft of luxury and generosity. In a relief-filled instant, all is suddenly right with the world.

What's really remarkable, though, is that after 35 years in the business (25 of them in the Market Lane location), Flower Drum is still delivering so much more than a theatrical entrance experience. This has become even more apparent recently with the introduction of a new menu, the first of its kind for 25 years. The new list not only emphasises co-owner and executive chef Anthony Lui's deft, creative touch with great-quality seafood but also taps into the sharing zeitgeist with a combination of increased flexibility (through more small dishes) and a couple of tasting/banquet menus of various sizes. The new menu, which changes daily, has also cut loose some of the more prosaic Aussie-Chinese stalwarts, a timely change that sees the Drum beating with new energy.

You can feel this energy on the floor, where the formally attired service team continues to set a dizzyingly high benchmark for great service. Witty, skilled and unfailingly exact, the Drum waiters are undeniably old-school (and some of them simply undeniably old), something rare enough in today's dining world to feel like a breath of fresh air. These guys - and they're mostly guys - are particularly good at shaping your meal without ever sounding like they're telling you what to eat. It's an excellent idea to let them take the reins because their enthusiasms inevitably pay off. A case in point is an unlisted dish of wild barramundi "noodles", a daily special that the waiter emphatically recommends. One might subsequently consider him a friend for life for doing so.

The noodles are made from wild barramundi meat, finely minced with some Chinese sausage and tangerine zest to form a paste that is then piped into noodle shapes and poached. They are then quickly stir-fried with shiitakes, beans, garlic shoots and minutely diced red capsicum, arriving as a beautifully pale tangle flecked with green and red, delicately flavoured, slippery of texture, slightly tangy and instantly addictive.

Another dish in the Flower Drum's slippery/soft range is wok-fried, sliver-thin pearl meat. Born and bred in Broome, it's quickly cooked with slices of spring onion in slightly thickened chicken-based master stock. Pale and glistening, much like the shell in which it's served, the beautifully delicate flesh shares space with gently steamed tips of white and green asparagus and is accompanied by two sauces, one a dark sweet oyster sauce, the other a punchy, savoury concoction of shrimp paste mixed with master stock.

Both these dishes work particularly well with the elegant 2006 Domaine Laroche Chablis "Les Fourchaumes Vieilles Vignes" from a list that divides the majority of its time between France and Australia. As befits an institution like the Drum, the list loves a benchmark and there's a good showing from the likes of Penfolds and Mount Mary. But the range of prices is democratic and there's a neat little collection of half bottles that sits well with the idea of scooting through the menu, grabbing a little bit from here and there as you go.

The ethereal eggwhite omelette is certainly something you should be grabbing. A brilliant fluffy cloud of a thing studded with small pieces of South Australian lobster and spring onions, mixed with a little fresh cream and served quivering in a plain white bowl, ready to be scooped up with a spoon, it's a dish that makes an appearance most nights, with crab or sea urchin sometimes standing in for the lobster.

At the other end of the texture spectrum are boned garfish, stuffed with finely shredded carrot, celery and bamboo shoots and then lightly battered and fried. The batter is a brittle delicate thing of wonder, the garfish firm and juicy and the vegetables retaining a slight crunch. Teamed with a mahogany-coloured sauce flavoured with soy and dotted with floating shiitake dice, it's one of those dishes that will have you pondering the etiquette of ordering another as soon as it's finished.

Such thoughts do not seem out of place at Flower Drum. The comfort factor of the room - the wide upholstered seats of the gleaming timber chairs, the padded underlay beneath the damask, the flattering lighting, the bottle of wine sitting reassuringly close by in a pedestal wine bucket, the overall sense of being cosseted - is so generous and hospitable that ordering another dish seems an obvious thing to do, if only to savour the experience for as long as possible.

Fried eggplant pieces stuffed with pine nuts, walnuts and carrot and served on a bed of crisp enoki; slices of lamb fillets wok-fried with garlic, leeks and miso paste which you stuff into pockets of soft, pork-bun-like bread; slow-braised Blackmore wagyu beef cheek flavoured with ginger, red dates and garlic; and, of course, the Drum's still exemplary Peking duck: all are perfectly valid excuses to string things out.

Desserts are the only underwhelming part of the equation, a collection of unthreatening deep-fried ice-cream and fruit platter-like offerings (a $135 almond soup and swiftlet's nest dish being the expensive exception). Best to eat another savoury course and leave the sugar fix to the small (complimentary) pile of nicely short, shiny, eggy almond biscuits that arrive at the end of the meal.

Flower Drum certainly isn't reinventing the wheel with its recent changes, but it has subtly and emphatically invigorated what was already an impressive package. It has never slipped from its perch at the top of the Australian Cantonese tree but Flower Drum is more confidently and assuredly occupying that space right now.


Flower Drum

17 Market La, Melbourne, (03) 9662 3655, www.flower-drum.com.
Licensed.
Cards AE DC MC V.
Open Mon-Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm; Sun 6pm-10.30pm.
Prices Entrées $10.50-$25; mains $19.50-$55; desserts $13.50-$16.50.
Vegetarian Four main courses.
Noise Comfortable.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A Melbourne institution gets a new spring in its step.
Minus A muzak-style soundtrack dates the place.

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Flower Drum

17 Market La, Melbourne, (03) 9662 3655, www.flower-drum.com.
Licensed.
Cards AE DC MC V.
Open Mon-Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm; Sun 6pm-10.30pm.
Prices Entrées $10.50-$25; mains $19.50-$55; desserts $13.50-$16.50.
Vegetarian Four main courses.
Noise Comfortable.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A Melbourne institution gets a new spring in its step.
Minus A muzak-style soundtrack dates the place.

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