Restaurant Reviews

Review: Melbourne's Flower Drum remains a lesson in how to do a restaurant right

With impeccable service, a mastery of Cantonese cooking and one of the greatest restaurant entrances in Australia, the Melbourne institution does all the classics without the stasis.

By Michael Harden
The dining room at Melbourne's Flower Drum.
The lift is new. It's also relatively fast, shaving nearly 20 seconds from the once epic/alarming duration of the journey from Flower Drum's entrance lobby to its first-floor dining room. The old elevator's lengthy drumroll may have been shortened but nothing can diminish the reveal. That first view of Flower Drum's grand, warm-hued dining hall, busy with formally-clad waiters and lavish with shimmering lacquered surfaces and sculptural flower arrangements, its round white-clothed tables scattered across the space like water lilies on a pond of lush red carpet, is one of the all-time great opening scenes of Australian dining.
The view from the lift is enough in itself to remind you of the enjoyable drama of great restaurants, but there's also the joy of being looked after by a properly professional team led by Jason Lui, son of chef Anthony Lui and, with his dad, now sole owners of the Drum. The service is impeccable, from discreetly topped up glasses and timely attention that's never intrusive to the delightful series of animals (cat, giraffe, duck, crab) drawn tableside onto the plate with sweet-salty plum sauce to accompany the 45-year-old restaurant's deservedly famous Peking duck, all crisp, fatty and shiny-skinned in its soft pancake wrapping.

The menu is as epic as the setting. Taking classic Cantonese as a touchstone and a jumping off point, the list ranges from cold starters like crunchy-slippery marinated jellyfish glistening with sesame dressing to signature pearl meat sautéed to exquisite glossiness with spring onions, garlic chives and (in season) asparagus. There are crisp-fried pork ribs lolling in a pile of crunchy garlicky rubble and jiaozi (a semi-transparent pork and chive dumpling) good enough to make the unwary teary.
A banquet at Melbourne's Flower Drum.
The Flower Drum menu retains much-loved favourites but is not static. Recent additions to add to the must-have list? A gloriously-textured parcel of egg tofu with scallop and prawn meat, wrapped in a Chinese broccoli leaf and dressed with oyster sauce, and a take on the Scotch egg where a dark-hued century egg is encased in a mix of quail meat and water chestnut, then crumbed and fried.
The wine list leans classic, wisely choosing a supporting role to the food. It strikes the right balance, much like everything else in this beautifully, meticulously maintained fine diner.
A new bar will add another string to the bow of this institution that remains one of Melbourne's great lessons in how to do a restaurant right.