Welcome to a fancypants edition of Ballroom Blintz! Yes, it’s time to dust off your tiaras and straighten your monocles, we’re going classy with a visit to one of Melbourne’s most venerable dining institutions, the Cantonese mainstay Flower Drum.
Of course, being that this is not the kind of dining that the Blintz household indulges in on a regular basis, we had a very good excuse for such extravagance. My pop was turning 90 and, well, people just don’t turn 90 every day, so we all considered this a fine excuse to treat him to a deluxe version of his favourite cuisine (well, I’m actually not sure if it’s his very favourite, he’s always been very fond of dim sims, yet highly distrustful of anything with a high vegetable content).
The question I was hoping to get an answer to was this: was Flower Drum to be an exciting adventure for a vegetarian? Or was it to be a letdown for those not prone to being carnivorous? Come, intrepid travelers, let us discover the truth!
After getting over the excitement of the fact that we had to go up an escorted elevator to reach the dining room, which prompted my siblings and I to discuss how awesome it would be to have a job where all you had to do was press an elevator button (we are lazy people), we were then wowed by the restaurant space itself. It’s tastefully decked out, as one would expect, where each table is situated in a way to make it feel like you’re sitting in your own private alcove (although the noise emanating from the table closest to us that seemed to be full of boxers and/or wrestlers went someway to disturbing this sense of privacy).
As I kind of secretly expected was going to be the case, there definitely wasn’t a wide range of vegetarian items to choose from. While the rest of my family ended up going with one of the banquet options, I ordered the fried stuffed eggplant as an entree, followed by the braised vegetable claypot for my main.
The fried stuffed eggplant rested on a nest of crisp fried noodles, surrounded with a scattering of diced red and green capsicums. As soon as my teeth bit into the crispy, crumbed crust I was in heaven. The eggplant was perfect (and we all know how fussy I am with eggplant), all delicious fried goodness, and the noodles and capsicum all combined to heightened the dish rather than just being empty carbs and garnishes. I was highly impressed.
Next, the claypot of braised vegetables. Every mushroom under the sun seemed to be in this huge pot: oyster, shiitake, clouds of black and white fungus, those tiny rubbery ones that I always want to call champignons even though I know they aren’t. Some snowpeas and Chinese cabbage floated around in the tasty sauce as well, but this was clearly a dish for mushroom lovers. While I had great fun eating the mushroomy goodness and then subsequently soaking up the sauce with a bowl of white rice, I can’t say that this dish was anywhere near the impressive level of the eggplant, and at around $35 it’s definitely leaning towards the “far too pricey for something that’s a pretty standard” end of the spectrum.
For dessert I went for a more traditionally Chinese option with the sweet red bean soup with black sesame dumplings. The rest of the table, assuming that I was insane, all went for the fried ice-cream (which I suppose is also traditional in its own way). The sweet soup was just the sort of lovely, light thing I needed to finish the meal off. The black sesame dumplings were softly gelatinous, almost melt-in-your-mouth-ish, and the red beans were flavoursome (I still kind of freak out excitedly at dishes where beans are used as part of a sweet. It’s like the world’s gone deliciously topsy-turvy!). I also manged quite a few bites of the fried ice cream, as my family members were quite dramatically full by this point, and I have to say that it may have been the High God King of all fried ice creams. Quality oozed out of it, I say! Topped off with a pot of chrysanthemum tea and I was quite content.
Here’s the big question though: despite my mostly positive experience, would I wholehearted recommend Flower Drum as a good venue for a vegie? I think it would really depend if you were dining with omnivores or solely vegetarians. Because you seem to get a more full experience as an omni: my family were rendered practically speechless by the quality of their dishes (as I had been told by those who had already experienced its apparent magnificence, the stuffed garfish is apparently a dish so divine that wars will probably one day by started over it). Every dish in the omni banquet was greeted with gasps of delight, and the fact that my pop said it was probably the best meal he’d ever had in 90 years speaks for itself (he still left anything suspiciously vegetable-looking alone, bless him).
If your enjoyment on a night out hinges on your compatriots having a delightful time, vegies can take their omni friends to Flower Drum safe in the knowledge that they’ll have a blast while you still have some nice dishes to experience. If, however, you’re an entirely vegie group looking for a fancy time who would probably baulk extremely at seeing a whole suckling pig wheeled over to another table (seriously, I need a warning before shit like that happens!), Melbourne has plenty of other more vegie-centric options that would probably serve you better.
17 Market Lane, Melbourne CBD
Ph: 9662 3655