Flower Drum

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.

Flower Drum

17 Market Lane, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9662 3655

Le Traiteur

I’m sure you’ve had this feeling before. When you experience a place that’s just so damn good that you end up enraged that it’s not situated somewhere bang in the middle of your day to day doings, and end up stamping around shouting “Why is it so out of the way? Why can’t I just go there EVERY DAY?!” You may also start plotting to kidnap the chefs in order to ‘convince’ them to set up shop in your garage so you can stroll out in your pj’s every morning and get some decent coffee and eggs with no hassle. This is how I felt after visiting Le Traiteur for the first time. It is infinitely depressing that I’m ordinarily never over the Spencer end of the city, cos this place is damn special.

I dragged Muffin over to the legal district one Wednesday afternoon, gabbing (probably incoherently) about how I’d heard about this French-style cafe that was full of delicious breadstuffs. It’s an impressive set-up aesthetically: floor to ceiling windows, neutral shades on the walls, complimentary brown tiled floors and brown curved cane chairs, and it’s all dominated by the spick and span display cabinets filled to the brim with baguettes and pastries.

I couldn’t go past what seemed to be to be a highly refined yet simple lunch, the basil and tomato consomme with stilton agnolotti. Clear broth was absolutely swimming with basil leaves, cherry tomato halves, sprigs of fennel and tiny lengths of green beans. Three big, fat agnolotti floated on top – thin homemade pasta enclosing a generous filling of creamy, pungent stilton. The soup was served with three slices of chargrilled, sourdough bread, which was utterly fresh and palate engulfing; well, it was to be expected, seeing as Le Traiteur bakes all their bread on premises. All together it was a wholly refreshing meal, with the tiny bit of body provided by the agnolotti. It was really the most perfect light lunch.

Muffin had the artichoke and waldorf salad baguette: marinated artichokes, crisp cos lettuce, apple slices, celery, strong blue cheese, and what Muffin described as an amazingly creamy mayonnaise. She was also highly impressed with the wonderfully fresh taste of the bread.

We also shared a serving of pomme frites (because I cannot pass up potato, the will is not within me). These were deliciously savoury and crisp, sprinkled with big flecks of sea salt.

Over a pot of earl grey tea and a chai latte respectively, I shared with Muffin a small square of chocolate brownie. This was an absolute flavour bomb of chocolate decadence! It was so gooey, it melted as soon as it touched the tongue. I only wish we’d had more room in order to try some of the delicate pastries tempting us from the display cabinets (you could almost see a halo of butter shining out from the croissants, it was glorious) but, alas, we were full!

I’ve honestly been feeling through the writing of this post that even with my obvious effusiveness, I’m not getting across exactly how much I loved this place and how it may have ruined me for all other foodstuffs. Let’s put it this way: if I was placed into some kind of horrendous nightmare world where I was told by hideous overlords of space and time that I could only eat at one establishment for the rest of the universe’s existence, I’d reply with “Just hurry up and make with the Le Traiteur brownie, you jerks.”

Le Traiteur

552 Lonsdale Street

Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9670 0039

http://www.letraiteur.com.au/

Broadsheet Cafe

So today I was able to amble down to the temporary cafe that Broadsheet have set up in Crossley Street as a part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. I’d been hearing about the cafe for quite a while, seeing as Jess is a Broadsheet intern, and I even scored an invite to the opening night party, which I sadly had to decline as I couldn’t get out of work that night. Boo-urns!

The cafe is set up in a long, thin shop, with some tables and seating up front (including a bench made out of a long piece of blond-coloured wood stacked on about a billion copies of Broadsheet), with the imposing Synesso coffee machine glowering at you from up the back. The black walls inform you, through the white writing scritched on them, that the sandwiches are provided by EARL Canteen, the pastries by Baker D Chirico, and the macarons by LuxBite. Heading up this pretty fine looking list of contributors are a rotating range of coffee providers: Seven Seeds, Proud Mary, Market Lane, Dead Man Espresso, The Premises and Five Senses.

The usual suspects had presented themselves in order to investigate this temporary cafe venture – Jess, Emma, Claire and Bennett. The others had already scarfed down some sandwiches and were engaged in coffee and gossip by the time I shambled up, and one simply cannot face juicy workplace gossip on an empty stomach, so I went and got an EARL sandwich to fortify myself. I never quite got the full lowdown on what exactly was in it, but from what I could make out there was a lovely fat seam of egg salad, complimented with vibrant green baby spinach leaves and some delicately soft braised mushrooms. Being that Broadsheet Cafe are getting these sandwiches delivered by EARL and keep them in a fridge until you eat them, the quality is slightly less than you would get from a made-to-order one at EARL itself (the bread in particular seems to toughen up significantly from the cold of the fridge), but if you’re too far away from EARL to comfortably visit on your lunch break, this is an acceptable alternative in sampling some EARL goodness.

I also overcame my general distaste for coffee and actually ordered one – hey, I figured with all these fab coffee folks around even an avowed tea drinker like me would have to enjoy it! Also, I don’t think they were even offering any tea.

The coffee on offer was today provided by Market Lane. My mocha was definitely stacked fiercely on the side of coffee rather than chocolate; not being used to such a strong coffee I fairly gasped from the shock. But it grew on me a little by the end of the cup – a very earthy, almost harsh blend, but with a mellowing aftertaste. Still, don’t think I’m going to become a regular coffee drinker any time soon!

A delivery person arrived through the doorway with a giant pallet of macarons. Given the fact that Jess, Claire, Emma and my heads all swung simultaneously in order to follow the macarons’ path, it was collectively decided that us girls were going to have to sample them. Preceded by a brief crazy rant on my behalf on the differences in pronunciation between ‘macaron’ and ‘macaroon’ (“I used to get so angry when I’d hear goddamn food industry professionals say ‘macaROON’ on Masterchef, I’d end up throwing things at the TV. MACARON, people, dear god, is it so hard?!”), we had delivered to our table three creme brulee flavoured beauties, and a watermelon one.

I ended donating half my macaron to Bennett, who had somehow missed out on ordering one and was resorting to being a giant mooch. Breaking it in half meant that I kind of mooshed all the texture out of it, but flavour-wise it was quite lovely. I was particularly pleased that you could discern vanilla bean flecks in the ganache. Emma’s watermelon one was gorgeous, with one half being red, the other green. I’m very intrigued as to how watermelon would translate in macaron form… I’m going to have to go back and try one, aren’t I?

So all in all, a very interesting operation and well worth a visit. Be quick, though; Broadsheet Cafe will only be operating until next Monday the 14th of March. After that, you’ll just have to visit all these cafe superstars separately!

Broadsheet Cafe

24 Crossley Street, Melbourne CBD

http://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/food-and-drink/article/broadsheet-cafe-opens-friday

Horse Bazaar

It was a day where I was showering Muffin with a cavalcade of treats, as it was the first time I had seen her since her birthday. Earlier we had done post-birthday Brunetti’s coffee and cake, followed by post-birthday movie date (we saw Cairo Time at Nova – a heart burstingly gorgeous film, might show up on my end-of-year best of list if 2010’s movie crop doesn’t perk up considerably), and now it was time for post-birthday lunch!

I’d originally thought to take Muffin to Hardware Societe, but we arrived right in the middle of the lunch hour rush and there was not a free spot to be had. So instead we rambled around the corner to try out Horse Bazaar, on my behalf quite excitedly, as I’d read Easy As (Vegan) Pie’s effusive posts with great interest and was keen to try some super vegie noodles.

It’s quite an interesting space, I think the phrase Muffin and I came up to describe it was something akin to ‘stylishly unfinished’, and for one in the afternoon, it was criminally empty. I say criminally, because I think Horse Bazaar offers one of the most filling and fresh lunch options in the city.

We ended up ordering the noodles, the okonomiyaki and the vegetarian gyoza. I’ve been lucky to sample some pretty awesome okonomiyaki lately, what with this and Disco Beans’ examples. Horse Bazaar’s version is a much more traditional version that Disco’s Beans’ grain-filled ones, but where it really rises above the pack is the utter freshness of it. You can tell both by the vivid bright colours of the vegies and the amazing fresh smell that the vegetables had been grated up mere minutes before it appeared on the table in front of you. Absolutely lovely.

To the vegetarian gyoza. These are great and fresh as well, and absolutely loaded with ginger,which well pleased such unashamed ginger fanatics as Muffin and myself, but might be a tad too strong for those who are ginger leery. The sesame soy dipping sauce that accompanies them quite frankly drives me wild, I would probably chug it down by itself but for the fact that such behaviour tends to make one a dining pariah.

The vegie noodles is a pretty hefty and varied dish. It’s comprised of thick hokkien noodles, broccoli, carrot, beans, walnuts, a teriyaki-ish sauce, and what looked suspiciously like raisins until closer inspection revealed them to be tiny black beans. My relief at such a revelation caused this exchange:

“Thank goodness they’re beans! I can’t handle raisins in savory things, it’s too weird.”

“But what about savoury foods that traditionally have raisins in them, like Moroccan couscous?”

“I know it’s authentic, but it’s still too weird.”

Muffin responded with a raised eyebrow, which honestly I don’t blame her for it the slightest.

Like everything else we sampled, the noodles were fresh, very generously portioned, and just really damn good. All of my subsequent lunch visits have been equally as enjoyable, and I’d love to go back of an evening and seeĀ  how the venue is as an evening reveling spot. I honestly don’t know what else to say other than get on your pony and go!

Horse Bazaar

397 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9670 2329

http://horsebazaar.com.au/

Von Haus

This particular entry finds us celebrating Jen’s birthday. Hoorah! This meant only one thing: time to me to gift FOOD PRESENTS. In the form of a lunch at Von Haus!

I asked Jen to meet me on the steps of the State Parliament building. I had kept secret where we were going, resulting in a Jen who was a-bubble with excitement. “Where are we going, what’s over this side of town? Are we going to the European? Or maybe…”

“Hush, do not guess, you might hit on it and then ruin the surprise!”

Luckily Jen was very happily surprised once we arrived at Von Haus. It’s a beautiful little space, lots of dark wood tables and paneling, an exquisite fireplace lined with blue and white tiles, acres of wine bottles racked up all over the place. I think there might also be a courtyard out the back, but we didn’t venture out so I’m not sure how big it is. The best spot to sit inside, however, is right by the window so you can people-watch all the suits trotting up and down Crossley Street while sipping a nice red. Which is exactly what Jen and I did, accompanied by the dishes described as follows.

I had the pumpkin, cumin and sweet corn soup. The corn kernels had been left whole, which gave the soup an exciting texture, and also allowed it to avoid being too sweet, which I feel it would have been had the corn been blended through. It was like the soup was full of presents! Corn presents. It came with some lovely sourdough bread as well, and a thick slice of creamy butter. I think that’s why I love soup so much, it’s just a crafty excuse for bread.

Jen had the confit (I think confit is the right word, I’m not great with terms that pertain to meats) of duck, which was a crispy duck leg served with kifler potatoes, apple salad and a tangy vinaigrette. The duck was apparently quite nice, but what Jen waxed lyrical about were the potatoes, which looked ever so crispy, and went well with the vinaigrette (which I think was cider-based? Jen will let me know if I’m wrong).

Good food, good wine, comfortable setting, and sterling company. If you like all those things (well, you’ll have to bring your own sterling company, Jen is mine!), then you’ll adore Von Haus. I did.

Von Haus

1 Crossley Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9662 2756

Chocolate Buddha

Way back in August when the Melbourne International Film Festival was in full swing, I was struck down with illness right in the middle of my festival-attending schedule. To call it ‘illness’ doesn’t really express the gravity of what befell me. I was a mess: coughing, sneezing, shaking, flushing hot then cold, bleary brain fog and muscle fatigue. A whole lot of not pretty.

But I couldn’t retire to bed and bid the world ‘fie!’ forĀ  few days in order to recover. No, I had booked festival movies! Four movies in one day in fact, and another the day after, and I love movies even more than food, so I wasn’t going to let being near death stop me from seeing them. So I hobbled around, feeling as though my head were stuffed with the many tissues that my nose was flying through, and with such a ravaged throat that I was actually rendered mute. But hey, the films were great, so it was worth it? *health-conscious peanut gallery shakes heads grimly in unison*

On my second day of debilitating muteness, I met up with Jen and Zoe after seeing my lone scheduled film. Upon hearing me squeak and wheeze pathetically, they each grabbed an arm and frogmarched me to Federation Square. “We are getting you some soup.” said Jen grimly.

“Fortifying soup!” said Zoe.

” ‘O’p.” I croaked.

We ended up at Chocolate Buddha, which I hadn’t been to in YEARS. Bowing to my friends’ insistence that I have soup, I went with the Yasai Soba: soba noodles and deep fried silken tofu with snow peas, wakame, baby corn, spring onion, and menma in a vegetable stock with ginger, sesame and chilli oil. I had neglected to explain the fact that my illness had completely nullified my sense of taste, and was glumly anticipating not being able to actually taste my soup.

However, what actually occurred was that the soup was the first thing that succeeded in breaching the sickness blockade. A growing sensation of chilli broke through to spread over my tongue; I could have cried it made me so happy. And while I didn’t get too much taste other than the chilli seeping through, it allowed me to focus on appreciating the texture of everything in the soup instead. The silken tofu, which with its thin, crisp fried coating looked as if it had been transplanted from a bowl of agedashi tofu, was delectably smooth and melted gloriously in my mouth (the sign of truly great silken tofu!). There’s a nice balance between all the vegies and the noodles, too.

I wandered back to Chocolate Buddha a few weeks later in order to re-sample the Yasai Soba in a nose-clear, taste-reinvigorated state. The remembrance of the soup I’d had while sick had achieved near mythical levels of appreciation in my mind, and I wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just a product of being illness addled. Turns out sickly me hadn’t been far wrong – I couldn’t detect as much chilli as I had while sick, but a fully functioning palate revealed that the stock also has pleasing sesame overtones, and that tofu is just DIVINE. Truly one of the best uses of silken tofu that I’ve come across in a while.

Chocolate Buddha, as well as doing a nice soup, really is a lovely space to enjoy a meal in, and it seems that a lot of people are remembering that, it seems to be picking up again in popularity after a few years out of the spotlight. Being in Fed Square, it’s not cheap (my soba comes in at just under $20; to be fair it’s a damn big soup), but if you’re in the area and stumped for somewhere to fill you with something good and comforting, Chocolate Buddha should serve you well.

Chocolate Buddha

Federation Square (next to ACMI), Cnr Flinders and Swanston Streets, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9654 5688

http://www.chocolatebuddha.com.au/

Dumplings Plus

Finding ourselves in the city on a Sunday night before a music gig, The Boy, his friend Jan and myself were aimlessly wandering Swanston Street looking for a place to eat. Bereft of my handy dandy list of good food places, I was struggling to remember if I was in the vicinity of anything truly fabulous (I am dead useless without that list, I truly am).

Jan came to a shuffling stop at the corner of Lonsdale. “Are we heading anywhere in particular?” he asked.

I looked about, and my eye caught the frontage of Dumplings Plus. Something stirred in my mind. “Ooh, someone said that there is good!”

“Who?” asked The Boy.

I shrugged. “Someone on the internet.” I couldn’t remember who, still can’t.

“Good enough!”

Dumplings Plus is yet another of those cheap yet cheerful dumpling bars that proliferate the CBD (and I for one am terribly grateful for such proliferance). I was terribly keen on feeding my raving dumpling addiction, though was quite disappointed to note that there was only one veggie dumpling variety on offer, the chive dumplings. My disappointment was swiftly countered by the discovery of a dish called pan-tossed black fungus. Oh, black fungus, my most decadent fungi love, how I love to encounter you on menus. Our love affair is sadly infrequent and peppered with long absences, but when we come together, it is DYNAMITE.

When the waiter came to the table to take our order, I was extremely taken aback when, upon hearing me request the chive dumplings, he flatly said “Don’t get those, nobody likes those.” In a fluster (I’m not used to having my menu choices roundly trounced before I even get to try them), I quickly scanned the menu for something else vegetarian, opting for the hot and sour tofu as that was the first thing that caught my eye.

The boys ordered a veritable cornucopia of food between them: pork buns, Sichuan beef, a lamb soup with flat noodles, and a hefty serving of dumplings that The Boy later recalled as being “steamed and ambiguous”.

My hastily ordered hot and sour tofu, as it transpired, turned out to be a bowl of chilli-slicked soup crowned with a mountainous nest of crispy fried noodles. Underneath the noodles crowded a sea of silken tofu, chilli flecks and some crunchy little brown beans that I failed to be able to identify.

The broth was indeed both hot and sour; the crispy fried noodles provided me with much enjoyment, at least while they remained above the broth. The tofu was at that gorgeous mouth-melty consistency that I adore silken tofu for, and the little beans, well, they were entertaining in terms of texture. Unfortunately, the dish kind of soured (oh ho ho, Hayley, you are rolling in the funnies today) as I continued to eat it: once the noodles came in contact with the broth they un-crisped and became unpleasantly soggy very quickly. Soggy noodles got in the way of capturing more tofu, which was disintegrating in the broth by the time I started feeling ambivalent with the dish. In short, I got bored with it, and put it aside half-finished.

The tossed black fungus, however, held my attention as soon as it was placed in front of me. I was at first a little wary to discover it was actually a cold dish, as I’d only had cooked black fungus before, but the gorgeous things won me over, of course. It was essentially a black fungus salad, with the fungi mingling on the plate with curling sprigs of coriander, long slices of spring onions and diced chillies, all tossed with a dressing that I’m guessing was a mixture of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. Light, simple, and for someone who enjoys the rubbery little darlings, a great use of black fungus.

I didn’t interrogate the boys as to how they enjoyed their meal until after we’d left and were meandering to the gig. Their responses were brief yet illuminating. Jan enjoyed his Sichuan beef, and that was pretty much the only real positive either of them came out with. The Boy found his soup to be, like mine, full of disparate elements that ended up disappointing. The dumplings were deemed “okay”, the buns “average” (I’d figured this, having noticed that both ended up fleecing the buns of their meaty centres while leaving behind the very thick dough). The funny thing was, the more we discussed the experience, the lower our verdicts became. As The Boy summerised, “if mild contemplation can lessen one’s sentiment, then it probably wasn’t that good to begin with.”

So, Dumplings Plus, a resounding “meh” from the three of us. Probably worth popping into if you’re a fan of black fungus, but otherwise I’m not that fussed with returning.

Dumplings Plus

269 Swanston Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9663 8181