Wednesday 19 March 2014

Golden Dragon Palace

363 Manningham Rd, Templestowe Lower, VIC 3107
Golden Dragon Palace on Urbanspoon
For an Australian city, Melbourne enjoys the luxury of choice when it comes to yumcha - from the city centre to the suburbs. There are many articles and blogs written about where one can get the best yumcha in town. The thing about yumcha is that it is pretty tricky to compare for a number of reasons which I will discuss in the Cultural Moment section. What I was curious about is why is this place only a 77% on Urbanspoon?

The Place
This is a stand-alone building with undercover parking under the building and more round the back. The interior is darker than your average Chinese restaurant and the dimness and full blast air conditioning makes it a rather cold place.

There is an element of Chinese charm in the decorations, with interesting pieces of sculpture situated along parts of the restaurant. The fact that it has walled off the toilet section is good and there's quite a bit of space between tables which is useful, so you don't feel crammed in with other diners. They also have high chairs which is good.

Things to do nearby: Localised shopping centre but not much else around here.

The Food
They offer the full range of yumcha dishes but the highlights for me here include; Pork Spare Ribs (quite possibly the best I have had (for me) in Melbourne, with a great balance of flavours), Beancurd Pork Rolls, and Sui Kow (Prawn and Pork Dumpling). The Squid Tentacles here are also pretty good but order it and eat immediately - don't let it cool down too much. These four highlights really made my dining experience here more than any of the other dishes.
Pork Spare Ribs - half eaten before I remembered to take the photo

From the top - clockwise - Beancurd Pork Rolls (2 lots because they were YUM),  Har Kow (Prawn Dumplings), Ham Sui Kok (Glutinous Pork Dumpling), Yee Chee Kow (Sharkfin Dumpling which is so called because it is shaped like shark fin - doesn't actually contain shark fin). It is also worth mentioning that this is possibly the only place in Melbourne that serves the Salted Egg Custard Bun, which has a sweet bun encasing salted egg custard - a very nice way to finish the meal.

Salted Egg Custard Bun
Mushroom and Seafood
They also have the biggest bowls of congee at Yumcha that I have had in Melbourne. Most places have smaller serving sizes. So, having one by yourself can be a bit much. One of the challenges here in this establishment is how cold the air conditioning gets. It is great when you first stepped in from the heat outside in summer. However, the downside is that, the food cools down to room temperature really quickly as well. This was one of the first things I noticed. So, if you are part of a crowd that likes to order many dishes and then slowly pick away at the dumplings - it is likely that you are going to be eating some cold dumplings.

Sui Kow and Chicken Siu Mai
The Service
Firstly, they need a much much much better queue system. It can be the source of angst and a bad first impression. There are many who do not queue who speak Cantonese and others who are regular visitors. Somehow, this is a place of who is pushiest and loudest wins. They really need to fix this. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the 77% on Urbanspoon - not that they would care if their pushy customers keep coming back and battle it out in Cantonese while other diners get put off and just complain on Urbanspoon.

The assumption of the place is that you know what you are ordering. The wait staff are not great at explaining the dishes. For those of us who know the dishes, it is a lot smoother and easier to navigate. This place is clearly set up for the familiar yumcha officionados and not for beginners (for whom this would be somewhat overwhelming). Other than that, service is actually not too bad and better that some of the places in town. A few of the waitstaff are also very attentive once you say, "Thank You!" and give them that very rare smile.

I would go again but I would book in advance and avoid queueing angst. Even then, people jump ahead to say they have booking loudly ahead of you anyway. It's a place that I'd go to once in a while for particular dishes. Not going to be a regular here for me, but the occasional visit for something different.

Cultural Moment
What does best yumcha mean? To me, that's very difficult to judge because so many elements have to come to bear and most places are great at some elements but seldom all of them at once. In addition, every individuals or group of diners have different preferences about how these elements should be presented. What are these elements?

Steam or Fried: Some people prefer the steamed offerings while others go for the deep fried dishes. When you have too much of one and not enough of the other, you lose the balance. In addition, some places do great steam dishes but have overly greasy fried dishes. Others do great lightly fried dishes but their steamed dishes are not great. It's all a bit subjective.

Vessel and Content: The art of dim sum is very much a balance of the vessel (skin) and the meat/veg (content). The skin is such an important part for old school traditional yum cha lovers, where it needs to be delicate and still be able to hold the content. It should also have great texture that helps highlight the contents but not overpower it. For many other diners, the skin is just a vessel and they might judge the dishes on the tastiness of the protein inside alone.

Everyone knows what dimsims are: But no one can agree on what it should taste like. It's like Spaghetti Bolognese - how many versions are there and how many "Best SpagBol in the World" are there? This romanticised idea of the best siu mai, har kow or even pork spare ribs (see above), is just that - an idea that is dear to the person who proclaims it, and sometimes, makes little sense to anyone else.

Meat for Vegetarians: Yumcha can be a real nightmare for vegetarians. Some places do great vegetarian dim sums but many places struggle because withouth specialising in vegetarian cuisine, there's only so much you can do with beancurd, beancurd skins, mushrooms and Chinese broccoli. If you are gluten free, this will be even more difficult.

Yumcha Service: Yumcha service in Hong Kong is pretty gruff, not something many non-Hong Kong diners would appreciate. There is no time for you to sit there and consult the whole table about whether you should order a particular dish and go through every single dish in the cart and check with everyone. Yet - there needs to be a better way of explaining what the dishes are - not like one particular place in town where every dish is explained as "SEAFOOD DUMPLING". At least make some effort. Some people think this is part of the charm, others take serious offence to this.

Seating: Where are you seated and are you getting enough attention and where along the journey of the carts (from the kitchen) are you placed? Some places have their cart operators move all in one direction, so if you are at the end of that journey - you constantly get room temperature dishes and 'leftovers'. Then you have to order dishes. Others are better at managing the circuit... this is why if I am hungry at Cocktail parties with Finger Food, I usually stand at the point where waiters enter with the food - but I digress. Even placement, can have an impact on your experience in one restaurant.

Wine and Tea: Most understated in the whole experience but really important to me is the variety and quality of the teas served. After all, Yumcha translates to "Drinking Tea". The teas offset and balances out the meal and represent a crucial part of the experience for me. It is integral to the whole ritual and if all you have is cafe grade jasmine tea - that's a fail for me even if you have the 'best siu mai'. In Australia, people have wine at Yumcha - WHY? Because they can and so, for some people, the matching of wine of the dim sims becomes important but because this is not traditional practice, the ability of restaurants to match the wines on offer to Yumcha styke dishes can be rather questionable.

So, from my point of view, finding the best Yumcha for you can be a rather personal experience, which is ironic given that Yumcha is inherently a group experience. That's why the idea of proclaiming the BEST YUMCHA is a somewhat difficult thing to do. So, what do you do? TRY MANY and TRY A LOT. Enjoy Yumcha.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant Footscray

 118 Hopkins St., Footscray, VIC 3011
Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant on Urbanspoon
I want to start by apologising for not posting the last few weeks. I have been busy. However, this weekend, I took time out from being busy and went to an old favourite in Footscray, with my parents. I have not been here since I started this blog. So, I was looking forward to seeing if this joint stood the test of time. Being one of only 2 places in Footscray that serves this style of cuisine, it runs the risk of being complacent in terms of food quality and standard but this is not the case here.

The Place
It is not a huge space and so, like many Chinese places, it does cramp diners together a little bit during busier times. It has been around a long time and so the place feels very used and the once really nice paintings on the walls are now plastered with pieces of paper highlighting various items on the menu (in Chinese) - WHY? I love those paintings but you have to agree the colourful pieces of paper adds absolutely no charm to them!

When it starts to get busy, there's a natural hum and buzz and they keep people flowing in and out really quickly (more about this later). Despite the limitations, it maintains the place relatively cleanly and even has high chairs for toddlers and somehow manage to accommodate the supersized prams that some punters pushed into the space (when I was there).

Things to do nearby: This is in the heart of Footscray and across the road from Footscray Market

The Food
The food has indeed stood the test of time and continues to be very authentic and pleasing. I really think it has one of the best Siu Yok (Crispy Roasted Pork) and Char Siew (BBQ Pork) in Melbourne. The Siu Yok is really crispy and they even cut it up in relatively small pieces, as they do in most of Asia (unlike most similar places in Melbourne where they give you huge chunks of meat). The Char Siew is sweeter and salty and nicely caramalised.

Half eaten by the time I remembered to take a photo
We also ordered Seafood Combination Crispy Noodles, which was quite fishy but the noodles were excellent and the sauce was really tasty (thanks to some MSG). I have had many dishes here over the years and this place knows it's South Chinese (Cantonese) cuisine. They do it well and they seem to be consistent over the years.

The Service
Sorry - bad photo!!
Are you a Cantonese speaker? If you are, you will probably find the service very very passable. If not, you are more likely to receive somewhat brusque and 'rustic' service. I am trying to be positive mostly because I honestly believe that the service here is better than many many similar such places in Melbourne, where they don't even make an effort. Here, they even do the very correct thing of bringing out bowls of their free soup to ask if you would like one. Of course, the service level declines once they have a big crowd and English ability becomes more strained under pressure and if you speak too slowly, softly or uncertainly, you might be met with an impatient response (because they have to get to the next diner). I know that sounds awful, but I know they have the potential to actually engage when they are less stress. I have been to other places where you might be the only diner and still get ignored!

This visit reminded me that I should make an effort to come back more often (but only during less busy periods). I am already planning this because I dream of Siu Yok!

Cultural Moment
Footscray is a multicultural mixing pot with so many varied cultures coming together and interweaving in public spaces. For some, such diversity can be confronting but for most people here, there is at worst, tolerance and at best, celebration through cross-cultural interactions and a distinct lack of political correctness.

What do I mean by this? Well, from my interactions in this space and watching others go about their business, it seems that people don't feel they have to be anything other than themselves in Footscray and expect others to be the same and no less. The interactions seem genuinely authentic and raw; The brusque Cantonese waitperson is brusque to everyone, even Cantonese speakers (just that their conversation is longer and louder); The rough (really rough) guy looking to score, is generally truculent to everyone of every race and makes no differentiation and all avoid him; The proud Sudanese woman with her amazing extensions is pushing her pram while talking loudly to everyone in the same tone, whether it's her friend or the grocer; The old Vietnamese lady selling vegetables from her garden in the street corner, speaks animatedly in Vietnamese, about her produce to a punter. They all cross each other's path and I don't detect anyone making significant adjustments to their behaviour. Yet, it all works because I believe there is a general acceptance that you are what you are and your culture is part of you, and as much as I want to keep my culture intact, you have the right to do so too. This doesn't mean there's no judgement though, but I think they keep that quiet. Yet, it all works somehow because people don't seem to feel a need to tell others how they should all be the same... perhaps, that's why it works on a Saturday morning in Footscray.