I'm always surprised by the amount of people I come across who have never tried yum cha. Usually once they have, they're converted. It doesn't even have to be great yum cha. There's just something innately cool about being brought food on trolleys to choose from, then stuffing yourself silly, all for not-very-much-money. AND, you can drink if you want to! Bonus.
I've mentioned before that I was brought up on 'going out for Chinese' as a restaurant treat in Sydney. So, you could say I've been enjoying yum cha my whole life. In Sydney, we used to go to the Marigold in Chinatown (where the hostess would, without fail, pinch my chubby cheeks with pure delight), Mathew's Peacock Gardens in Crows Nest (reliable and traditional), or the Sea Treasure, also in Crows Nest (great for seafood, but came under fire at one point for inhumane treatment of its live seafood). All were great, and when I moved to Melbourne in 2009, I was keen to find a yum cha place that matched (or exceeded) my previous experiences.
Well. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Melbourne just does not do Asian food as well as Sydney. Don't get me wrong - I love Melbourne and its food, and yes, I know: there's an amazing food culture, and awesome places like Flower Drum, and Dandelion, plus many more, and all manner of great local restaurants. But, as well as having similarly revered venues, you are more likely to walk into a shitty corner takeaway store in Sydney and have the most amazing green curry, rice paper rolls, larb, Peking duck, sashimi or udon of your life, than you would in Melbourne. It's also likely that the Sydney store you walked into focuses on one type of cuisine, rather than serve pan-Asian cuisine to 'please' everybody - but which would more likely result in mediocre versions of each type of cuisine they're trying to incorporate.
So you can understand what a standard I'd set for myself when I began looking for good yum cha in Melbourne.
I did my research. David's in Prahran scored lots of mentions, as did Oriental Tea House in the city, Red Door in Windsor, and Golden Dragon Palace in Templestowe. Basically, they were all too far away, or on the wrong side of the river for me (I know, pissy excuse... but I don't have a car, orright!). So I ended up trying the closer-to-home East Imperial in Carlton, which was fantastic but rather pricey, and Dragon Boat Palace on Lonsdale Street in the city, which has become my staple Melbourne yum cha venue thus far. It's huge, central, and it used to have an 'all you can eat' yum cha price (around $22 per head) - but I don't believe they do that anymore.
When my sister was in town last weekend, I wanted to take her to a different yum cha place than Dragon Boat, which we'd been to together before. So, next on the tryout list was the Shark Fin Inn (50 Lt Bourke Street) in the city, described as a classic - even slightly retro - yum cha restaurant. Being at the top end of Little Bourke, it was easy to find, and our table was booked for upstairs. It's plain and a bit dark, but there are a few red and gold decorations, and I liked how the restaurant name was engraved on the chopsticks (in both English and Chinese):
The staff were friendly and patient in explaining the dishes. Being a table of five girls, including one fructose-intolerant eater, we veered more towards the steamed foods and less fried or onion-y. It was all of a consistently good standard.
|Prawn & chive dumplings|
|Pork & peanut dumplings|
|Shumai (pork & prawn) dumplings|
|Prawn & scallop thingies|
We managed to save room for dessert (my favourite part of yum cha because I love coconut jelly beyond what words can describe):
|Egg custard tarts|
|Coconut jelly !!!!!!!|
When I posted this next picture to check us in on Facebook, a friend saw the restaurant we were at and chastised me for giving my custom to a venue that supports shark finning, even indirectly:
Of course, he has a valid point. 'Shark Fin Inn' is a pretty shocking restaurant name considering it directly references a delicacy only obtained through an horrific practice. I don't know much about the whole thing (find out more here) and I didn't see shark fin listed on the menu, but I assume it is or has been served there, since it's the only food included in the venue's name. Despite a pleasant meal at Shark Fin Inn, for that reason I intend to explore other yum cha venues in future. Even if it means less coconut jelly in my life.