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Flower Drum

In a hospitality scene as ever-changing as Melbourne's, it's impressive when any venue manages to continue trading for longer than a few years. To be given the label 'institution' or 'iconic' is high praise indeed, since it is so hard to come by. Some might say Pellegrini's is a Melbourne institution (I don't love it myself), or perhaps The European, or a classic music venue like the Palais Theatre or the Espy. Rarer yet is an Asian restaurant afforded the title of a Melbourne 'institution'. And yet this is a badge that Flower Drum (17 Market Lane, Melbourne) has retained since its debut 40 years ago.

Flower Drum (also a traditional Chinese dance) was opened in 1975 by Gilbert Lau at a site on Little Bourke Street, aiming to bring quality Cantonese food to the Australian masses. Ten years later it moved to its current home, and head chef Anthony Lui was appointed. Lui remains head chef today, and in 2003 also became part-owner along with William Shek and Patricia Fung. Lui's son, also an Anthony, and manager Jason Lui have attempted to bring Flower Drum slightly more up-to-date with additions like a Facebook page and slight alterations to a long-standing menu. This year, Flower Drum celebrates its 40th year of trading.

After six years of hearing about it, I elected to visit Flower Drum for my birthday lunch, work crew in tow. On a dreary Friday in May, we slipped through Chinatown's laneways until the faded pink banner was in sight. Entering at street level, a concierge greets you and ushers you into the lift, elevating you to the restaurant one party at a time.

If the receiving staff member was uneasy about the T-shirts, jeans and baseball caps adorning my companions, he showed no sign of it. (I wore a nice dress.) This is, after all, a fine dining establishment in Melbourne, the reputation of which had preceded it. A dress code probably applied - but do they anymore, these days?

When we walked through the elaborately curtained entrance foyer and into the spacious main dining room, I was conscious that most other patrons were older, suited businessmen. And that all the round tables were far apart from each other.

The decor was unmistakably Chinese: red carpet, white tablecloths, gilded touches and demure-looking ladies in paintings and on the glassware. It was airy, elegant and impressive, but a little tired-feeling.

Barry, a distinguished older gentleman with an impressive sharp bowl haircut, seated us and proffered the most extensive wine list I have ever seen in my lift. It had an index. (Really.)

Apparently it is not the done thing at Flower Drum to order food off the a la carte menu, which we didn't know at the time. Fortunately, we are all rather lazy when it comes to selecting our food and so we requested that Barry choose for us anyway. With one of our party a non-seafood eater, Barry deftly proposed a menu whereby the rest of us could eat seafood but alternatives were also provided.

The food that then followed included:

Marinated jellyfish with sesame dressing

Three dumplings: crab meat, scallop, prawn 

Flower Drum's signature roast Peking duck pancake

Chicken with sichuan sauce

Fried rice 

150g grain-fed Angus beef eye fillet

Complimentary almond cake biscuits

My only request was the jellyfish: having spotted it on the menu and never tried it... well, I had to. It is basically flavourless (aside from the soy, sesame and chilli sauce), and the 'jelly' part is definitely accurate, but the texture, upon eating it, could only be described as crunchy. It's a very weird food that I would try again, but I'm still not sure I like!

The dumplings were classic and superb, and the signature duck pancakes were probably the best I have ever eaten. Lucky for us, we got two each. (Side note: did you know that plum sauce and hoisin sauce are the same thing? Neither did I!) The chicken and fried rice were both great, but the Angus beef was delectably tender and just amazingly cooked.

Although I have read that Flower Drum 'shook up' its menu several years ago - something it apparently hadn't done since its establishment - I still found the food extremely traditional. The menu does incorporate some local produce, including barramundi and wallaby tail, but it was not featured in our spread. Nonetheless, every single item that appeared on our table was immaculately selected, prepared and presented. Sauces were smooth and shiny. Meat was lean and tender. Everything was flavoured to perfection. Amazing quality? Absolutely. New and exciting wow factor? Mm, not so much.

The service from Barry and our entourage of other waiters was impeccable: polite, discreet, informative. I was impressed by the little preparation table located just next to ours, where food was first stationed, then divvied up and served from. This is a true hallmark of fine dining which I had not had the pleasure of enjoying before. We were given hot towels not once, but twice throughout the course of our meal - a refresher often underrated.

Although the decor could use a spruce-up, classical tradition and elegance are key here. It's all in the detail: the napkins are craned upon plates until you are seated, then they are rolled down and laid next to your fork. Your water glass is always magically full, and iced. No request for a menu or question about the food is too much work. There is a low hum of chatter, but nothing obtrusive. There is a sense of space, and calm. All of which makes it a very pleasant way to eat fine food.

Pricing is the elephant in the room. With a wall full of awards (literally) and a supreme reputation spanning its 40-year existence, plus its quality food and refined service, in my opinion, Flower Drum is probably justified in its prices. However, I was not the one footing the bill in this instance, and I would probably organise any future meals there well in advance so I could make sure I was well-funded going in! Having said that, I would absolutely go again.

We didn't specifically order dessert, but I did have a glass of Noble One to go with my almond cakes. A polished way to end a polished meal.

Flower Drum is a timeless Melbourne experience, but in this instance, the build-up probably lent itself to a slight let-down. Although I would recommend it, keep in mind this is still traditional Cantonese food in an old-school, fine dining restaurant.

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