HOT: Gorski & Jones, 304 Smith St, Collingwood

I’ve been eye off the maroon meat slicer in the window of Gorski & Jones since it opened about 2 months ago. It’s a big, shiny, impressive beast atop a long white marble bar and it announces the restaurant’s Italianate roots with no need for dinky red gingham tablecloths and an accordian player.

Gorski & Jones is a handsome establishment serving rustic, affordable comfort food from the folks behind Alimentari (By the way, what is with restauranteurs in the inner north expanding to another restaurant in the same suburb? That’s three reviews in a row now where that’s happened. Next thing you know Andrew McConnell will be opening another resto in Fitzroy…..Wait! The Builders Arms has been bought by McConnell and will reopen in its revamped glory in April 2012.)

The space has high ceilings, a long narrow expanse of burnished mirror on both sides, exposed brick walls and those ubiquitous industrial lampshades and it manages to be spacious and light while exuding warmth and cosiness at the same time.

The back courtyard is particularly inviting being amongst greenery and quiet and they are getting planning permission for streetside tables as well.

The kitchen is half open, half behind the wall and there’s a glorious wood-fired oven taking pride of place. The pantry is piled on shelves in open view so they have nothing to hide – fresh ingredients are core to their cooking.

First thing to note is that the complimentary bread at Gorski & Jones is amazing. Unlike any sort of ciabatta I’ve ever had, it had the lightest and thinnest of crusts (almost to the point of being filo-pastry like) while still having a substantial crunch. As we arrived at almost the start of dinner service the bread came to our table still warm from the oven. Ask nicely for seconds!

The menu is divided into antipasto, entrees, mains, sides and desserts. As we were in a hurry we went straight for the extremely well-priced main dishes – the fish of the day of medium-seared tuna with caponata, a risotto with spanner crab, lemon oil and fennel ($26) and roasted and stuffed spatchcock with quinoa salad ($30) – all accompanied with a side of classic caprese salad ($6).

When our dishes arrived we were impressed with the generous servings and fresh and vibrant presentation of all our dishes.

The fish was cooked perfectly (nothing worse than a dry hunk of tuna steak) and the lively scent of the basil pesto and salty caponata gave the fish a huge flavour kick.

The risotto was declared by D to be ‘one of the best risottos I’ve ever tasted’. Light, yet full of flavour, each grain of rice was just the right texture and not drowned in the richness of butter or cheese.

Wood-roasted meats have a particularly salivating aroma and this spatchcock was no exception. The tunnel-boned, extremely juicy bird was paired with a refreshing pyramid of quinoa, tomato, parsley and red onion. Filling without being heavy and rich.

Our side salad could not have been any better – torn mozzarella, juicy ripe tomatoes and freshly picked basil drizzled with olive oil and with a smattering of salt and cracked pepper.

From the dessert menu I wanted to try the tiramisu ($10) but it couldn’t be taken away as it’s already presented in crystal glasses. Never mind, I’ll definitely be returning to Gorski & Jones. It’s a good value local restaurant with food that makes my stomach growl for more.

For more beautiful photos of this delicious food, check out Melbourne Food Files and Two Munch.

Gorski & Jones, 304 Smith St, Collingwood +61 3 9417 7779

Gorski & Jones on Urbanspoon

HOT: Giant Steps Innocent Bystander Winery, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

A sunny weekend saw us taking a trip out to the Yarra Valley, armed with a recommendation for lunch at Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander.

Unlike most of the other wineries in the Yarra Valley, Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander isn’t located on an expansive piece of green land – it’s just a straight turnoff from the Maroondah Highway into the carpark. The huge steel building is hard to miss, particularly as it’s located in the same vicinity at the White Rabbit Brewery and an outpost of Beechworth Bakery.

The website describes Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander as a ‘grown-ups’ playground’ and it’s a very apt description for the complex. Under one roof you’ll find a bright, buzzy bistro, a bakery and patisserie, a temperature controlled cheese room and cheese tastings at the counter, a coffee roastery and a selection of gourmet provisions for sale.

As a result of the many activities happening under this cavernous space, just be aware that it is very noisy. The concrete interior bounces all of the music, chatter and sound of kids running around to quite high levels.

The bistro menu covers tapas, pizzas, non-pizza main courses with a comprehensive selection of sides, kids dishes, breakfast, baked goods and desserts thrown in the mix.

After watching the pizza-maker working the organic sourdough dough with his well-practised elegant economy of movement and show-stopping throwing technique, our table of 6 decided to share five pizzas and two salads for lunch.

Very quickly we received  our pizzas on ceramic pizza stones 
– roasted 
eggplant, 
barrel-
aged 
feta, 
red 
peppers
 and parsley ($21), roast 
mushroom,
 asiago, 
black
 truffle 
oil, 
roasted 
garlic and 
parsley ($23), spicy 
pork 
sausage, 
buffalo
mozzarella,
 San Marzano
 tomato and chilli
 ($23), Calabrese
 salami,
 San
 Marzano 
tomato, 
oregano
 and 
buffalo 
mozzarella
 ($24) and prosciutto,
 San
 Marzano 
tomato, cravero 
parmesan and parsley ($24), plus two bowls of iceberg, 
witlof
 and 
chive 
salad
 ($8.50).

 The mark of good pizza is the base and these bases were thin yet held the toppings well and had been wood-fired to bring a hint of smokiness. Everyone agreed that the roast mushroom pizza was particularly outstanding. Earthy, juicy mushrooms enhanced by the heady twin aromas of truffle oil and garlic and topped with melted cheese – a culinary perfect match.

For dessert we each had a spoonful of the bread and butter pudding. It was a huge bowl of wintery comfort food satisfaction for just $10.50 and was made with french pastry, marsala soaked sultanas and vanilla bean custard.

My only complaint was that the custard had split by the time the dish arrived at our table. It didn’t affect the taste but seeing a pool of oil in the pudding (and knowing it was going in my stomach shortly) wasn’t very appealing.
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While individually the prices of each pizza were high (when you compare it to say Ladro, Queen Margaret or Espressino), our total bill plus a beer/soft drink per person only divided to $30 a head. A bargain I think for the quality and quantity of food.

If after your meal you’re still up for wine tastings it is available everyday between 10am and 6pm and  if you dine in the bistro you’ll receive 10% discount off any take-home wine purchases. You can take also winery tours daily at 11am and 3pm.

Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, 336 Maroondah Highway, Healesville +61 3 5962 6111

10am to 10pm weekdays
8am to 10pm weekends & public holidays

Giant Steps / Innocent Bystander Winery on Urbanspoon

HOT: WLG Wellington Pop-up Restaurant, 153 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

For the last week I’ve been watching the corner of Gertrude and Napier Streets with interest.

WLG stamped on the walls. Brightly coloured metal chairs lining long tables on the pavement. A dude with an enormous 19th century handlebar moustache working the tables.

The answer? The WLG Wellington pop-up restaurant has landed in Melbourne to occupy salon/bar Rue de Fleurus for 2 weeks only, from 15 November to 27 November.

WLG Wellington pop-up restaurant is a tourism marketing campaign for the city of Wellington, New Zealand. It aims to showcase Wellington’s finest locally sourced produce, wines from neighbouring wine regions, restaurants, cafes and hospitality faces beyond a glossy travel agent brochure, by bringing a slice of the Wellington experience straight to our doorstep.

Tickets for the $35 three course dinner have been selling like hot cakes and in-the-know Melburnians have been clamouring for the 50 or so walk-in spots as well. I was lucky enough to be invited to sample the restaurant thanks to Positively Wellington Tourism.

Wellingtonian chefs, sommeliers and hospitality staff have been brought over especially for the pop-up restaurant’s two-week duration. The 3 course menu has been devised with their input – there’s a taste from each chef in the starters tasting plate and a main course choice by each chef ranging from fish to meat to vegetarian. Everything has been brought over from across the sea – even the award-winning Antipodes drinking water.

Your dinner starts with a shared tasting plate to which each chef has contributed.

Tick off the following:

Manuka salt cured lamb shortloin with  beetroot, walnut and balsamic salsa;

Grilled Marlborough scallops, celeriac puree and pancetta crumbs;

Fried goat’s cheese balls with Manuka honey and Kiwi chutney;

Maple syrup smoked Regal King Salmon with horseradish creme fraiche and tiny capers (the highlight for me); and

Pig’s cheek ‘schnitzel’ with roast lemon chutney.

From the choice of five mains I choose  the the pan-fried Cook Strait groper atop a large dollop of lemon potato puree with baby herb salad and crispy fried white bait with preserved lemons by Tom Hutchinson (Capitol) while D had slices of perfectly judged Horopito-seasoned beef with slow-roasted tomato, potato fondant and green beans by Rex Morgan (Boulcott Street Bistro). The other chefs involved are Shaun Clouston (Logan Brown), Jacob Brown (The Larder) and Terry Lowe (Black Barn Restaurant and Vineyard).

For dessert we tried to the two dessert options. The Whittaker’s Dark Chocolate Pavé with fresh raspberries, Manuka honey cream and damson plum coulis was the ubiqutious ‘something chocolate’ on the menu and we both agreed that the Licoricello pannacotta with vodka lime parfait and pistachio wafer was a more exciting dish.  I particularly loved the texture of the pannacotta – smooth, silky and not a hint of rubber at all, plus the sharp hit of 42 Below vodka.

The hospitality staff have been pulled from various Wellington establishments and service is very smooth when you consider that the staff are working together for the first time.

As a marketing and awareness campaign, the WLG Wellington pop-up restaurant is smart and it works. The food is delicious. The wine is delicious. The atmosphere is young and fun and the guy with the handlebar moustache turned out to be our friendly waiter for the night (and can be found at Duke Carvell’s Swan Lane Emporium back home). Who knew that Wellington could be a gastronomic travel destination?

Plus only after dining at WLG Wellington Pop-up Restaurant was I aware that Wellington was only 3 hours away from Melbourne (and Sydney and Brisbane) and considered by Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2011 to be the coolest little capital in the world – two facts emblazoned on the dining room wall in front of me.

Tickets have sold out but there are walk ins available each night and unreserved outdoor seating. Just go!

WLG Wellington Pop-up Restaurant (taking over Rue de Fleurus for a two-week period) 153 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne
Tuesday 15 November – Sunday 27 November 6pm til late. Closed Mondays

 

HOT: Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Level 1 Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne

Out of all the dining venues in Federation Square, my favourite is the Transport/Taxi/Transit complex.

Transport is great for a quiet riverside drink (though it can get rowdier on weekends), I often take visitors to experience the slick food and expansive Yarra views at the high-end Taxi restaurant and we even arranged our post-wedding drinks at Transit.

A few months ago Taxi introduced the Bento Lunch, a more accessible way to try their Japanese inspired fine dining menu. For $45 you receive a meal consisting of four separate courses of sushi/sashimi, a soup, a main course and dessert. It’s bento without the actual bento.

I was invited to sample the Bento Lunch and was most impressed with the quality of the produce and the startlingly fresh flavours.

The lunch commenced with a platter of super-fresh salmon, tuna and alfonsino (a deepwater fish I’d never tried before) served with a sinus-clearing hit of freshly grated wasabi. So different from the insipid green toothpaste you often get served.

The soup course was a salmon miso soup with wakame seaweed and shimeji mushrooms. I don’t tend to get very excited by soup – I can take it or leave it (and most of the time I leave it, just takes up room unnecessarily in the stomach). However, this light broth had a very rich flavour as the soup stock had been made with ground salmon bones. Loved the slithery little mushrooms as well.

The main course offered two choices – snapper or pork belly. I chose the sticky pork belly with seared scallops and a spicy red nam jim sauce. I loved the strong flavour combination in this dish but the pork belly lacked the crisp crackling that I really love about the cut. On the other hand, the snapper with red pepper essence and crumbed mussels presented a very crispy skin.

Dessert was a lineup of three sorbets – mandarin, green tea and passionfruit and coconut. I particularly loved the punchy freshness of the mandarin scoop.

The Taxi Bento Lunch is offered seven days a week and is available with a changing menu right up till Christmas. It’s not your everyday grab-a-quick-bite-in-your-lunch-hour option but it is a great opportunity to try out Taxi at a cheaper price point. The service, views and food are all top rate – who needs to know you only paid $45 for it?

For other bento-style lunch options around town, check out Yu-u, Nobu and Matteo’s.

Bento Lunch, Taxi Dining Room, Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Melbourne +61 3 9654 8808

Taxi Dining Room on Urbanspoon

HOT: Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy

The Town Hall Hotel is a handsome gastropub where you can expect fine dining quality of food and service, without having to wear your best frock or bear the fine dining prices.

The bistro menu has a heavy Italian focus and spans small, medium and large plates to cater for any appetite (they also have a sharing bar menu). A particularly good deal is their lunch special available Tuesday to Saturdays – 2 courses (with items mostly from the a la carte menu), a glass of wine and coffee for $35.

We visited for lunch on a weekday and were greeted warmly by the waiter. There were only a few diners so service was very attentive, with water glasses filled, orders promptly taken and crumbs and plates cleared.

A friend had recommended their amazing gnocchi so W ordered a medium dish of gnocchi with a simple sauce of aged balsamic, butter and parmesan ($20). D also ordered a medium dish of seafood taglierini ($25) while I went the full hog with the two course lunch special, selecting a sweet corn risotto with quail and crispy pancetta and a raspberry and vanilla cassata for dessert.

The gnocchi lived up to expectations – soft pillows that melted in your mouth with the texture of marshmallow rather than potato and flour. Can anyone tell me what the trick is for such featherlight dumplings?

The pasta was equally simple but well-executed – a seafood melange tossed in a classic olive oil, garlic and chilli mix served over delicate, al dente pasta.

My risotto was perfect – a smooth porridge-like consistency while still retaining the bite of individual rice grains. The dessert was very berry sweet and very cold, a perfect way to appreciate the warm Spring weather on the day.

I’ve also had dinner at the Town Hall Hotel before, when the dining room was much busier, but I think I actually prefer the quieter ambience of the lunchtime. Either way, it’s a refined yet relaxed gastropub that’s worth a visit.

Town Hall Hotel, 166 Johnston St, Fitzroy +61 3 9416 5055

Town Hall Hotel on Urbanspoon

HOT: High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne

I can think of no better way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon than in front of an open fireplace drinking tea. Better still, drinking tea, eating cakes and lounging around reading an Evelyn Waugh novel.

I recently indulged in my perfect rainy-day afternoon scenario with High Tea at the Lobby Lounge of The Westin Hotel. The Lobby Lounge is on the ground floor of the hotel and is a space set apart from the main reception marked by leather lounges, an open fireplace and bookshelves. It’s quiet enough to read a book and the leather bucket seats are just right for sinking into.

The Westin is all about contemporary glamour and so their high tea is a modern take on the traditional afternoon tea. For $45 ($55 including a flute of Chandon NV Brut) you receive unlimited tea or coffee plus sweet and savoury morsels presented on a sleek tiered platter reminiscent of a vintage drinks trolley. The teas from Jing Tea range from black, green, white and herbal infusions and I tried the White Peony tea and the whole rosebuds. Each pot would normally cost $7 so if you really like drinking tea then unlimited tea is good value!

Tier 1 contained two scones – original and cranberry and raisin. They were quite crusty on the outside and I feared that they might be dry but in fact they were light and fluffy inside. Not the best scones I’ve ever had but nice enough with jam and cream.

Tier 2 held the savoury bites and they weren’t just the standard cucumber sandwiches. First up, smoked leg ham, brie and semi-dried cherry tomato in a black olive and parmesan ciabatta. A mouthful of a description and a delicious mouthful too. The smoked chicken with apple and walnut compote filling was a little tasteless in comparison, though I did like the crunchy sunflower seeds in the polenta bun. To round out the savouries, a teensy smoked salmon tart and a classic crustless sandwich of egg mayonnaise and watercress.

Tier 3 was a colourful array of sweet delights. I liked the pastry of the vanilla marscapone and fresh fruit tart and the lemon tart but the pistachio macaron was too sticky and wet in texture. The two chocolate desserts – a chocolate creme brulee and black forest slice – were a really decadent end to the afternoon tea and I could feel myself dozing over my book as the sugar coma took hold.

I enjoyed The Westin’s contemporary take on high tea and it’s a nice pit stop after some city shopping. High tea is served on weekends from 12-4pm and bookings are recommended as there are only five tables in the Lobby Lounge.

Love afternoon tea? You can also try The Langham and Stranger’s Corridor.

High Tea at Lobby Lounge, The Westin, 205 Collins St, Melbourne +61 3 9635 2222
Lobby Lounge (at the Westin) on Urbanspoon

HOT: Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy

The pizzeria Queen Margaret is not named as a reference to QEII’s sister, but to Queen Margherita of Savoy, the first Queen of the united Italy and for whom the magherita pizza was named.

Queen Margaret boasts eighteen (!) pizza varieties on its chalkboard menu, spearheaded by not just one but three riffs on the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil margherita pizza.

My Italian friend tells me that the only way to judge a pizzeria is by its margherita, but I’m actually not such a fan of it myself so I’ll leave someone else (namely Melbourne Gastronome, who was sitting at the next table) to report back on the comparative qualities of the three margheritas.

Instead, our table of three ordered three pizzas – Sock it To Me (tomato, hot salami, mozzarella, olives, roasted peppers $17), Easy Tiger (tomato, prawns, fior di latte, chilli, cherry tomatoes, basil $18) and Just Magic (mushrooms, thyme, pancetta, mozzarella $18) plus the QM Salad of rocket, pear, fennel, parmesan, wanuts and balsamic dressing to share.

The pizzas came out promptly and hooray! presliced. I loved the heady aroma of the earthy mushrooms and crispy pancetta on the Just Magic and the prawn pizza had a satisfying chilli heat to it, compared to the hot salami which wasn’t very hot at all.

As for the bases, they had the bubbly misshapen texture that I like and a base that held the fresh ingredients without turning into a soggy mess. However, if I’m nit-picking the  base was a little too bready – I prefer a bit more chew to my dough (my pizza gold standard is still Ladro and Supermaxi). Having a glance around at other diners it seemed that most people had also left the puffy crusts on their plate.

Our salad was deliciously fresh through relatively pricey at $9.50 for a small bowl given that the pizzas range from a very reasonable $15 to $19.  If you must eat something green with your meal you might be better off with spinach, greens and lemon for $6. For those who don’t want pizza there are two non-pizza option – lasagna al forno or a spinach and ricotta agnolotti with tomato sauce (both $18). They also cater for those who can’t eat the wheat-based pizza bases with gluten-free pizza at an extra $2.

Although I think we could have quite happily skipped dessert, a bit of pressure from the blogger at the table decided that we’d share two desserts – a flourless chocolate cake with sour cherry and coconut ice-cream and an apple galette with rum raisin ice-cream (both $12). While both sweets were quite good they were not remarkable and I think if your appetite is not up to it the desserts are not a must-do. The rum raisin icecream was missing a lot of the rich rum flavour and the chocolate cake was a fairly standard affair.

The restaurant was buzzy and casual on a Friday night, full of friends, families and local couples. Service was prompt, though our sweet waitress seemed a little unexperienced and unsure of herself – I’m sure time will cure that.

Our total bill came to a very reasonable $30 a head without drinks and we walked out with bellies extremely full, with much talk of unbuttoning waistlines and having a lie-down.

Queen Margaret, 356 Queens Pde, North Fitzroy +61 3 9482 5988
Tue-Sun 5pm – late
Queen Margaret on Urbanspoon

HOT: Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle St, Balaclava

I can’t cope with Melbourne’s growing trend for restaurants that don’t take bookings (too uncertain, too impatient, too hungry). But I really wanted to have dinner at Ilona Staller. What to do?

Answer – dispatch my Balaclavan friends R and A to plonk themselves at the bar at 6:30pm on a Saturday night while I navigated the car park known as Punt Road southwards. I arrived at 7:30 and we had our table by 7:45. Success!

Ilona Staller is the sister restaurant of St Kilda institution Cicciolina and the link between the two restaurants is clear. La Cicciolina was the nickname of one Ilona Staller, a Hungarian porn star, Italian politician, wife of Jeff Koons and an intriguing character all round.  Both restaurants serve modern European bistro food in a relaxed yet polished setting. Both restaurants have a no booking policy but are famed for their bar service and cocktails so most people don’t mind lingering for a drink until space becomes available.

The one thing that is different with Ilona Staller is that it’s housed in a huge Art Deco corner building with its name emblazoned in blue neon, the opposite of the small and unassuming Cicciolina back bar. The upstairs bar looks like a mid-century vintage lounge room, while the bar downstairs is verging on what I’d term Italian porn-star chic with zebra print bar stools and gaudy neon.

Anyway, enough with the comparisons. To the food! The menu starts with small bites then moves to entrees, pastas and main courses. The pasta dishes are large enough to satisfy a main course appetite so unless you’re game to eat the traditional Italian way with pasta and a main course, I suggest you pick one or the other.

I decided on a small bite of calamari with aioli ($12.50) and an entree of prawn and anchovy souffle ($19.50). The calamari is ostensibly a bar snack but I think the lightly battered tender rings are actually a really good value option as an entree. As for the souffle, while I enjoyed the subtle flavours of the seafood and the prosecco veloute, I can’t say I really loved it.

Frankly, I wished I was a bit hungrier and had ordered one of my friend’s more substantial dishes – plump orzo in a vegetarian mix fragrant with garlic ($25.50) and a perfectly al dente risotto with shredded duck ($29.50).

It’s almost a given that I will order any souffle shown to me, so hence it was with dessert. My second souffle of the evening was a traditional chocolate souffle paired with cherry ice-cream ($15.50) – a grown-up version of a Cherry Ripe if you will. The souffle was small but intensely chocolatey while being light and airy.

The bombe ($15) was also a hit – R exlaimed in wonderment that he’d never eaten anything like it before. A cross-section of meringue that was light yet at the same time substantial in flavour (not just an airy foam), enveloping a filling of smooth marscapone and a nugget of espresso gelati in the centre. To take it outside the ordinary, the unexpected addition of prunes poached in an espresso syrup.

The restaurant was very busy on a Saturday night and we found the staff professional in dealing with a full house, constantly filling water glasses and attentive to taking orders quickly.

Ilona Staller is a smart restaurant doling out satisfying, well-executed dishes – a continuation of the 17 year old success story of Cicciolina. I’m sure Southside locals will love them both just as much.

Ilona Staller, 282 Carlisle Street, Balaclava +61 3 9534 0488

Noon ‘til 11pm, 7 days
Ilona Staller on Urbanspoon

HOT: Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central


Restauranter and tea merchant David Zhou has expanded his Oriental Teahouse empire to Melbourne Central. The entrance is not immediately obvious from Elizabeth Steet which is a shame as the fitout is gorgeous – warm and earthy tones beckon you inside while punches of firecracker red accentuate the concept’s Chinese origins.

I have blogged about the dumplings at David Zhou’s restaurant before and so I was excited to be invited to attend a Dumpling Masterclass with David at his new store. In my family dumpling making is a communal activity and each Chinese family has their own dumpling recipes, so I was particularly interested to see what David would be teaching about his dumplings.

The evening began with one of David’s steamed barbecue pork buns and a glass of sparkling wine. I think these pork are some of the best in Melbourne (and definitely better than Golden Dragon Palace, which I would otherwise rate as the best overall yum cha in Melbourne). The filling was recognisably pork and devoid of any flourescent red food colouring and the bun itself was pull-apart fluffy without a hint of stodge or sogginess.

The official proceedings began with quick demonstration by David of his dumpling filling – finely chopped cooked bok choy, pork mince and a succession of different condiments – light soy, dark soy, sesame oil and the secret ingredient, black Chinkiang vinegar. A small tablespoon of the filling was then twisted into a little egg wrapper pouch and every person got to fill their steamer with their creations.

As you can see, with my efforts I tried to experiment with different wrapping styles (that’s another thing my family does – everyone has a distinctive style so you can tell whose handiwork you’re eating).

The test is in the eating though and these dumplings were delicious! Juicy, with a thin silky wrapping and perfectly matched with the soy dipping sauce.

I could have had a lot more of these but fortunately Oriental Teahouse‘s expert chefs presented us with another steamer of their expertly wrapped dumplings using the very-hard-to-execute translucent crystal rice wrappers.

The final course was a small taster of one of the kitchen’s signature dishes, Szechuan Pepper Chicken – tender pieces of marinated chicken breast stir-fried in a mildly numbing velvety pepper sauce. It’s on the takeaway menu for a very reasonable $12.90 and I think it’s a healthy and tasty dinner option paired with steamed rice for those days where you’re just too tired to cook after work. You could even order ahead and pick it up on your way to the train station…

To complete the meal we were given some health-giving unfurling pearls of white tea. Oriental Teahouse has a large retail section of imported teas and tea accroutements, including these elegant hand made glass mugs. Tea tastings are offered to customers and the process is taken very seriously, as you can see with the special cup-warming procedures and drainage areas built-in into the bench.

At the end of the evening I noticed that the most popular yum cha dumplings were available frozen to take home. Over the next few nights RM and I shared the crystal prawn dumplings ($18.80 for 10), very juicy and addictive shanghai juicy pork/xiang long bao ($15.80 for 10), vegetarian dumplings ($15.80), those fantastic barbecue pork buns ($11.80 for 6) and some equally excellent egg custard buns ($8.90 for 6).

These are my favourite discovery about Oriental Teahouse! The dumplings are made fresh daily and snap frozen, so that when you take them home they are comparable to restauant quality. I was very impressed that the freezing didn’t seem to impact the taste or texture of any of the dumplings, even the ones containing fresh prawn. A whole steamer only required 6-10 minutes to cook and so they make a fantastic meal when you’re in a hurry. Honestly, I cannot recommend them enough – I’m going to keep a steady stock of them in my freezer for emergencies.

Dumpling Masterclass, Oriental Teahouse, GD 068/69 Melbourne Central +61 3 9600 4230

HOT: Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe

I don’t shy away from being decisive on this blog so I’m going to make bold claim.

Golden Dragon Palace has the best yum cha in Melbourne.

So. I’ve put it out there now.

Of course, I haven’t eaten at every single yum cha restaurant in Melbourne. It’s possible that there are places that do even better dim sum than Golden Dragon Palace that I’ve not gotten to yet. Or you’ve been there and disliked it so much that you cannot believe that I would dream of saying such a thing.

But based on my knowledge of Cantonese food, including decades of eating yum cha (my mum has a diary entry saying that I was eating dim sum at 6 months old) and my journeys around Melbourne’s Chinese restaurants, Golden Dragon Palace is dim sum heaven.

It’s called Golden Dragon Palace but I wouldn’t really describe it as a palace – more a brick behemoth containing elaborate wood carvings, porcelain vases and glass etchings. It serves dim sum from trolleys starting from 11:30am on weekdays and 11am on weekends, when it’s so popular that there are three sittings and bookings are advised.

On a Friday it was reasonably full with a mostly Asian clientele. From my experience Chinese people are very discerning about their food and hold no loyalties to a particular restaurant as soon as the standards drop. In fact, I’ve known people to gossip about where a particular chef has defected to and the whole Chinese community will then troop along to the new restaurant to follow the master. So the fact that Golden Dragon Palace still attracts a large crowd on a weekday is testament to its solid reputation.

Food blogger Kat and I devoured steamer after plate after bowl of authentic Cantonese dim sum and were very shocked when our bill came to a hefty $78!  We ate a lot but be warned that it’s not the cheapest yum cha in town. However, the quality and freshness of the food is undeniable (even though not every single dish was successful) and I’m willing to pay more for that.

The dishes you should not miss include the har gao and cheong fun. They both used juicy fat prawns, with the har gao wrapping the prawns in a delicate, translucent wrapper and the made-to-order cheong fun consisting of a steaming mass of prawns within rows of silky and slippery rice noodles.

The tofu stuffed with prawn was also excellent. It’s not normally a dish that I get very excited about but this silken, almost eggy, tofu was amazing (and those big fat prawns making another appearance), far removed from the usual white cubes of brick-like tofu.

I loved the crumbly sweet pastry of these chicken pies, though I would have like more evidence of chicken and less cornflour in the filling.

The desserts were a highlight. The egg tart pastry is very flaky and light while the filling was barely set and not too sweet. The sponge cake (not pictured), warm straight from the steamer, was incredibly moreish and one of the best I’ve eaten.

The mango pudding had a subtle flavour of mango, unlike other varieties which are often a fluorescent orange mass of fake mango flavours.

Next time I’ll definitely give the xiao long bau a miss. Kat pointed out that she normally wouldn’t order a Shanghaiese speciality at a Cantonese restaurant and she’s made a good point, because the xiao long bao was more like a crude meatball wrapped in a thick skin. No delicacy in the flavours or textures, almost no soup in the parcel and slivers of ginger inside the dumpling instead of served on the side.

Kat and I disagreed on the pork buns. I thought that it wasn’t fluffy enough but quite liked the non-food-coloured pork filling. Kat liked the texture of the bun but didn’t think much of the filling. So it’s a dish that I’d return for again, in the hope that the solidity of the bun was a one-off.

And yes, there will definitely be a return visit. Just looking at the photos is making me drool!

What are your other recommendations for yum cha in Melbourne?

Golden Dragon Palace, 363 Manningham Rd, Lower Templestowe +61 3 9852 4086
Yum cha daily 11:30am-3pm, Sunday 11am – 3pm
Dinner 6pm till late
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