For many years, beef with black bean sauce, spring rolls and sweet and sour pork were the mainstays of Chinese cuisine in Australia. They remain takeaway staples and the local Chinese restaurant is still the venue of choice for that annual special-occasion meal for many. Australia, however, has undergone a food revolution in recent times, and Chinese cuisine is now at the forefront of a dynamic dining scene, especially in Melbourne. Here are six of the city’s best Chinese restaurants, in no particular order and in the opinion of this humble writer.
1 ShanDong MaMa
The “mama” behind ShanDong MaMa is 50-something Meiyan Wang, who looks somewhat like a Chinese opera singer – all buxom and beautiful. Her dumplings – hand-rolled each day – make Melbourne’s foodies sing for their supper. The original ShanDong MaMa (there are now three in the chain, but this is the favourite) is a no-fuss hole-in-the-wall in a tacky, low-ceilinged arcade in Chinatown.
The jasmine-tea-tin cutlery holders and flock floral booths set a simple scene for the traditional dishes from Wang’s birthplace, the fishing town of Yantai, north of Qingdao, in Shandong province. The pan-fried dumplings are unique in Melbourne, “the skins deliberately left open so the excess juice from the filling mixes with frying oil to add flavour to the crispy skin”, according to the menu. Wang’s mackerel dumplings, minced with ginger and mottled with chives, coriander and spring onion, are the establishment’s speciality. For a local touch, the Melbourne dumplings are “inspired by Australia’s multicultural food scene”, a combination of diced calamari, mussels and prawns minced with lemon rind, olive oil, garlic and parsley. Happily, they still taste like dumplings.
2 Spice Temple
Respected Aussie chef and restaurateur Neil Perry is best known for his aged rib eye with béarnaise sauce and potato gratin, but in his spare time he has managed to nail the delicate and subtle flavours of Chinese cuisine. His cookbook, Balance & Harmony: The Secrets of Asian Cooking, proves the point; so, too, does this upscale, dimly lit restaurant in a tucked-away corner of Crown Casino.
With the exception of daytime yum cha (that’s dim sum to Australians), the menu eschews Cantonese for lesser-known cuisines from places such as Xinjiang and Hunan, although it’s Sichuan flavours that fire Perry’s wok. Cucumbers with smashed garlic and ginger prep the palate before essential hits of heat from numbing dry Wagyu beef, Sichuan-peppered John Dory in chilli oil and stir-fried prawns with salted duck egg. According to media reports, Perry, who also designs Qantas’ in-flight menus, counts Hong Kong’s Ho Lee Fook and Mott 32 among his inspirations.
3 Tim Ho Wan
When the doors to Tim Ho Wan opened earlier this year, a queue of salivating Hong Kong-ophiles ribboned its way along Bourke Street and around the neighbouring arcade. Aussies don’t line up for food unless there’s something exceptional going on, so it was a good sign. This was the country’s second Tim Ho Wan (there are, tellingly, now three in Sydney) and despite its franchise-look, paper place mat menus, squat stools and service buzzers that somehow convey something less than the authentic cuisine on offer, the Hong Kong export has successfully transitioned to Melbourne.
The barbecue pork buns, which helped win Tim Ho Wan that game-changing Michelin star in 2009, are as good here as they are in Mong Kok, the dome-shaped pastry’s sugared crust encasing chunks of gravy-soaked pork. The beef balls are laced with coriander while the glutinous leaf-wrapped rice has generous nuggets of lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and shiitake. It’s enough to make a Hongkonger homesick.
Don’t let the neon cherry motifs, cube-box lighting and blond wood crossed with stainless steel décor fool you. Supernormal, with its open kitchen and bench seating, might be all Japanese to look at but chef-restaurateur Andrew McConnell’s time spent living and working in Shanghai and Hong Kong has rubbed off on the menu. Interpretations of Chinese dishes include slow-cooked Sichuan lamb with spring onion pancake and coriander paste and spicy braised eggplant with house tofu. Dumplings also rate a mention thanks to “two dedicated dumpling chefs who make 2,000 of them per day”, according to McConnell. Chilli- and spring-onion-sprinkled prawn and chicken dumplings come sitting like little yellow beanbags in spice vinegar, and the yellow-hued vegetarian dumplings get a good rap among meat-conscious Melburnians.
Deconstructed duck bao comes on a plate of twice-cooked crispy-skin duck leg and slices of cucumber ready to be stuffed into pillowy buns and doused in vinegar and plum sauce. Such is Supernormal’s enthusiasm for bao that, this year, as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, the restaurant invited May Chow, from Hong Kong’s Little Bao, who served her PB&J ice cream bao and truffle fries to the crowd.
5 Lee Ho Fook
That’s no typo. The chefs from Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook and Hong Kong’s cheekily named Ho Lee Fook – Victor Liong and Jowett Yu, respectively – are friends, and both alumni of Sydney’s Marque restaurant. Like Ho Lee Fook, Liong’s Melbourne restaurant serves an upbeat take on traditional Chinese dishes, albeit with a little more humour. His sweet and sour pork is an ironic throwback to the gloopy iconic Aussie-Chinese dish, but Liong’s version has the sauce perfectly sweet – not customarily sickly – and bolstered with chilli.
Traditional classics include Chongqing chicken doused with Sichuan peppercorns, fried chilli and garlic oil, and tea eggs, the gelatinous orange yolks served with faux caviar and dill in a pond of green spring onion oil. Twists on classic noodle dishes, such as Spring Bay mussel char kway teow, are a reminder that the ingredients are sourced locally. The eatery’s crimson neon sign and graffiti-covered brick entry fit right into Melbourne’s laneways.
Secreted away on a back street in a student neighbourhood on the edge of the CBD, Wonderbao is a quick-eats diner in which piles of bamboo steamers and rows of bottled chilli sauce line the white-tiled and bare-brick walls. No surprise what the fare is: steamed baos, but the quality is a revelation to seasoned eaters of Asian cuisine, who liken the flavours to those of home and the standard of the ingredients a notch above. The buns are handmade and the ingredients prepared daily. And it shows.
Traditional baos include custard buns with a red dot on top to differentiate them from the savoury version, and “da chicken bao”: an oversized version with chicken pieces, egg and shiitake. After 10.30am, gua baos, the open variety, come with experimental ingredients such as braised pork belly, pickled mustard, coriander and crushed peanuts. There are no famed Melbourne flat whites here – try the home-made hot soy milk instead.