Swill Magazine Issue 5 - Out Now

Found in an alley in Melbourne’s Chinatown, its pink sign lighting up Market Lane, this Cantonese fine diner has close to 50 years of history under its belt. One that has shaped generations of diners.

Myffy Rigby

There are two things you can guarantee in this life: death and taxes. At Flower Drum, the Cantonese restaurant that’s been delighting Melbourne for nearly 50 years, there are three: death, taxes and crab. You name it, they serve it. Claypot crab. Crab dumplings. Neil Perry crab noodles. Baked crab shell. Crab rice paper rolls. “There’s crab in almost everything,” says restaurant manager, Jason Lui. “We go through around 120kg a week.”

The $160-a-serve Neil Perry mud crab noodles, named after the famous Aussie chef who’s been visiting the restaurant for the past 25 years, translates to half a Queensland mud crab, handpicked and tossed through ginger and shallots, served over egg noodles. Beautiful-ridiculous. The baked crab sees mudcrab folded through a Macau-style turmeric coconut and curry sauce, baked in a blue swimmer crab shell. It comes to the table with its top caramelised, the flesh sweet, creamy, fragrant. Back in the 80s, this was one of those secret handshake dishes. Today, you can order it straight off the carte. 

 

The secret menu has always been one of those whispered-about things at Flower Drum. Over the years, restaurant critics aplenty have suggested the only way to attain full menu satisfaction required some sort of service voodoo. A special handshake, knowing a guy who knows a guy. And maybe, around the same time prime minister Bob Hawke was necking yard glasses, that was true. 

Certainly when original owner/chef/maestro Gilbert Lau first opened the doors to Flower Drum on Little Bourke Street in 1975, the average diner didn’t stray much further than deep-fried ice-cream, beef in black bean sauce, sweet and sour pork. Locally grown choi sum, snow pea shoots and gai lan were rare, and forget about dried shiitake mushrooms or lap cheong, unless you were prepared to wait for months for the ingredients to be shipped from China. 

It’s a little easier these days. Want a sea cucumber gently cooked in masterstock? An individual dumpling filled with mudcrab, scallop, wood ear mushroom and bamboo shoots swimming in fragrant chicken broth? No problem.


“The cooking landscape was quite different,” says Lui. “The menus you probably see in food courts now are what you ate [at Flower Drum] back then. It’s just hilarious, you know, like 50 cents for banana fritters, $69 for a bottle of Grange… it’s pretty crazy. I’ve still got a few customers that remember what it was like.”

Glistening pink duck meat (a two-day process that starts with scalding the skin, then hanging the birds to dry, before finally roasting them) is tucked into a soft crepe along with a cucumber and green onion spear. On each plate, a different hoisin sauce illustration. There’s a little duck, crab, giraffe (or was that a horse?), scorpion, a carp. “It’s just whatever you can do to amuse yourself through service,” says Lui. “It’s become a bit of a competition between everyone.”


This excerpt is taken from issue 4 of Swill Magazine. Purchase your copy today.


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Words

Myffy Rigby

Photography

Kristoffer Paulsen

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