Hungry Hinch

Flower Drum

17 Market Place
Melbourne
03 9662 3655

I guess the word ‘jail’ must have been lurking in the back of my mind when I was deciding where to go for a Friday lunch with my lawyers. Maybe that’s why I chose the Flower Drum, a former favourite eatery where I hadn’t been much in recent years.

It was at the Flower Drum that the Sheriff came to arrest me to take me to Pentridge Prison after a long gallows lunch one September afternoon in 1987.

I joked to the then-owner, the legendary host extraordinaire, Gilbert Lau: ‘The hearty man ate a condemned meal’. Hardly.

The Flower Drum had been my second home in Little Bourke Street and then Market Lane where it has been, hard to believe, for 25 years.

I signed my 3AW contracts there with Gilbert witnessing them with his Chop. The night before Jacki Weaver and I got married we had a Beggar’s Chicken banquet there with our parents – all four of whom are now gone.

Hosted movie stars there like Sean Connery and Britt Ekland. And the day after a 40th birthday party for 600 of my ‘nearest and dearest closest friends’ at Brian Goldsmith’s Underground, a hardy few held a recovery lunch that lasted another eleven hours at the Flower Drum.

I would often dine there alone late in the afternoon with a ‘staff meal’ and a bottle of Houghton’s White Burgundy. It was at the Flower Drum that I sketched a Variety Club design on the back of a beer coaster: a heart and a top hat to epitomise the children’s charity as the ‘heart of show business’. A sketch which has now become the international Variety logo.

I did introduce one dish to the Flower Drum:  Shanghai dumplings. I had first tasted them in a Cantonese restaurant in Washington with legendary foreign correspondent Ross Mark. Pork and scallion filled dumpling packages soft on top but fried on the bottom. He showed me the best sauce mix. Soy, vinegar [to cut the grease] and lots of chilli sauce.

At the Flower Drum they cooked them to perfection. And there was a huge plate of them on the table at the start of each meal. But they were very filling and I started to wean myself off them. I didn’t have the heart to totally reject a personalised dish but by the time Gilbert left we’d pared them down to a token few.

After Gilbert Lau left his award-winning restaurant that was once called the best in Australian [not the best Chinese, the best restaurant] a lot of the old customers dropped away. Me included.

There were stories that it just wasn’t the same. Well, it wasn’t. The quintessential host was gone and the stories abounded that the food wasn’t as good. May have been true but it has bounced back.

As the Gourmet Traveller reviewer said:

The new list not only emphasises co-owner and executive chef Anthony Lui’s deft, creative touch with great-quality seafood but also taps into the sharing zeitgeist with a combination of increased flexibility (through more small dishes) and a couple of tasting/banquet menus of various sizes. The new menu, which changes daily, has also cut loose some of the more prosaic Aussie-Chinese stalwarts, a timely change that sees the Drum beating with new energy.

Back to the jail link.  I took my pro bono lawyers David Gilbertson, Nic Pullen and Andrew Thompson to lunch to discuss my next court appearance where I face jail or home detention for breaching suppression orders by naming two serial sex offenders in my Name Them and Shame Them campaign.

All good lawyers love their food and wine. In the past I have consumed barrels of good wine at the Flower Drum but that was many years ago. They were happy when Mr. Liu sent out a complimentary bottle of  Katnook Prodigy.

If the wine was good [they said] then the food was sensational. We started with duck won tons, then one of my old favourites: baked crab on the half shell. Now they serve it with turmeric and other spices. It was stunning.

Then sung choi bao [ as good as ever], salt and pepper King George Whiting served with broccoli and Chinese mushrooms in oyster sauce [ another old favourite] and, still, the best Peking Duck you’ll eat anywhere.  And I’ve eaten it in Beijing. They don’t call it Beijing Duck there, by the way.

Old habits die hard. I still insist on taking the popin [ the pancake] and making my own envelope, leaving out the cucumber and using the spring onion stick to paste the  duck skin with hoisin sauce instead of plum sauce.

I left wondering why I had stayed away so long. And that’s the Drum.

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