MOD­ERN TANG

Stephen Lunn rev­els in the con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese cui­sine of a stylish Melbourne eatery

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

DO pigs have el­bows? It’s hard to pic­ture in the mind’s eye, but it serves as a lively con­ver­sa­tion starter dur­ing our din­ner at Bok­choy Tang in Melbourne’s Fed­er­a­tion Square. Talk about food for thought.

My part­ner Fiona’s ques­tion about the bi­o­log­i­cal ori­gins of her cho­sen main course of pork knuckle be­gins an un­likely chain re­ac­tion as the wait­ress quickly con­sults the head chef be­fore re­turn­ing to tell us it’s a pig’s el­bow.

The chef may be cor­rect in a tech­ni­cal sense, sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­veal, the knuckle be­ing lo­cated above the pig’s front trot­ter in an area known as its hand (Bri­tish cut) or arm (Amer­i­can cut).

An hour or so be­fore this les­son in porcine anatomy we find our­selves in Fed Square, a vi­brant pub­lic space of­fer­ing myr­iad op­tions for a cul­tural or culi­nary fix. The bite in the air her­alds the true start of Melbourne’s au­tumn af­ter a se­ries of false starts.

For an am­bi­tiously sized restau­rant ca­pa­ble of hold­ing 180 din­ers, Bok­choy Tang is hid­den away from pass­ing trade in this tourist precinct, oc­cu­py­ing a floor above the square’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fice. But when we emerge from the lift into the restau­rant proper we are trans­ported into a dif­fer­ent world of com­fort­ing dark tim­bers, deep red fea­ture walls and in­ti­mate light­ing com­ple­mented by an im­pres­sive row of or­nate pa­per lanterns.

We are shown to a ta­ble with views over the square. It’s Mon­day night and the restau­rant is about half full, so most din­ers share our vista of work­ers scur­ry­ing to­wards Flin­ders Street sta­tion for the train ride home. The steamy smells of ginger and gar­lic waft over to our ta­ble, al­most dar­ing us to over-com­mit in our choice of dishes.

On of­fer from ex­ec­u­tive chef and owner Ge­orge Qing is an ex­ten­sive menu of pre­dom­i­nantly north­ern Chi­nese cui­sine with an em­pha­sis on steamed dishes. Noo­dles pre­vail over rice, con­tem­po­rary over tra­di­tional. Qing has been a stal­wart of the Melbourne restau­rant scene for a long time, in­clud­ing a 10-year stint at Blue Train. He has hired ex­pe­ri­enced Chi­nese chefs for the large kitchen, in­clud­ing latest re­cruit Wen Rui Ji, who spe­cialises in del­i­cate, made, mod­ern dim sum.

By­pass­ing a hot and sour Bei­jing duck soup ($8), we opt to share two starters, the first, jiao zi salad of pan­fried pork mince and prawn dumplings served on a bed of juli­enned potato ($14.50). The chef en­sures the meats pro­vide the pre­vail­ing flavours rather than the gar­lic in the seven lit­tle morsels. The vine­gary coat­ing on the potato noo­dles sets off the dish nicely.

We also have the pan-seared scal­lop salad ($14), three volup­tuous, juicy pieces each on a serv­ing spoon, their taste clev­erly com­ple­mented by a sim­ple por­tion of thinly sliced cu­cum­ber and nib­bles of rock­melon. Tas­ma­nia’s news­wor­thy Ta­mar Val­ley, of Gunn’s pulp mill de­bate, pro­vides an ac­cept­able ac­com­pa­ny­ing wine, 2006 Bay of Fires Pinot Gris ($48).

Be­tween cour­ses we ponder with some re­gret what we haven’t or­dered for a main course, the whole bar­ra­mundi steamed with ginger, spring

hand- onions and Chi­nese rice wine served on a bed of baby bok choy ($28), which we spot on its way to the ad­ja­cent ta­ble. Sim­ple, sure, but the sub­se­quent grunts of ap­pre­ci­a­tion from the next ta­ble en­sure it is pen­cilled into my

next time’’ book.

Our seafood op­tion is in­stead the steamed baby abalone ($28), three pieces care­fully pre­pared, steamed with a light chilli sauce and served on a bed of Chi­nese broc­coli. The abalone holds its ground be­tween too chewy and too slith­ery, and again the mari­nade isn’t over­pow­er­ing.

The much-dis­cussed pork knuckle is a big favourite back in China, our at­ten­tive wait­ress tells us, and Qing’s ver­sion, Sichuan-style dong po pork ($28) is listed as one of his spe­cialty dishes. It is braised for four hours and served with star anise, ginger, spring onions, chilli and soy sauce. The meat is suc­cu­lent and ten­der, as is the fatty skin that comes with it, but the chilli is ap­plied just a smidgeon too heav­ily for my taste.

Fin­ish­ing with some fine jas­mine tea and a stick­ily en­joy­able babao pud­ding ($8), a tra­di­tional dessert of oats, rice, red bean paste, dates, al­monds, mil­let and lon­gans, we leave Fed Square think­ing of the in­ter­est­ing tastes tried and those left for next time.

Does Bok­choy Tang ful­fil its con­tract to pro­vide fine con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese food us­ing fresh, lo­cal and, wher­ever pos­si­ble, or­ganic in­gre­di­ents? Most cer­tainly. The first page of the menu starts the taste­buds tin­gling and the nods of ap­pre­ci­a­tion and the empty plates show the prom­ises are more than pa­per ones.

Post­script: Qing doesn’t use monosodium glu­ta­mate in his cook­ing, so I can’t lay the blame there, but later that night I sleep badly, dream­ing of an army of hun­gry-look­ing pigs walk­ing to­wards me on their hind legs, hold­ing chop­sticks in lit­tle piggy arms. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Check­list

Bok­choy Tang Fed­er­a­tion Square, cor­ner Flin­ders and Swanston streets, Melbourne; (03) 9650 8666; www.bok­choy­tang.com.au. Open: Seven days for lunch and din­ner. Yum cha Fri­day, Satur­day and Sun­day, 11am-3pm. Cost: About $95, two cour­ses for two; shared dessert; with­out wine. Drink: Ex­ten­sive wine and cock­tail list, with mainly Aus­tralian wines. Rea­son to re­turn: For the yet to be tried whole, steamed fish.

Pic­ture: Michael Pot­ter

City cen­tral:

A win­dow seat for din­ers at Bok­choy Tang, over­look­ing Melbourne’s Fed­er­a­tion Square

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