Stephen Lunn revels in the contemporary Chinese cuisine of a stylish Melbourne eatery
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.
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.
A window seat for diners at Bokchoy Tang, overlooking Melbourne’s Federation Square