Through their food (and memorable desserts), Quanjude and David’s are that bridge to greater understanding to Chinese desserts.
Have you been to China, dear readers? Whatever you picture in your mind, whatever image you may have from maps, glossy magazines or from the TV, magnify it, amplify it by a hundred times. From the smallest township to coastal mega cities, from the jade waters of the Yangtze to the brown tones of the Pearl River Delta, from ethereal mist-shrouded forests to concrete jungles, from the street markets heaving with a thousand aromas to the mega shopping centres saturated with designer gleam, from the poignant serenity of immaculate courtyard gardens to the confusion of navigating highways swerving between steel skyscrapers, China is a hundred times noisier, crowded, grander, more spectacular than any place on earth that you can imagine.
Established during the Qing Dynasty in Beijing almost two hundred years ago, the famed Quanjude Restaurant certainly stretches the meaning of “established restaurant.” Some years ago, a franchise opened in Melbourne. It follows the Chinese style of fine dining to the tiniest detail…all exuberant opulence. Chandeliers of shimmering crystal, wood lacquered to mirror reflectiveness, seating upholstery embroidered with a thousand flowers, tables laden with sparkling cutlery, heavy brocades and porcelain that must be painted with the minimum motif of a dragon, phoenix or a bouquet of peonies. All serviced by an entourage of young service staff that act with military precision and promptness, not a hair, crease or smile out of place. And all this happens against a palette of the most fiery reds and striking yellows. Fine dining in China — as accurately encapsulated at Quanjude — is all about impression by appearance. And what an impression — the fit-out in Melbourne is one part palace, one part museum.
MoMo & Coco visited for a celebratory occasion. Quanjude’s menu was a comprehensive archive of well known Chinese dishes, inflected with a distinctive Northern accent as evident in the sauces and subdued but broad flavours. Starters, soup, seafood, beef, pork, poultry, vegetables done in a myriad different ways, whatever took your fancy. They were cooked traditionally, proportioned well, priced comparatively expensively ($40+ per dish). But really, you would visit Quanjude for two dishes. The first is the Peking Duck ($80 whole, $40 half). It is prepared at your table by a chef that cleaves, shears, chops, slices and dices with such rapidity as to blur his machete-like hands. Although it didn’t fail to please, it didn’t entirely impress…that is, we’ve had better…in China. Possibly the reason for our disappointment is that we recall a proper duck banquet proceeding with the remaining duck being cooked up in a soup, in a fried noodle dish, in a multitude of other cold serve arrangements. It was not done so in Melbourne’s Quanjude and so seemed like an incomplete duck banquet. 😦
MoMo & Coco usually bypass desserts in Chinese restaurants in Melbourne because of their strange insistence to offer bastardized, underwhelming iterations of traditional Chinese desserts. This is not the case at Quanjude. Dear readers, allow your Dessert Correspondents to introduce….the “Peking Toffee Apple” ($16). It doesn’t look like much at all, you are saying. But beneath a playful sticky web of carefully draped toffee were a tumble of golden nuggets. One first has to appreciate the supersonic speed which the chef must work in order to create this thin toffee nest before it solidifies. One then has to appreciate the equal care taken in steeping in the apple bites so that they are coated not in deep flour crusts, but rather laser-thin encasings and quickly rolled in syrupy honey and toffee. This is undoubtedly, a dessert to give your dentist nightmares, but oh my, what a dream of a dessert for sweet teeth that yearn to finish a Chinese banquet properly! Be warned, ladies, watch your hair while eating this! One of us became a little golden blonde for a bit.
From a palatial atmosphere to rural China, head down to David’s, an inner-city restaurant that used to follow the tune of a typically furnished Chinese restaurant, but recently switched and embraced a peasant aesthetic. David’s is no longer the place to take your Chinese parents…unless they are of the more open-minded type where impressions are not made by appearance alone. It is the complete antithesis of Quanjude — stark white with a spartan feel notwithstanding the clutter of unfinished wood shelving, globular grated lighting that reference lanterns, tin tables decked out with with DIY cutlery tin, sepia photographs and blue-white porcelain of a far simpler design than typical Ming Dynasty-era Jingdezhen porcelain. Service at David’s generally lacks the presence, polish or promptness as that experienced at Quanjude. They are certainly friendlier though.
Since its refurbishment, MoMo & Coco have visited twice for a weekend lunch. Claiming to be “country Shanghai,” David’s on the weekends offered a yum cha and an a la carte menu. On both our visits, we opted for the a la carte, which ran along traditional lines with dishes classified into starters, various meats, vegetables etc. But, there were dishes that proved the claimed “country Shanghai” label was a rather silly one…or one to attract those otherwise uneducated in Chinese culinary tradition. Note for example, the China-trotting dishes with an unmistakable stamp of Canton, Hebei and Sichuan. There were other dishes that you will be hard pressed to find in any other Chinese restaurant, but are likely to find in the home of a wizened Chinese grandmother. These lesser-known Chinese dishes were the highlights of our visit. First, the slightly herby, cold served morsels of Spiced Oolong Tea Quail Eggs ($12) with rectangles of bean curd and little teardrops of wolf berries. Another highlight, the rich, saucy Grandma’s 8 ($26), a carnivorous medley of sliced and diced scallops, shrimp, chicken, pork, chestnut, and bamboo shoots that reminded us of some sort of stuffing. We will also mention the tongue-twitching 50/50 Chicken and Chillies ($19), clearly a Sichuan (not Shanghainese) dish, good by Melbourne standards but not quite as fiery as the version at Melbourne’s Dainty Sichuan. Notwithstanding some good dishes, we rather miss the former David’s.
Desserts at David’s beckon with some very good traditional offerings (note almond pudding, banana fritters, but especially the osmanthus jelly). However, we bring to your attention the “White Chocolate Dumplings” ($9) that have been on David’s menu pre-renovation days. Three white orbs of squishy, chewy dumplings encasing molten white chocolate were rolled in a crumble of coconut and peanuts. Addictive…but a fusion dessert that is now somewhat incongruous in a place claiming to go back to its roots. And further, on our most recent visit to the refurbished David’s, the ratio between dumpling skin to dumpling filling was skewed disproportionately to the former.
Dining at Quanjude and David’s is a tale of two China. One China that is proud of its agrarian ancestry and attempts to evoke this nostalgia within the boundaries of simplicity. This is David’s, circa 2012, a homely token of history, sometimes faltering but otherwise flickering with the potential of greatness. Then there is the other China that is proud of its imperial heritage and isn’t afraid to impress with all the majesty, drama and glitz that this entails. This is Quanjude, an emigre that offers one of the finest Chinese dining options in Melbourne. To understand Chinese cuisine, it is necessary to appreciate, at the minimum, both these thematic strands of Chinese restaurant dining. Through their food (and memorable desserts), Quanjude and David’s are that bridge to greater understanding.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Quanjude Restaurant, 229 Queen Street, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000; and David’s, 4 Cecil Place, Prahran, Vic 3181.
- ☑ Budget: Quanjude ($$$-$$$$); David’s ($$-$$$).
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Neo-classical Northern Chinese (Quanjude) and provincial eastern Chinese (David’s).
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Peking Toffee Apple” (Quanjude) and the “White Chocolate Dumplins” (David’s).
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Through their food (and memorable desserts), Quanjude and David’s are that bridge to greater understanding to Chinese desserts.