Overcrowded dining room; paper table cloths; cluttering of plates; pots of hot cheap tea; lively Cantonese chatter at the next table with the occasional boom of laughter and you know you are at yum cha. Coming from the northern parts of China, I actually first got introduced to the Southern Chinese fare when I first came to Australia. The restaurant responsible for our introduction was Shark Fin Inn, so for that reason I have a soft spot in my heart for it.
Seriously, as a kid what’s not to love about Yum Cha? Small plates of all sorts of junkie goodness, sweet pastries and wobbling jellies. The best part is that it provides a nice distraction while your parents gossips for hours on end with Chinese family friends. Later on, I got a chance to visit both Guangzhou and Hong Kong, both destinations boast the best tea houses in China. I was spoiled rotten with both the quality and variety of dim sums, all of which made me think that Yum Cha back home in Melbourne would never be the same again. In fact, I actually know some Cantonese friends that downright refuse to eat Yum Cha in Melbourne. Without a doubt, tea houses in China trump the ones here in terms of dim sum. However, the atmosphere I enjoy is the same. I love the lively banter that bounces all through the dining room; I love the surprise that each trolley brings; I even love nervously watching the table before you to see if they have taken the last of your favourite dim sum.
So when mum and I went for a girls day out, of course we decided to have a relaxing, long lunch at Shark Fin Inn. A tip with Yum Cha restaurants in Melbourne is to always go on weekends when they are busy and turn over is high. On busier days, restaurants not only offer more variety, but high turnover also ensures that the dim sum that lands on your plate is fresh.
We arrived on time for our 1.30pm booking and we were led to our seats with Chinese style efficiency. Then, we settled down and stared at each other. Hang on, something’s missing. No one offered us tea. I guess, I’m just so used to being offered tea before I get a chance to take my coat off that suddenly without it things feel uncomfortable. In the end, after waiting for some time to no avail we ended up flagging down a waiter to ask for tea which was followed promptly by a pot of Oolong being poured at our table.Now with a cup of steaming tea in front of me, my world was back to normal and it made me one happy girl, so I was able to quickly forget about the hiccup at the start.
Being the impatient type, I picked something off the first trolley that came by. It proved to be a bad choice, the tofu rolls were only lukewarm, so the oily soy-based braise it was seating in didn’t go down too well. No worries, hot tea comes to save the day. Though, I think I would have quite enjoyed the filling of roast duck strips mixed with vermicelli and chives, if it was only warm.
So, you might think a plate of boiled greens is a bit steep at $10 a plate, but I can never pass up a plate of fresh Chinese broccoli when I have Yum Cha. This is simply because that I feel a bit of fresh greens cleans up the palate and cuts through all the gluttony, so I can sample more dim sums haha. The Chinese broccoli was very fresh, perfectly cooked until they are tender, just how I like them. There’s nothing more I hate than eating overcooked Chinese broccoli that hurts my jaw to chew then hours later still trying to get out all the fiber stuck in between my teeth. Though, the chef seemed to be a little heavy handed with the oyster sauce which masked the beautiful natural flavours of the broccoli itself.
The filling of these dumplings were lovely, the prawn was bouncy and the chives gave it a little bit of omph. The letdown was that the skin was a little wet and gluggy.
Braised chicken feet are a must order for my mum every time we come to Yum Cha. These are first fried then steamed with the marinade until the meat falls off the bone and the tendons become gelatinous. A lot of people shy away from chicken feet, but really there’s nothing to be scared of. Apparently, this dim sum is the most sold item in most tea houses and each tea house has a slightly different signature marinade to lock in their clientele. The ones at Shark Fin Inn were quite standard, it was tender, sweet, salty and sticky; however I couldn’t find anything that made them stand out from the other Yum Cha places around Melbourne.
These little dumplings were amazing. The skin was translucent, soft with a little bit of bite. The innards were composed of dices of sweet barbecue pork, dried shrimps, chives, peanut and water chestnut provided the dumplings with a nice crunch. The “fun” in the name literally translates to powder in Chinese and it’s this part that makes these dumplings different to your other varieties. The “fun” refers to the use of turnip/potato starch mixed with soy and other condiments which brings all the ingredients together into a sticky, flavoursome combo. These are some of the best “fun guo”s I’ve ever tasted and it was definitely the highlight of the meal for me.
We saw these going around, but they’d always disappear before they reached our table. So, we asked the waitstaff for some from the kitchen and they were very happy to bring us some. Who doesn’t love melted cheese? I know I can’t go pass the promise of hot, gooey cheese. These had all the promises of being delicious, unfortunately they failed. It feels as if they’ve been left out for a little too long, so the cheese had gone a little hard and so my dream of yummy, stretchy cheese shattered. Not only that but it seems like the onion in the filling hadn’t been cooked down enough, so they were still crispy, stealing the show from the overcooked prawn and scallop inside the shell. I’ve had much better at other Yum Cha restaurants.
Sadly, the meal headed downhill from here. One of my must orders at Yum Cha is sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf. I absolutely adore the fragrance lotus leaf lends to the soft sticky rice, it makes me salivate just thinking about it. However, the ones we had today were subpar. The rice was too dry, there wasn’t enough filling; the only plus is that the little filling that was buried in the rice was very tasty. It’s sister, Shark Fin House, down the road, has a much better version.
We ended the meal with a pair of egg custard tarts. It’s funny how your tastes change from a child. I remember, when I was young I used to hate these, but now I love them. Anyhow, I digress. The filling was lovely and silky, the pastry buttery and flaky. I would have loved these even more if they were served warm. Though, I guess it helps my waistline a little, because I can only eat one when they are cold, but if they were warm I would have been able to eat three.
Overall, service was friendly and efficient. For some reason, I never expect good service from casual, Chinese restaurants. I guess years of experience has given me the special power to just ignore the service altogether, but lovely waitstaff always gives the dining experience an extra dimension. I always feel very happy and relaxed after Yum Cha. It’s always good to seat down, chat and enjoy a nice, slow meal, without waiters hinting you should vacant your seat for other patrons.
Some of our dim sums were delights and some were disappointments. There are better Yum Cha restaurants around Melbourne, but I will always return occasionally to Shark Fin Inn to remind myself of the place that introduced me to Yum Cha.