Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Final Feed

The restaurant business is a fickle business. Some days the tables are completely filled, there is a queue at the door, and the wait staff are rushing around; other days, many of the tables are empty and you wonder how the owner stays in business.

We seem to have the unfortunate knack of patronising restaurants that close down. Of all the restaurants that we have frequented where we went often enough to get to know the staff, we can think of only one, in Melbourne, that is still running.

Last Sunday we had a final feed at our local Chinese restaurant. (Actually, rather than 'Chinese', I prefer to describe the cuisine as ‘Chinese-fusion’ because the owner, who I'll call Li, caters for Western tastes, so it is much lighter than the traditional Chinese cuisine). The restaurant is not closing down, but Li needs a major operation followed by plenty of recovery time, so he has sold the restaurant to his chef. You might think that there would be a few changes but Li has his own “secret sauces”, so part of the sale included his revealing these secrets to his chef so that customers can still order the same dishes with the same taste.

Li has been good to us. If we're in the restaurant and he's not busy, he always comes out for a chat. His regulars, we amongst them, are often guinea pigs for new dishes. (The seafood roll and wok-seared diced eye-fillet that we sampled made it to the menu; the smoked oyster omelette didn't.) And, since Tony has been on the low-sodium, low-fat diet, Li has ensured that our meals have reduced oil and salt.

Sunday night we planned to order some favourites: vegetable dumplings, mustard prawns and shandong chicken, and possibly dessert. However, after we were seated our waiter told us not to order anything as Li had everything planned.

First dish: four huge prawns thinly coated in a delicious, spicy sweet sauce. There was only one way to eat these: peel the shell from the steaming flesh and lick the sauce from your fingers. (Finger bowls were provided!)

Next was one of the most popular dishes in the restaurant and the only dish we had that night that was on the restaurant's menu: crispy duck pancakes. Duck can be quite fatty but in this case, there was no fat, and the meat, shallots and sauce were served in a delicate, flour pancake.

That was the entrée. The main dishes comprised mussels in a thick, garlic sauce, then steaming blocks of tofu, each topped with a curling cube of fish, sprinkled with shallots and shredded ginger. Delicious! We were full and, as per Chinese custom, placed our chopsticks across our bowls to indicate that we were finished.

Next thing we know another main appears: lightly crumbed chicken fillet accompanied by a stock-based sesame sauce. It turned out that this was the final dish but I must admit I was starting to worry that a traditional Chinese 10-course banquet had been prepared for us.

And to finish? Tony asked for the bill and our waiter informed us that Li was paying for our meal. It was Li's way of saying thanks for our patronage over the last five years.

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