Crown Casino, 8 Whiteman Street Southbank, VIC 300603 9686 9888
|Opening hours||Daily, 11.30am-3pm, 6pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Yi Bo Wang, Sheung Chun Lam|
|Payments||AMEX, eftpos, Mastercard, Visa|
IT WAS A PROPERTY INVESTMENT looking for a purpose that led to the birth of one of Melbourne's more intriguing and successful Chinese restaurant groups. Jeff Xu, head of development company Golden Age Group, bought a site on Market Lane in the city but couldn't find a worthy tenant. The result was HuTong Dumpling Bar and the rest is history. A most accidental restaurateur, his sub-empire now includes two HuTongs plus China Red, Spicy Fish and the glam newcomer Man Tong Kitchen.
I see him as some kind of a Chinese Chris Lucas (Chin Chin). There's the knack for creating buzz; the love of technology (China Red pioneered the touch-screen ordering system); and the underpinning philosophy that dining is theatre as well as food so that, like its HuTong siblings, Man Tong has a team of chefs industriously pleating dumplings behind glass. It's weirdly zoo-like but more effective in marketing terms than a red light outside a brothel.
And the service? An omnishambles*. The Oxford's current reigning word of the year could have been coined for the exquisite torment of a restaurateur trying so hard to get things right for a gweilo audience and the awful truth of waiters who dump the entire order (10 dishes) on the table at once and respond only to vigorous arm-waving. Sigh.
A whimsical attitude to the art of serving aside, Man Tong is a proper restaurant with a proper website and a properly expensive fitout. The arranged marriage with Crown is the biggest roll of the dice by Xu to date and the designers have mixed the tropes of the modern restaurant - the separate bar, the wall of wine (an informed wine list is another example of the forward-thinking nature of the operation), the quarries of slate - with the Ming dynasty Orientalism of red lanterns, carved screens and Chinese statuary. It's a design into which a lot of care and detail has gone. Then you see ''tappas'' on the menu and feel sad that spellcheck has let them down so badly.
Anyway, tapas. Chinese. Whatever. It's an example of the way they're trying to bend Chinese cuisine to Western fashions. Occidise it, if you'll allow me to coin a word of my own.
The Man Tong menu is scattered with regional names, some of them pleasingly obscure, while holding a particular candle for Szechuan without fully committing to the rivers of oil and searing pepper-and-chilli pain. And the a la carte yum cha experience is based on miniaturised versions of the main carte. Very handy. Very Spice Temple.
Those dumplings you saw being made when you walked in are typically excellent. The xiao long bao (Shanghai pork soup dumplings) are a textbook example of pleating perfection, holding in the meaty broth until you're good and ready to do the puncture ceremony over a spoon laden with ginger and black vinegar.
Readers always seem to know of a Box Hill four-seater open only at the start of the lunar month that does the best xiao long bao in Melbourne but these are pretty darn good. Just as scarfable are the pork wontons in glossy yellow skins, the pork pink and herby-juicy, sluiced by chilli oil so they might slip down the throat in one go, although chewing is recommended.
You can't live by dumplings alone. Char sui - the ubiquitous fluffball of a steamed bun with a savoury/sweet filling of pork jam. Fried eggplant wedges capped with prawn mince and black beans. Fried spring onion pancake in flaky pastry. Superb barbecue pork.
The distinctive mouth-numbing pine effect of Szechuan pepper is seen to its best effect in the cold dishes: somehow it intensifies the velvety texture of shredded chicken in its distinctive slick of sesame oil. Tripe and ox tongue performs a similar trick, the intensifying heat offset by strips of cucumber. Vermicelli with minced pork and eggplant is just a little nondescript in the context, although the menu is priced kindly enough that the occasional misfire shouldn't be cause for anguish.
But there's not much there that I wouldn't want to eat again. And I don't think the slightly sanitised version of a few dishes corrupts the feeling that something real is going on here. A quorum of Asian faces in the dining room vouch for authenticity; so does the elderly Chinese woman at the next table who explains an outstanding beef dish from Fujian province - aggressively peppered eye fillet in a rustling forest of slightly bitter and tannic fried green tea leaves - when the waiter shrugs uselessly. That's Man Tong for you, its manifold achievements blunted by staff indifference. But mostly it's good. Mostly it's very good.
Service Robotic and reactive
Noise Not too bad
The best bit Killer dumplings
The worst bit Uninspired service
Go-to dish Xiao long bao
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.