16 Liverpool St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Wed 12–3pm, 6–10pm ; Thu-Fri 12–3pm, 6–11pm ; Sat 6–11pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Bar, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9090 7778|
Mark my words, trendspotters: Chinese is going to be one of the food stories of the year. Just like last year. And the year before that. In fact, mark it down in your diary for the next millennium. A big subject is only getting bigger, 1.35 billion people would agree, although if last year was all about regionalism (hello, Dongbei!), this year the spotlight is shining back on Cantonese, its gastronomic apex.
The market crashed on Canto while we were getting hot and heavy with Sichuan, but there has been a resurgence, driven by young guns such as Lee Ho Fook, which is boisterous and a little crazy, with modern answers to old questions such as, ''How do we incorporate mandarin into prawn toast?''
Ruyi is not such a place. The restaurant is charting its own path right through the old-school Canto barns and the funky new places feeding off the Asian youthquake. On Chinatown's periphery, it started life in December as Ruyi Dumpling and Wine Bar, but quickly shucked the explanatory bits, lest diners think it was a fast and furious dumpling joint, which a seeing eye dog could tell you it is not.
A considerable amount of love and cash have been lavished on the Hecker Guthrie fitout. A website quote from the designers says, ''We didn't want it to scream China,'' which is a brilliant understatement, as it actually screams ''Scandinavia'', with all the coolly alluring muted timbers and textured pale tiles with little pops of terracotta. The design segues on to the service, which is endearingly mannered, while other places are busy going informal.
You begin with a long preamble about the origins of the produce, which is actually good to hear (too often in Chinese restaurants, don't ask, don't tell is the only sensible policy to adopt), although they may want to cut the menu explanations down before diners expire of hunger.
So no, it's not a dumpling restaurant, despite the dumplings being worthy of the top-10 list. They're made to order and worth the wait - juicy crab and pork xiao long bao in their rich slosh of stock, and slippery yellow pork wontons, with caramelised onion, paddling about in a pool of black vinegar with a sweet edge of honey and rock sugar.
There are petite, crimp-edged sang choy bao with minced chicken and bamboo shoots, carrot and pinenuts, bound together in glossy gelatinousness. They look pretty, but could have done with more seasoning. I would have asked for the usual tableaux of sauces - chilli, soy and vinegar - but every request seemed to send the staff into a frenzy of self-recrimination.
The salt and pepper soft-shell crab comes in a brilliant batter that's like an arrested lava flow, with a sophisticated lemon sauce punctuated with the rind - it's the People's Republic answer to fish and chips. A worthy Peking duck comes as an appetiser, two rolls neatly defeating the usual imprimatur to go the full or half-quacker, and there is a citrus pork that is actually sweet and sour pork in disguise, but a very good one.
The hit of the night is the thinly sliced wagyu oyster blade steak. The whole spiel takes some time, so let me spare you the trouble: imported Kobe beef, with a marble score of 9, slathered with a hit of truffle paste. Underneath the charred, buttery slices lies a wealth of fungi: powerhouse shiitakes and lush abalone mushrooms.
It's good - just like the decision not to push out the boat at dessert, with things like the hazelnut-paste (read: Nutella) spring rolls with a fluffy cloud of coconut cream.
There is such an earnest undercurrent of sincerity that I was quite taken by Ruyi. Not forgetting a wine list that was clearly put together by someone who knows what they are doing, there's something about knowing where the seafood was fished, the pork raised and the vegetables grown.
Cantonese with a locally grown, produce-driven, seasonal sensibility? It makes so much sense that it's bound to be the start of something big. Mark my words.
The best bit Great produce
The worst bit A little mannered
Go-to dish Wagyu beef, truffle paste and mushrooms, $42