Icon review: Bamboo House

The signature Peking duck is presented tableside, then whisked off and assembled into pancakes.
The signature Peking duck is presented tableside, then whisked off and assembled into pancakes. Photo: Eddie Jim

47 Little Bourke Street Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 12pm-3pm, 5.30pm-11pm,Sat 5.30pm-11pm,Sun 5.30pm-10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Yum cha
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Tommy Chung, Eric Lam
Seats 130
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9662 1565

Bamboo House founder Alex Tseng lived in his restaurant for months when it opened in 1983. He had to. Things were tight. Few Chinese restaurants tried for business at this top end of Little Bourke Street and, trickier still, no one knew about Northern Chinese dishes, Bamboo House's specialty.

The upswing came when a political journalist, returning from Beijing, published a rave about the landing of Peking duck and potsticker dumplings. It helped, too, says Tseng, that at the time he was catering for visiting Chinese artists for a government sister city initiative. For three months, passersby saw 30 Chinese people coming for lunch and dinner, and by the logic of the day, says Tseng, "people decided 'we must be good'".

As things grew, Tseng brought in business partner Robert Wong, and together they built one of the fiercest followings in town.

House of history: Some things never change, like the bright lanterns at Bamboo House.
House of history: Some things never change, like the bright lanterns at Bamboo House. Photo: Eddie Jim

Being a regular is serious business at Bamboo House, both back in the '80s and now. The actual Melbourne Cup saw the inside of the kitchen recently, and for decades politicians have made this their war room. Bamboo House's nickname is "the Liberal Canteen".

When Tseng and Wong sold in 2008, they would only hand the reins to trusted longtime chef Eric Lam. He is now partners with fellow chefs Danny Wong and Tommy Chung and floor manager Ann Louey – a team Tseng knew would keep the dream alive.

Those who dare win at Bamboo House. That's vital to know. If you follow the lead of most tables you'll end up playing Canto-Australian bingo. One night I watch every one of my beefy neighbours plough through sizzling beef, honey chicken, sang choy bao and ribs. Which isn't silly; they're tasty renditions. But the biggest wins are the traditional signatures.

Cantonese-style steamed dumplings.
Cantonese-style steamed dumplings. Photo: Eddie Jim

Peking duck, their calling card, appears tableside, before being whisked off and rapidly assembled into pancakes with properly high ratio of crisp, glassy skin to juicy meat.

You want to ask for the stars of the wheat-growing north. They still labour over silver thread bread here – a bright white loaf that separates into fluffy Silly String when pulled apart. The northern beef potstickers strike the holy balance between crunchy golden tops, soft, steamed bellies and juicy filling. But the Cantonese stars (prawn in spinach wrappers, siu mai), and Shanghai's soupy xiao long bao stand up, too.

Always get cold appetisers, like the Shanghai smoked fish lacquered in sticky star anise-fragrant glaze; the chilled salads of chewy crystal noodles or jellyfish, or "vegetarian goose", which sees pickled mushrooms wrapped in fine layers of bean curd skin and sliced into slightly smoky rounds.

Northern beef potstickers.
Northern beef potstickers. Photo: Eddie Jim

Some things never change and that's the way Bamboo's patrons like it. Big flower arrangements meet bright lanterns and murals in a room that's seen as much life as the Penfold's Grange vintages at the wild end of the wine list. But the linens remain radiant and crisp. Glasses glow bright.

Maybe you're not the mayor or a middle-aged white dude, but it's never too late to become one of Bamboo's flock. Do it and perks unfold. Truly advanced players know the abalone soup, the invite-only Chinese New Year party and special degustations are never advertised, but there if you know to ask. So it always is with Melbourne's stayers. You get out what you put in.

Address 47 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9662 1565, bamboohouse.com.au

Open Mon-Fri noon-3pm; Sat 5.30pm-11pm, Sun 5.30pm-10.30pm

Est. 1983

Signature dishes Peking duck, lamb cutlets, potsticker dumplings, cold appetisers.

Famous diners They keep hush hush, but tennis and racing season might be a good time to drop in. Wink.

Go-to Dish: Peking duck, lamb cutlets, potsticker dumplings, cold appetisers

http://www.bamboohouse.com.au