Yum charm: Melbourne's best yum cha restaurants

Yum Cha Cafe in the CBD.
Yum Cha Cafe in the CBD. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

There's something so wild and jovial about a weekend yum cha session – that kid-in-a-candy-store point and get, that intoxicating hubbub against a backdrop of clattering trolleys, steaming baskets, and numbers efficiently circled on your bill-to-be.

Yum cha literally means "to drink tea" so it's no small wonder some of the city's most popular yum cha restaurants (David's, Oriental Teahouse) were born out of a teahouse in Prahran. Shanghai-born David Zhou remembers visiting a teahouse on Nine Curve Bridge when he was small and was inspired by the tranquility. This led him to open a teahouse down a Prahran side street, showcasing a selection to highlight the nuances in the different teas, just like differences between wines.

Years down the track and David's establishments are still known for their teas but, as they say, their aim "is to connect the dots between Chinese tradition and the contemporary Melbourne dining scene".

This kind of invigorated reinterpretation is in Melbourne's food DNA, and evident in dishes such as Spice Temple's XO calamari slider and David's soon-to-come seaweed chicken dumpling. "It will look authentic but then it'll seem a little different,"  Zhou says.

"I think that, with authenticity, you have to constantly evolve, and not do the things exactly the way your great grandfather did. You need carry the essence of it, understand it and see where the elements of the history fit."

The signature xiao long bao at HuTong.
The signature xiao long bao at HuTong. Photo: Bonnie Savage

An excellent example of this evolution is a comforting pork dish with an egg cooked in it. At David's, that egg is switched for a chat potato. "We don't cook with potatoes much in Shanghai but here there's a comfort connection with them here."

Fortunately, Melbourne is blessed with yum cha for all tastes, from sprawling traditional restaurants in the eastern suburbs to fine-dining versions and contemporary mash-ups. Here is just a wonton-sized sample.

Golden Dragon Palace

Pull off busy Manningham Road and escape into the wildly decorated charms of Golden Dragon Palace, an extravaganza of ornate wood carvings, chandeliers hanging from gold-accented ceiling roses, and embossed frosted glass panels of majestic, galloping horses. At weekends the restaurant bustles with local families while an army of staff in smart black uniforms steers trolleys of meaty pork and prawn dumplings encrusted with corn kernels, slippery cheung fun (steamed rice noodle rolls) and upturned bowls of sticky rice. The butter-laden pastry of a sweet egg tart flakes as soon as you look it and prawn cutlets arrive like a crumbed and fried junk-food lollipop, begging to mop up a hangover. A big point of difference here, though, is the wine list, with more than 600 wines selected by the sommelier. It's also worth noting that Tao Tao House's current chef spent five years here after leaving Flower Drum. 

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363 Manningham Road, Lower Templestowe; 03 9852 4086, 03 9852 4087

Yum cha Mon-Fri 11.30am-3pm, Sat-Sun 11am-3pm

Spice Temple

If you want the polar opposite of a deafening dining hall with specials written on the wall, Neil Perry's Spice Temple, an aptly named destination for worshipping flavour, is it. At ground level, breezy windows open on to Southbank, subtle lighting glows coral and pink along the wood-slat wall feature, and service is seamless. Yum cha is a la carte here, so order refreshing pickles – fat quarters of shiitake mushrooms and deseeded little cucumbers – and revisit them during the meal. Get the party started with a nod to the Melbourne zeitgeist - salt-and-pepper squid slider - then move to king prawn wontons languishing in a chilli-laced aged black vinegar dressing that ricochets across the tongue. Wagyu brisket potstickers are delicately wrapped morsels of tender, flaky beef, and the steamed eggplant with three flavours – piles of coriander, triple-blanched garlic and a sauce-drenched rubble of sweet pork mince – is at once homely and show-stopping.

Crown Complex, Southbank; 03 8679 1888

Yum cha, Thurs-Sun noon-3pm

Yum Cha Cafe

For those who usually associate yum cha in Chinatown with epic restaurants sprawling over multiple floors and a veritable steamy beehive of clashing trolleys and yammering families, Yum Cha Cafe offers a more restrained and intimate experience, with moody black and red decor, a wall of terracotta teapots and a bar serving cocktails. Occupying a small corner block in the theatre district, it offers yum cha a la carte at dinner and trolley service at lunch. Order tea from the impressive selection (they even offer "cha matching" with your meal, although this would be best saved for a main meal rather than a hopscotch of dim sum), served in red espresso cups, then set to nibbling on textural, translucent ginger and prawn dumplings, or silken wontons wallowing in spicy broth. Barbecue pork buns are more compact and less explosively pillowy than usual, crimped into a neat point with a jaunty pea propped on top, while the soupy Shanghai dumplings have a neat little slice of carrot pegged to the undercarriage to stop it giving way.

193-195 Exhibition Street, Melbourne; 03 9662 9668

Yum cha daily from 11am

Secret Kitchen

In Australia we don't generally associate rooftop dining with mega-malls, but if you zip up to the top level of Westfield Doncaster you'll find a small concourse of restaurants, including Secret Kitchen, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view and a gentle flood of light into the open, contemporary space. Arrive on a weekend and you're greeting by bubbling tureens of yum cha specials such as pork trotters in vinaigrette and chicken feet in abalone consomme. Get seated among tables of chatting families with iPad-latched kids and start cherrypicking from the trolleys. Spicy siu mai glistens with little rivulets of chilli oil, while the soup dumplings are sweet, creamy and comforting, and waitstaff offer small platters of roast duck or suckling pig, sliced into chunky wedges.

Westfield Doncaster, shop L2-2003, 619 Doncaster Road, Doncaster; 03 9840 2248

Yum cha Mon-Fri 11am-3pm, Sat-Sun 11am-1pm, 1.15pm-3pm

Tao Tao House

Cleave your way through the thick of Hawthorn's Glenferrie Road to get to Tao Tao House, a small, elegant restaurant with man-sized vases flanking the entrance and a soft piano soundtrack making traffic headaches melt away. Smart waitstaff in white shirts and black aprons will seat you in the mahogany-accented dining room as trolleys and trays glide gracefully around and the atmosphere is more hubbub than racket. The chef here has a serious pedigree, having spent 20 years at Flower Drum and five at Golden Dragon Palace, and the signature scallop dumplings are like oversized translucent tortellini with a butter-sweet filling and a couple of whimsical peas hanging about in the folds. The scallop siu mai is a lighter, sweeter take on the classic; a pork and peanut dumpling takes a different tack too, and the fried tentacles are unabashed crunch and texture.

815 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn; 03 9818 0968

Yum cha daily Mon-Fri noon-3pm, Sat-Sun (and public holidays) 11am-3pm

HuTong Dumpling Bar

While not a yum cha joint per se, Hutong Dumpling Bar, and its signature xiao long bao, has nestled into the dumpling-sized hole in Melbourne's culinary heart. When it opened in Market Lane in the CBD, the thrill of watching the dumpling masters behind glass as they expertly packed and folded the little pastries by hand was a hypnotic thrill. At the significantly larger and more regal Commercial Road branch in the Cullen Hotel, rope in seven mates and saddle up for the dumpling banquet. The xiao long bao, those delicate and aromatic pouches of broth and pork that HuTong is especially known for, kicks it off, then you can chopstick your way through chilli wontons, spinach dumplings, barbecue pork buns, duck dumplings, scallop dumplings and beyond. 

Shop 1, 162 Commercial Road, Prahran; 03 9098 1188

Open daily 11.30am-3pm; Sun-Thurs 5.30pm-10.30pm; Fri-Sat 5.30pm-11pm

David's

Eschewing the default red and gold for a clean and breezy fitout of whitewashed wooden walls, a rustic central table and vintage suitcases propped on shelves above the bar, David's offers a generous all-you-can-eat yum cha at weekends, where baskets of scallop dumplings, spicy duck wings, sesame-crusted white chocolate dumplings and other menu favourites will be delivered to your table until you say "stop". And don't be shy. As David has observed, "Australians are very polite!" so feel free to indulge. Look out for special New Year dishes including tofu sweetcorn dumplings and salted duck egg custard buns.

4 Cecil Place, Prahran; 03 9529 5199

Unlimited yum cha Sat-Sun, 11.30am and 3pm

Oriental Teahouse

The original Teahouse has blossomed into branches on Chapel Street, Chadstone and Little Collins Street, with each offering something a little different, thanks to designated chefs and distinctly different decor, but all featuring a suite of excellent teas as soon as you walk in. Chadstone offers all-you-can eat yum cha on Wednesday nights with grissini-long spring rolls, baby pea-leaf dumplings and chilli beef dumplings, and Little Collins Street offers the same with bonus live DJs on a Friday night within the vaulted bluestone building with its nifty mezzanine level. For a slightly different dumpling experience, relax in a cane chair amid vintage prints at Zhou Zhou's, the bar above the Chapel Street branch, with an epic list of Asian beers and dumplings designed to match. (Keep an eye out for Monkey King, a bar with a pan-Asian menu, due to open in the city soon.)

Shop F015, Chadstone Shopping Centre, 03 9949 2072; 455 Chapel Street, South Yarra, 03 9824 0128; 378A Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9600 4230

Yum cha a la carte daily; plus all-you-can-eat at Chadstone (two sittings, 5pm and 7.40pm Wednesday) and Little Collins Street (two sittings, Friday 6pm and 8pm).

Andy's Yum Cha House

This unassuming little restaurant, with its wood panelling and bare brick walls decorated in a conga line of laminated food shots, does a damn fine line in dumplings – fat and fresh and cooked to order. The fried chive cakes are herbaceous little triangles accented with creamy prawn meat. Scallop dumplings are pearly and plump, siu mai is a classic and comforting staple and the spicy fried calamari – firm wedges in a dense, crisp coat – is the perfect keep-'em-coming drinking snack.

13 Napier Street, Essendon; 03 9370 9888

Yum cha Tues-Sun, 11am-3pm, 5pm-10pm

Minh Tan 2

In the middle of Victoria Street's pho stops, Minh Tan 2 offers a daily yum cha. It's not a fancy affair here – walk in and there are roast ducks getting cleaved into pieces on one side, a cabinet of take-home egg tarts and pork buns on the other, and a brusque announcement of no split bills handwritten on the back of the till. Dishes can land with a complimentary splash on your clothes but when they do – especially if you order them fresh - you'll get quivering, custard-like tofu sitting in a sweet and peppery broth and topped with a chunky lid of prawn meat, and very hearty, tender siu mai.

190-192 Victoria Street, Richmond; 9427 7131

Yum cha daily, 10am-3pm

ALSO TRY

Mahjong in St Kilda for yum cha (almost) by the bay, Red Door Antiques in Windsor for dining on cushioned carved wooden beds and benches, Tai Pan in Doncaster for a suburban stalwart, Gold Leaf for a Docklands adventure and Shark Fin Inn for a Chinatown classic.

Want to try it at home?

You can buy bamboo steamers from most Asian grocers and order frozen dumplings, including roast duck ones, from Oriental Teahouse or, if you want to get really hands-on, the CAE has a 'Dumpling Mania' class taught by Lou Wong.