131 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Lunch and dinner daily|
|Features||Licensed, Yum cha, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9021 1099|
There's a certain poignancy about Red Emperor's new Chinatown address. The Southbank stalwart opened its Little Bourke Street offshoot late last year, taking over the site previously occupied by Shark Fin House. Those of us not suffering long COVID-induced brain fog might remember Shark Fin House was one of the virus' first and most prominent hospitality victims, its 31-year run cruelled even before the first lockdown.
But into the breach steps one of Melbourne's best-known Cantonese names, which has almost chalked up the same runs on the board in the longevity stakes. Red Emperor has survived 30 years of culinary trends, a GFC, a scandal (Google it) and a global pandemic, all in order to plant its trad-Canto flag in the CBD.
There's been an expensive renovation, the reported $1.5 million finding blingy expression in twinkling crystal light installations, splashes of white marble and golden tiles designed to evoke dragon scales. The linen is snowy white, the chairs sternly high-backed, the glassware polished and ready to justify the naughty end of the long, gem-studded wine list.
The menu, the same as Southbank's, is too big to really get a gauge on as a whole, although signatures such as Peking duck shine from the multi-page whirl.
The pancakes ($9 each) are steamed tableside, the ratio of juicy meat to cucumber and all the bits bang on, the theatre of its preparation assured. But the best thrill is the crisply toffeed skin, with a glass-like shatter that provokes ASMR-worthy tingles.
The menu runs to more than 90 items before you even get to the wince-inducing "Dundee's selection" of crocodile and kangaroo dishes. You'd have to be an arch contrarian not to find something here you want to eat. From the big-ticket items eyeballing diners from the fish tanks – hello, my market-price lovelies – to the spicy quail and the classic sweet and sour pork (I do; don't you?), it's a fever of indecision.
But it pays not to neglect the cold appetisers – the wood fungus ($16) all slippery-crunchy with the appetite-piquing spark of its chilli, garlic and black vinegar dressing, and smashed cucumber and garlic delivering that textbook refreshing crunch that lands somewhere between palate cleanser and salad.
Grey cubes of ox tongue in a creamy mustard sauce ($18) wallow in an offal-adjacent no-man's land, but the Cantonese love of steamed oysters ($6.50 each) proves a winner, the ginger and shallot dressing making like Chanel No.5 for the Tassie-bred Pacifics.
Does a visit to a Cantonese restaurant really occur if it doesn't involve pork belly? Here it's cooked in a master stock, steamed then fried – the sliced meat showcasing its five layers of happiness (crisp, fat, lean, fat, lean; repeat), the sauce all warmly spiced aromatics ($38) and glossy Chinese broccoli along as a colour counterpoint. Nix the thought of ordering rice in favour of a steamed "silver thread" roll ($4) – a hunk of doughy love that peels apart like a lotus flower for juice-sopping duties.
Leafing through past editions of The Good Food Guide reveals two Red Emperor constants: praise for the food tempered by a kvetch about the service ("sometimes lacks warmth" sums it up). We're here to report both traditions continue in the CBD, where even on a quiet night the service is mostly reactionary, with the plaintive hand flutter for the waiter's attention a Mexican wave jumping from table to table.
Yum cha takes a different footing. Maybe it's the urgent energy of the roving trolleys carrying towers of steamer baskets, the small army of suited waiters find their collective mojo pushing their wares.
You'll find glossy beef tendon and crunchy thickets of fried calamari but it's dumplings, mostly – fiery siu mai, translucent har gao, the fried pork and glutinous rice ham sui gok and finely pleated ginger and prawn numbers (three pieces, $10.50) that taste like the antidote to winter.
They're uniformly excellent and push a persuasive case for jumping on the $60 all-you-can eat bandwagon. (Word to the wise: those Peking duck pancakes can be summoned directly from the kitchen. You're welcome.)
Could this be Melbourne's best yum cha? The Southbank outlet has worn such a mantle at various points in its history, and the new kid on the block is certainly a contender for its own gong. Admittedly, for the poshness of a real-life tuxedo-clad piano player you need to head to Golden Dragon Palace in Templestowe.
But when you've got a hankering for the way Chinatown used to be – when a visit to its august Canto barns with their lazy susans and militant dumpling service was part of the weekend fabric of civic life – drop a pin on this optimistic newcomer. All hail the new Emperor.
Vibe Classic upmarket Canto
Go-to dish Steamed dim sum (3 pieces), $10.50
Cost $150 for two, plus drinks
Pro tip Get your dumpling fix with daily all-you-can-eat yum cha for $60
Larissa Dubecki is Good Food's acting chief reviewer. Besha Rodell is on leave.