111 Lonsdale St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun noon-3.30pm; 5.30-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9663 3999|
Perhaps too much has been said about the quietness of Melbourne's streets and not enough about how exciting it is to start walking them again. Of course, there are the tragic pangs of retreading familiar paths and finding a well-loved venue hasn't made it.
But hope springs eternal in Melbourne, and while many doors have closed, other chapters have opened, including the tale of Wu Mi Zhou, a restaurant specialising in porridge hotpots and Shunde foods from China's far south-east.
Wu Mi Zhou glows bright from the ground floor of the Lonsdale Street site you might know for its subterranean star, Bar Margaux. It opened last January, but between Australia's devastating bushfires and the onset of the pandemic, its arrival went under the radar.
Ka Chun Chan, who runs front of house for the family business, says the timing was particularly unfortunate. Their other restaurant, Ziweiyuan, has always catered to Monash students at Malvern East. They, like the investors responsible for bringing popular Asian restaurants such as Go Noodle, Panda Hot Pot, and Tian Tian to the CBD and Carlton, were hoping to target homesick internationals with the hard-to-find specialties of this tiny food-oriented pocket in China's far south.
It remains unclear when or if the international study market will rebound to its previous levels. In the meantime, there's much to appreciate in having a restaurant dedicated to Shun Tak dishes, which chef and author Tony Tan says could be described as a sub-region of Cantonese food. To appreciate the specificity, Shunde was formerly a district of the city of Foshan in the Guangdong province, but Tan says many chefs hail from that region.
This is almost two restaurants in one. There is a large menu of hot dishes and small plates with some familiar highlights – crisp-skinned roast duck; crunchy cucumbers bashed into refreshing ragged hunks and tumbled with chilli, garlic and soy; and hefty comfort dishes catering to its student base, including a stir-fry using rich and fatty pork jowl, and big bowls of fried rice peppered with gelatinous scallop.
There are also some lesser-seen dishes, such as an omelette peppered with tiny whitebait and a half duck, including its neck and wing tips, braised in a dark soy base with tangerine peel. Unfortunately, some of the more labour-intensive dishes the region is known for, such as the sticky rice dumplings, are billed but unavailable until business is booming a little more.
But the pull power is in the second menu, entirely dedicated to the porridge hotpots originating in Guangdong. The antithesis of a fiery chilli-slicked Sichuan cauldron, these are all soothing succour, built on the starchy, mellow, nutty, and gingery base of a congee stripped of its grains.
There are myriad combinations on the menu, including the house signature hotpot, which comes stewed with clams, abalone and fish maw and can be eaten as is without any further embellishments. But most tables prefer the flexibility of starting with a simple base (we opt for the most basic, which is peppered with more of those gelatinous balls of scallop and waxy, chewy and slightly bitter gingko nuts) and choosing their own adventure based on the myriad ingredients you can add to the pot.
The pickings on this front are rich. Slices of lotus root, fresh thatches of pak choi and big blousy clouds of black fungus add freshness and textural crunch. Ruby and crimson slices of raw beef, venison or pig's liver give the stock a shot of umami and iron, though you could entirely steer your ship into the high seas with abalone, fish maw, the delicate and chewy texture of crocodile or light and fluffy Shunde-style fishballs made by pounding the flesh of a (secret) fish into the stickiest of pastes.
It is a haven for nose-to-tail fans, too, with an abundant choice of salted duck gizzards, tripe and little curls of pig fallopian tube which, one we have dunked them, have the tender texture of cooked calamari with a highly porcine flavour.
It's worth noting that on early weeknights, hotpot is your only option and this is an all-DIY (dunk it yourself) service scenario. That said, Chan keeps a close eye on the room, offering advice on what to dunk and when and reminding eaters that this is the most high-maintenance of hotpots, with the starchy base requiring constant agitation to keep from sticking to the base. As dunking slows, the rice grains removed ahead of time are returned to turn what remains into a thick flavoursome stew for a final comfort sucker punch.
The venue is licenced, although the offering is minimalist: Asahi, Tsingtao and Crown Lagers, with two red and two white wines. That does, however, lend itself to ending a visit with three-sip martinis from Bar Margaux downstairs.
Dessert? A light and mellow gelatinous double-layer milk custard is crowned with sweet red beans. It's a shot in the arm for anyone homesick for the sweet discoveries of dining in Melbourne's CBD.
Pro Tip: It's all about the hotpot, and take note this is all that's available early week.