My favourite Chinese restaurant in Melbourne, West Lake! I have come back to see you again.
West Lake Restaurant, which opened in 1982, is a long-standing Chinese favourite, super-popular with families. It is a large restaurant with two levels; and it can get very busy during mealtime, which makes the long-time employees quite edgy. The great thing about them is that one can order without the menu; if they can cook the dish and they have the ingredients, they will take the order.
Placing snacks on the table while you order and wait for food has been a Chinese restaurant tradition in SE Asia and Hong Kong. These were usually some pickles or braised peanuts. In Malaysia and Singapore, we would sometime get keropok (prawn or fish crackers) and salted peanuts. I was surprised that they did that here in West Lake.
1/Salt and pepper quails 椒盐鹌鹑
First up, an appetiser. This classic salt-and-pepper 椒盐 technique can be used on any poultry. They ran out of pigeons so we ordered quails 鹌鹑 instead. Three quails chopped into halves and deep-fried and then sautéed with salt and pepper.
The bird retained its moisture despite the deep frying. The final sautéed locked the flavours onto every bit of the quail. A very delicious first bite with our first beers.
2/ Ginger and scallions rock lobster with deep fried noodles “shang mee” 姜葱龙虾生面底
West Lake has live seafood tanks, which means that the seafood is as fresh as it gets. And they were doing an offer for live Australia rock lobster. We took a 3.5 kg one that was resisting its final destination on our plates!
The lobster was cooked with ginger and scallions with the usual condiments: Chinese cooking wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, MSG. Nothing would taste good in Chinese cooking with the magical MSG. Of course, you can ask them to leave it out and they would use chicken powder (which is laden with sodium salt) instead. For me, MSG is fine.
This technique of preparing the lobster is called “zham kin” 斩件, or chopped into pieces, which can be a challenge for my Western friends as you need to work through the shell with chopsticks.
You might have thought that it would be like instant noodles but it cannot be done with the factory made ones. The “shang mee” 生面 or deep fried egg noodles was prepared fresh on a super hot wok for that wokhei and then the sauce poured on top. The noodles absorbed all the sauce and rehydrated with all the flavours.
3/ Sautéed Pipi clams with XO sauce and fritters XO酱炒大蚬
Pipi clams, sometime referred to as surf clams here in Singapore, are indigenous to Australia. They used to be cheap and good eats, but with the influx of Chinese tourists, pipi clams have pretty much became endangered in the colder waters of Tasmania and Victoria. They are wonderful sautéed with XO sauce. And the Australian twist to this dish? Fried dough fritters soaked in the sauce, which had the same effect as fried buns with chilli crab sauce.
4/ Lamb Brisket Stew with Bean Curd Skin 腐竹羊腩煲
Lamb Brisket Stew with Bean Curd Skin 腐竹羊腩煲 is one of their signature dish and a Winter season favourite. Although it was almost Spring when we visited, the weather was freakish and dropped to 10˚C just the night before. So a boiling lamb brisket casserole was in order.
It came with a side of crown daisy 茼蒿菜, which is a bit bitter but the perfect companion to any hotpot. Teochews love their crown daisy and we would pay extra during Chinese New Year to have them with our steamboats.
In the boiling casserole kept hot with a campfire cooker underneath, you can add anything you would like into the casserole after the lamb briskets and bean curd skin ran out. The complex and savoury stock made from chu hou sauce 柱侯酱 and dried orange peel 陈皮 would work with any red meat and leafy vegetable. In fact, Cantonese would use the same sauce to braise beef brisket and pork knuckles.
5/ Leopard Coral Grouper in Two Ways 红星斑两吃
The Leopard Coral Grouper 东星斑 has a beautiful red body with little spots. It is a highly prized fish especially during Chinese New Year celebration. In the wild it is now endangered and Chinese government has stopped the fishing of the wild variety of this fish. But we ate tonight was a farmed fish from local fishery. This is now a major export to China as well. As this was a large fish, we had to cooked it two ways.
The first method, the classic sautéed grouper fillets with celery and sweet peas 斑腩球炒西芹. These days we seldom see this method of cooking grouper fillets as celery has gone out of fashion in restaurants. The natural sweetness of the grouper came out distinctly and we loved the crunchy rom the sweet peas and celery.
The second method of preparation had the remaining fish bones and belly chopped into large piece, coated with flour and deep fried. The deep fried fish pieces were then sautéed with salt and pepper. This was not popular with the Westerners as there were fish bones and they were not used to be served fish with their bones still intact.
6/ Scallops with truffle sauce 黑松露带子
Australia produces two things that we treasure a lot in cooking – scallops and truffles. And so every time I entertain guests from Singapore, I would order scallops with truffle sauce 黑松露带子. There were a generous amount of scallops for a dish that cost $40. The truffle pesto used was those bottled ones with just a bit of truffle taste left. These pesto is usually made from bits of truffles that could not be sold, and you can buy them from LGA at less than $15 a bottle. I used them in my pasta to lift it up with an additional dimension in terms of flavour.
7/ Sizzling “Jer Jer” Kangkong 嘟嘟通菜
There are two thoughts on how this method of cooking came about. One is that it was born on the streets of Guangzhou in the 1980s, and the other is that it originated from the kitchens of Huishijia 惠食佳 in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the sizzling claypot cooking method called “jer jer bo” 嘟嘟煲 in Cantonese is relatively new but it has become a famous Cantonese cuisine with its complete interpretation of “sound, colour and taste” in one dish.
First, the claypot is heated together with Chinese sausages, garlic, chilli. A plate of sautéed kangkong is then added at table side and cooked for the final few minutes to combine the tastes. The heat retaining property of the claypot ensure that the kangkong remain crispy and warm throughout. Absolutely fabulous.
These came complimentary on the house, which made me worried about my bill for the evening.
This white sugar sponge cake recipe or “baak tong gou” 白糖糕 in Cantonese is made from just a few ingredients—rice flour, sugar, yeast—has long been a favourite of young kids. We used to get this from yum cha but this has disappeared from the trolleys of Hong Kong and Singapore. What a nostalgic taste, this cake tastes exactly how I remembered it.
This is another disappearing dessert. Red bean paste pancake 豆沙煎饼 is very easy to make as well as good to eat. Sweet red bean paste is wrapped in a thin layer of dough (some used filo pastry in a luxe upgrade) and then pan fried to crispy. I wished they had a bit more red bean paste though.
This place is nostalgic on many fronts. I have been there every time I am back in the city, with colleagues, with family, alone. Just like many who have came before me, we all missed the Hong Kong restaurant atmosphere that we could no longer get back where it all started. 人情味, literally translated as “taste of people”; the genuine interactions between people with common backgrounds and culture – that’s what is missing in the F&B these days.
West Lake is also a great, authentic yum cha experience. This restaurant is spacious and renowned for serving up excellent yum cha off the trolley until 5pm (you have to order off the menu at other times). It’s open seven days a week and open until really, really late. I am just glad they are still around after this pandemic that has taken the toll on many of my favourites.
West Lake Restaurant 西湖大酒家
189 Little Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
Tel： +61 3 9662 2048
Visited Oct 2022