Perhaps it's reflective of the drastic cultural shift that China has undergone in the past decade, but Chinese restaurants in Melbourne are coming to the table with a more sophisticated aesthetic and offering than ever before, and from where we’re sitting, that’s only a good thing.
Last month we received Lee Ho Fook with its sharp cocktails and modern take on prawn toasts, and now here’s Ruyi: Sheng and Qian Qian Lou-Fang's first venture (though they’ve supplied other restaurants for years through their wholesale business, Old Town Noodlery) that takes to the Chinese eatery stereotype of loud, gaudy emporiums of lanterns, tat and beef in black bean with a sledgehammer.
The beauty of Ruyi is in its sheer defiance of expectations. You’ll be sitting on wooden benches softened with canvas and tanned leather cushions with ceramic cup clasped in hand and Phil Collins trickling into your ear. It’s a sparse Hecker Guthrie-designed room in olives, beiges, concrete and woods that’s far more Aesop shop than Shanghai Village – an effect compounded by a mostly French wait staff all frocked up in those cross-strapped pinnies.
The crew are a little timid on our visit and yet to get a full grasp of the internationally adventurous wine list, but it’s hard to go wrong regardless. A Port Phillip Estate Salasso rose, the Spanish tempranillo and a rounded Pazos de Lusco Zios Albarino counter everything that comes their way.
You’ll come for the dumplings. And you should. Gingery pork mince is captured in ragged wantons made slick by the spicy, piquant pool of chilli oil and Chinese vinegar they’re served swimming in. They also happen to make a hell of a crab xiao long bao – everyone’s favourite soup-filled pinch-topped pouches, here holding a loose cargo of fresh crabmeat and pork mince lightly flecked with coriander root in a rich viscous broth.
But you’d be a fool if you treated this like just another dumpling house. The chefs, both poached from the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, have injected the menu with seasonal produce and they riff on the traditional well.
So while on the one hand you might be eating Peking duck – juicy breast with a rich layer of crisp skin and soft fat bursting out of pre-rolled hoisin-slicked pancake cones like excellent carnival snacks, you could just as easily be crunching spring rolls filled with a subtle soft mix of diced scallops and sweet mango. They're also pushing some of the best pickles in town. A flower bloom of Chinese cabbage is sharp, funky and fiery from a fermentation in a sweet miso and horseradish-based marinade.
Not everything is an instant hit. Crimp-edged san choi bao-style lettuce cups hold a slightly miserly and subtle serve of chicken mince and pine nuts in a glutinous sauce, and a trio of grilled cod cutlets riding on a mountain of honeyed and peppered potato wedges is a table divider.
Ruyi isn't cheap. It's not meant to be. It's also not loud, wild or desperate to prove how funky it can be. It's a sophisticated restaurant pitched at an adventurous crowd seeking the brave new world of Chinese.