Fat Boy? Maybe the owners went with that because the Cantonese for “skinny white chicks who smoke a lot” didn’t sound quite as snappy as “fei jai”. Anyway, the chubby blokes are thin on the ground, and the slender and gabby Potts Pointers are packed tightly into the glow of the dim, dark single room and its tables out on Challis Avenue, smoking wherever and as much as they can.
Fei Jai is loosely modelled on Lau’s Family Kitchen, the popular homestyle Chinese restaurant opened a couple of years ago in St Kilda by the family of Gilbert Lau, the former restaurateur of Melbourne’s famed Flower Drum. Lau is a relative of Peter Lew, one of the Fei Jai partners, and though there’s no business connection between the two, the inspiration is pretty clear. The Sydney model comes kitted out with an inner-city-edgy look courtesy of designer Kelvin Ho, and a list of cocktails named for Chinese restaurants, Flower Drum included. They’re a bit on the girly side, though, so if you want your evening to remain apple schnapps-free, the wine list or longnecks of Tsingtao are better bets.
There’s plenty to like on the menu, and sharing is unquestionably the way to work it. Grab a few deeply scallopy dumplings (ignore your waiter’s exhortation to eat them without chilli sauce) and some meat-pie-rich lamb spring rolls – you can order both a piece at a time. Take a pass on the barbecue pork – it’s a far cry from Chinatown’s juicy best – and the flabby rice noodle rolls filled with mushrooms are solidly B-list, too.
If they’re specialling crab omelette or Singapore chilli prawns, though, stand to attention. The crab omelette is beautifully baveuse, pale, just-set egg folded around big chunks of crab meat, with nothing more than a tuft of coriander and a little dish of coarsely cracked black pepper as a garnish. The prawns meanwhile are fat, crunchy specimens, butterflied and bound in a thick, authentically ketchup-tangy Heinz-red sauce. Great dishes both.
The specials seem to be where it’s at; the wok-fried Patagonian toothfish listed among the main courses isn’t memorable, but the off-menu whiting fillets, steamed with ginger and green onion, have a classical elegance. There again, the poussin, a baby chicken deep-fried crisp, then jointed and set on the plate with spiced salt and lemon (squeeze the lemon into the powdery pepper-salt to make a dipping sauce), and the baby-soft slices of beef fillet are menu mainstays and among the best things on offer here.
If your China high has been coming courtesy of Chairman Mao, any of the newer Sichuan houses or even Spice Temple, Fei Jai may seem a little tame. But the idea here is Chinese comfort eating, only wrapped up in a slick package with hi-guys-how-you-doing service and fruity beverages, and it’s done well. A calling-all-cars destination restaurant? Maybe not, but it’s a great addition to the neighbourhood nonetheless, fattening boys, girls and everyone in between.