Chinese food is more often associated with takeaway boxes than with fine dining in Australia, but there’s much more to it than fried rice, chow mein and yum cha.
No 9 Palace in Dickson is aiming to challenge stereotypes about what Chinese restaurants have to offer with their luxurious and creative food. They describe it as ‘Art Chinese Fusion’ and ‘Palace Style’.
“We wanted to show something different. ‘Palace style’ means something you would give to a King or Queen,” restaurant manager Tony Lu told Region Media.
Many dishes on the menu at No 9 Palace are significant in Chinese culture, or have been served in a way that represents traditional Chinese symbols and customs. Even the name of the restaurant is meaningful: nine is an auspicious number in Chinese culture. Restaurant owner Michelle Chen says that they wanted to give people the opportunity to try a variety of traditional dishes that aren’t usually featured on menus, and offer some insight into Chinese history and legends.
As Michelle and Tony explained the stories behind the food we learnt about the Three Kingdom period of history, as well as myths and legends, love stories and heroic tales.
“When you eat this meal you will have more interest in Chinese culture and stories,” says Tony.
We start with the aptly named Mouthwatering Chicken: tender, moist skin-on chicken served with Szechuan chilli oil. Szechuan chillies cause a reaction on your tongue that makes you salivate, so the mouthwatering name is apt! We also try the Igloo Black Beef Tripe, which Tony describes as “Chinese foie gras”. It’s challenging to make tripe look pretty, but they’ve done their best with a bowl made of ice and fresh vegetable garnishes. We dip each dish in the soy dipping sauce which adds a salty complexity to the textural sensation of the tripe’s delicate crunch.
I’ve always been a big fan of dumplings, but I’d never seen anything like this before: goldfish dumplings. Don’t worry, they aren’t made from actual goldfish, they are just made to look like goldfish. With red bean eyes, plump bodies and orange splotches on fanlike tails that drape fluidly across the plate they look eerily lifelike! But we bravely bite into them anyway and any hesitations melt away. The chunky prawn filling is generous and very tasty, and the dumpling wrapper is perfectly chewy.
Tony explains the symbolism of the dish: “Goldfish are a wish for the New Year. When you have the fish, you will have good fortune.”
One of the most impressive dishes on the menu is ZhuGe’s Boat, which depicts an old story where decoy sailors made of straw were placed in boats to drift through the fog in order to trick the enemy. But instead of straw men we are served chargrilled kangaroo and beef skewers with chilli arms and pineapple hats standing upright in a large boat with a wave of dry ice fog drifting off the bow. It’s a real showstopper of a dish and I’m concerned about the possibility of style overtaking substance but the flavour of the skewers is fantastic. They’re spicy and well seasoned with cumin. The pieces of chilli and pineapple add a smokey sweetness which is a nice contrast to the meat, and the addition of beef softens the gamey flavour of the kangaroo.
The storytelling continues with a soup dish called Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, named because the soup is said to be so aromatic that some Buddhist monks were overwhelmed by the scent and jumped the wall to see what was cooking. The broth is cooked for 48 hours with mushrooms, sea cucumber, abalone and quail eggs to create a rich and flavourful soup. The texture is incredibly silky and the mushrooms have imparted a real savoury depth of flavour. I don’t know that I’d jump any walls for this bowl of soup, but it is a real pleasure to eat.
The royal treatment continues with Palace Duck served in a colourful treasure box with jewel-like tobiko (flying fish roe) scattered on top. I’m almost tempted to lift up the plate and see if any royal gold has been stashed underneath! Served with a plum sauce, the duck is very tasty with crispy skin, and juicy meat.
We finish the meal with a house-made mung bean cake and a tofu pannacotta, served in the shape of a peach. The pannacotta is especially tasty: silky smooth with a strawberry sauce.
A meal at No 9 Palace is an adventure through traditional Chinese storytelling and a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. There’s a real sense of playfulness and theatricality, but at its core, the menu has been cooked with skill and care. Not every dish is served on a boat or in a playful shape: there are definitely plenty of classic Szechuan and Chinese dishes to enjoy on a regular plate. But the drama adds a whole lot of fun, so why not have a little excitement in your life?
No 9 Palace is open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch from 12 noon to 2:30 pm, and dinner from 5 pm to 9 pm, at 13 Woolley St Dickson.