Lau’s Family Kitchen is hands down my favourite Cantonese restaurant in Melbourne. Yes I also have favourite yum cha joints, or spots to go to when I crave some dumpling action. But when it comes to going out for a dinner that I know is going to be pitch perfect every time, I go to Lau’s. Why? Great food combined with attentive and informed service.
As good as the food is at any restaurant, what happens front of house is of equal importance. At Lau’s the service hits the mark each time I go, whether providing advice on what to order and making sure you are ordering a balance of dishes; sending out double or one-and-a-half sizes of dishes to ensure everyone at the table gets enough; through to magically appearing when you are about to ask for more rice or extra chilli sauce. It is nice going out to dinner and knowing that you are being taken care of, which is especially important when you go to the earlier sitting (sittings are either 6pm or 8pm) and they ensure the pace of food is spot-on so you do not run out of time and get rushed off the table as can happen elsewhere. The other unique element to the service is that many of the dishes are presented to the table and then whisked off to the side to be plated up as individual serves (also a good foil for people who like to photograph everything they eat- guilty!).
The name likely gives it away, but the restaurant is run by the Lau family, including Gilbert Lau who opened and ran Melbourne icon Flower Drum for many years, along with his sons Michael and Jason. The concept here is to present contemporary takes on traditional Cantonese dishes, you know the ones that have developed bad reputations from food court bain maries, all in a casual atmosphere. It means that dishes will sound familiar, but when prepared with quality produce and ingredients by a deft hand in the kitchen and landing on your table moments later, the difference is mind blowing.
Spring rolls arrive fresh from the fryer with crisp, almost flaking, pastry, filled with rich, slow cooked Saltgrass lamb, and hoisin sauce on the side. Calamari is fried in light, super crisp batter but still soft and tender on the inside, with a scattering of chilli and onion on top. Each person is given their own wedge of lemon along with Sichuan pepper and salt to sprinkle as liberally as you choose, easily making one of the best versions of the ubiquitous salt and pepper calamari you will ever eat.
Rice noodle rolls, which often end up as a gluey mess at most yum cha restaurants, are served as they should be, a rolled sheet of steamed rice noodle with distinct layers. The filling can vary, often spinach, sometimes mushrooms, but the sweet and salty sauce served over them is always delicious. Singapore style prawns serves juicy, plump prawns with a punchy chilli sauce, but not drenched in the sauce as you often find with this type of dish- there is nothing worse than wasting beautiful ingredients by drowning them.
As with all good Cantonese cooking, the art is in the simplicity of what is on the plate and highlighting the quality of the ingredients. So while a dish like the steamed Patagonian toothfish dressed with a soy broth might seem like something you have seen before or could whip up at home, the degree of cooking on the fish is immaculate and the balance of the sauce is perfect. The same goes for the eye fillet of beef, something that seemed so simple that I avoided ordering it, a foolish mistake. Generous chunks of beef, blushing red inside, stir fried with a subtle hit of ginger and al dente green vegetables.
Some of my favourite dishes to order are the ma po tofu and the sweet vinegar pork loin. The first dish is a classic; tofu floating in a complex sauce of minced pork and Sichuan chilli, a perfect example of a dish that does not need to be reinvented, just executed well. The pork is their take on sweet and sour pork, but with no red gloopy sauces in sight, instead a well balanced sauce of vinegar with just the right amount of sweetness. The pork itself is lightly battered and moist inside, plated simply with wilting onion and crisp daikon.
Usually after a meal at Lau’s I am far too full for dessert, as I am in love with most of the menu, as you can see. There are a couple of desserts on the menu, but a simple platter of fresh fruit can often be the best way to end the night.
Lau’s Family Kitchen is one of those gems that does not get much publicity in the media, but it is always busy (make sure to book ahead!) because of the loyal customers who go back again and again, and the word of mouth from them raving to everyone about it (guilty on that front). Clean and fresh modern versions of traditional Cantonese dishes breathe life back into a cuisine that has been left in ruins by bad takeaway joints. Match that with the crack front of house team and you have Lau’s, my favourite spot in Melbourne for a Cantonese dinner.