“If you grind a metal pole hard enough, it will eventually become a needle,” David Zhou tells me. He’s quoting an old Chinese proverb about persistence and hard work – something that resonates strongly with the David’s owner. “You need to be crazy. And persistent.”
And Zhou is undoubtedly persistent. David’s has undergone several transformations over the years. It’s gone from a humble tea warehouse with a single table to a pioneer of contemporary Shanghainese cuisine in Melbourne. Now in the restaurant’s 20th year of operation, Zhou and his team are trading a large menu of soups and stir-fries for a smaller and more refined offering.
Head chef Chen Xiang Le and executive chef Wan Yuan have spent time at Shanghai dining institutions Lao Fan Dian (one of the city’s oldest restaurants) and T8 Bar & restaurant, a modern Euro-Asian fine diner, respectively. The two bring Chinese, French and Italian influences to the new menu.
One of the new dishes is the Drunken Oyster, a sweet and fresh spin on the classic Chinese cold starter Drunken Chicken. A single oyster comes topped with an Italian-style granita made using Shaoxing wine (it’s traditionally used to marinate the chicken) and a couple of pickled goji berries.
Other small plates include king prawns with homemade fermented chilli bean paste, cumin-spiced lamb with flatbread, and fried chicken ribs with Sichuan pepper and chilli.
Larger is the veal short rib, which Zhou describes as a grown-up’s version of sweet and sour. The rib is slow-cooked and glazed with a dark, sticky sugar and vinegar sauce, balanced by a creamy celeriac purée.
But not everything on the menu is new. David’s xiao long bao, with its thin skin and porky soup filling, arguably kicked off the dumpling’s popularity in Melbourne in the early 2000s. Avoid scalding your lips by taking a small bite off the top and allowing some soup to drain onto your spoon.
Another mainstay is the sticky pork belly, a comforting dish made by slow-cooking pork belly in a soy, star anise and ginger stock, which is then reduced to a thick, caramelised sauce. Order eggplant on the side – simmered until ultra-soft and livened up with chilli, black vinegar and garlic – or stir-fried green beans with pork floss.
Zhou admits he doesn’t love classic Chinese desserts, many of which are made from red beans or black sesame, so all-things sweet at David’s build on the flavour profiles found in his teas. A chocolate fudge cake infused with jasmine tea has a light floral aroma. It comes served with a delicate tofu-oolong cream.
Jiuniang, a fermented glutinous rice pudding, is cleverly transformed into a sherbet and served with poached pears and figs. The light fragrance from the fermented rice makes this combination reminiscent of a cheese and fruit pairing.
And while a few things have changed, David’s much-loved all-you-can-eat Shanghainese yum cha isn’t going anywhere. Every Saturday and Sunday for $45 and $48 respectively you can feast on dishes from the new menu.
David’s was last renovated in 2012 by design firm Hecker Guthrie. The walls and high ceilings were painted off-white, and a few simple design elements gave a nod to old Shanghai. Chinoiserie-style lamps emit a wonderfully dim glow. But the space continues to evolve. “Shanghai is always changing, but I want locals to come in and experience the essence of my hometown that I remember,” Zhou says. “I’ve been trying to do this for 20 years.”
He’s reconfigured the furniture to allow a more open feel towards the rear, and black-and-white family photos have also been installed as a nostalgic nod to his childhood.
4 Cecil Place, Prahran
(03) 9529 5199
Mon & Tue 6pm–10pm
Wed & Thu 12pm–3pm, 6pm–10pm
Fri 12pm–3pm, 6pm–11pm
Sat 11.30am–3pm, 6pm–11pm
Sun 11.30am–3pm, 6pm–10pm