Eater’s Digest

Food fads come and go but some dishes are lodged forever on restaurant menus. SIMON PLANT and TIM STONEY taste six immortal morsels.

KYLIE and Dannii Minogue can’t get enough of it. Neither can Sam Newman or Kate Ceberano. Even visitors from interstate have been known to order some and take it home with them on the plane.

What they all share is a passion for chicken butter-cream curry at Bedi’s.

The dish has been on the menu of this South Melbourne Indian restaurant since it opened 10 years ago. And 80 per cent of customers on any one night are sure to order it.

“One of our chefs finds it a bit of a drag to cook the same thing over and over again,” says proprietor Davinder Bedi. “But it’s what keeps us all in a job. If I was to take chicken butter-cream curry off the menu, I might as well close down.”

This is not an isolated phenomenon. All across Melbourne, there are signature dishes forever etched onto restaurant menus. Dishes that diners dream about, talk about, and eat whenever they can.

Some people can’t imagine dinner at the Flower Drum without its Peking duck or a table at Marchetti’s Latin without its ink-black spaghettini neri. Gary Jones would lose a lot of custom if he ever ditched his fricasee of pig at Jones’, while Madam Fang chef Beh Kim Un’s classic Monsoon oysters are enjoying their 10th year.

Then there is Maxim’s chocolate souffle. Vincent Rosales introduced this sinfully rich dessert in 1957, and it still accounts for 25 per cent of his souffle orders.

“We have a lot of people who can’t afford to come for dinner,” Rosales says. “But they come in late, especially for the souffle.” How can this madness be explained? Some suggest it is a reaction against the mind-spinning diversity of today’s dining-out scene. The more choice we get, the more we hanker for the comfort and security of familiar dishes. Restaurateur John Dunham, who manages Isthmus of Kra and Madam Fang, takes a different view and puts it down to memory.

“The most successful dishes are those that reference people’s childhood or have ingredients that were special in the past,” he says. “At the same time, to last they have to have a little bit of flair. A touch of theatre.”

Theatre is a key ingredient in perhaps the most famous signature dish of all: pressed duck at Tour D’Argent in Paris. This dish has been served for more than a century, and each bird is still individually numbered and sacrificed according to immutable ritual.

Recipes for the classic canard are available to all, but you can’t catch the essence of a great dish in a book. The preparation of Flower Drum’s Peking duck is a painstaking labor and involves precise roasting techniques.

“We prepare the ducks the day before to get the flavor just right,” proprietor Gilbert Lau says. “It’s a lot of work but very popular. We probably do 40 a day.”

Jones’ pig fricasee sounds equally exotic, but this union of pigs’ skin, tongue. ears, and trotters is an earthy Yorkshire classic.

“I call it coal-miner’s food,” Yorkshireman Gary Jones says. “It makes a statement about where I come from.”

No wonder he serves his fricasee with black pudding and bubble and squeak.

Then there is the Latin’s spaghettini neri. Try to make this dish at home and you would have black squid ink from one nd of the kitchen to the other. Let Bill Marchetti handle it and you are guaranteed a dish of startling color and robust flavor.

Classic dishes may be hard to shift, but subtle changes are made to accommodate changing tastes. Next time you order Monsoon oysters at Madam Fang, check out the indented ceramic dish. It was the color of terracotta in the old days. Now it is smooth, gleaming black.

“It’s our updated 1996 model,” Dunham explains.

“The irony is, other restaurants have started to add Monsoon oysters to their menus thinking it is a real Thai dish. It’s a wholly Australian invention whose appeal, I think, has as much to do with plating as the actual taste.”

The special sauce Beh Kim Un applies to his oysters remains a closely guarded secret. And the same goes for Davinder Bedi’s chicken butter-cream curry.

“There are no new ingredients in the dish,” the Indian restauranteur says. “It’s just the special combination and the quantities.”

The biggest secret, of course, is how a restaurant can develop a signature dish and keep it. You won’t find the answer in a cookbook. It is all to do with passion, commitment, and consistency.

And just a little bit of luck.