I’ve always been lukewarm about Yum Cha.
You see, I appreciate the concept of nose to tail eating, but for the love of God why would anyone in their right mind want to eat chicken’s feet – don’t you know where they’ve been? Just the sight of those gnarly, gelatinous, shrapnel filled chicken tootsies turns me green. However, chicken’s feet are not the only reason behind my absence of enthusiasm for the Aussie Sunday brunch tradition of Yum Cha.
I prefer my Sunday brunches peaceful and relaxed and with coffee; distinct from the racket of a Yum Cha hall filled with hundreds of diners competing in noisy conversation across Lazy Susans, pots of Chinese tea and the clanging of trolley carts. Also, unless I have a hangover that needs quelling, I find it difficult to eat a meal that’s wholly white and yellow food – like the traditional Yum Cha offerings of pork buns, prawn dumplings, rice noodle rolls and egg tarts. All I can say is blame the British television series ‘You Are What You Eat’. Another thing – I find it terribly awkward to refuse a dish once the lady driving the trolley cart has parked next to me at the table and done her reveal. I don’t want to seem ungrateful – except for chicken’s feet – I simply can’t keep a poker face about those! Finally, I habitually overindulge at Yum Cha; tempted by too many bamboo streamers of infinite dumplings, which means post brunch calls for Yoga pants and the couch as I slip into a dehydrated food coma.
Then a friend said let’s do Yum Cha at Orient Express in Byron Bay.
I have enjoyed dinner at Orient Express plenty of times in the past but I have only recently dabbled in their Yum Cha menu which is available Thursday to Sunday from 11.30am – 4.30pm. A tip – on the weekends I highly recommend you make a booking as it is always a popular choice for locals and tourists.
It is not the ‘traditional’ style of Yum Cha that Aussie devotees would be used to. Hooray! There’s not a chicken’s foot, Lazy Susan or trolley dolly in sight and, sitting outdoors on the balcony at Orient Express, the loudest sound you will hear is the waves at Main Beach across the road. Don’t worry, on a breezy or wet day you can comfortably hunker down indoors in the Chinese styled space of dark antique timber, Asian artefacts and splashes of red.
The Yum Cha menu at Orient Express includes around 30 dishes, which are all fairly priced at $7.90. In place of the trolley tradition you order your selections with the wait staff at the start and you can add more as you go along if needed. Be warned though, the dishes are well sized so maybe start gently!
I have been back to Orient Express for Yum Cha on several occasions in the last couple of months on different days of the week and I have enjoyed it every time. On one Friday I was with a friend who is gluten intolerant and she was over the moon to know that almost half of the Yum Cha menu is gluten free. Also, the lunchtime crowd on Friday was smaller than Sunday you might want to consider a weekday visit. In terms of my recommendations I’ve yet to order a dish that I did not enjoy but the Pork and Shallot Pot Stickers, the Crispy Sichuan Spiced Soft Shell Crab, the Steamed Silken Tofu and Assorted Mushrooms with Miso and Shallot Dressing and the Crispy Pork Belly in Honey and Oyster Glaze are a good starting point for two people. Before the dishes commence, diners are presented with a selection of fresh, house prepared condiments and some refreshing pickled vegetables to get your palate primed. For me, the best part about the Orient Express version of Yum Cha is that each dish is balanced with a vegetable or salad accompaniment – not so much of the white and yellow! And of course, in the Yum Cha tradition, Orient Express offers a premium tea menu, which you can order in small or large pots.
Six nights a week (the restaurant is closed on Wednesdays), Orient Express is an Asian eatery that offers an extensive menu of Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Malay, Thai and Sri Lankan dishes. Most Curry, Noodle and Vegetarian dishes are priced under $20. Be warned again that the serving sizes are really generous. Dishes to try are the Sung Choi Bau – almost a meal on their own – and the Mandarin Duck Pancakes for Starters. For Mains it is hard to go past the Crispy Duck with Orange Caramel Sauce served on Steamed Greens and the Char-Grilled Rib Eye Steak (for 2-4 people) with a Thai style Chilli, Lime and Peanut dressing.
There are other regular specials that are worth recommending as well including the Sashimi Salad, the Laos Rice Salad and don’t say no to the Crispy Whole Snapper if it’s available. There are plenty of vegetarian options and all dishes on the Noodle and Curry Menus can be prepared Gluten Free.
If you have room for dessert you simply cannot go past the Fried Banana in Coconut Batter with Cinnamon and Nutmeg spiced sugar and the most divine house made banana ice-cream you will try. And yes – it’s gluten free! I can’t stress enough how BIG this dessert is – it’s made for sharing so get at least two spoons!
The restaurant is licensed and has an extensive wine list with some good selections by the glass. They also do some fantastic cocktails which are perfect for a balmy Summer’s night listening to the ocean as they daylight fades.
There’s plenty of good things to say about Orient Express – and I can now say that I have found Yum Cha that I really do enjoy – I only wish I had dabbled sooner. Now, what have we planned this Sunday?