Hidden behind a humble facade in Dickson, Canberra's Chinatown, something exciting is cooking. No 9 Palace is bringing a whole new dining experience complete with a hint of art, theatre and flair. Depending on what you order, you might see ZhuGe's boat sail to your table in a cloud of dry ice, the Palace Duck served up in a jewel box or even tripe decorating its own little igloo. Billed as Art Chinese Fusion, the food here tells a story and each dish is crafted to perfection with both flavour and presentation dialled up. The welcome is warm and you know you're in for a quality experience when the waiter carefully adds freshly sliced lemon to each water glass as you're seated - this is the first hint of the little touches which elevate the No 9 Palace experience and ensure you'll have an unforgettable meal.
The menu is fairly extensive and offers both a la carte and banquet options. Buying into the Art Chinese Cuisine concept, even the names of the dishes are creative - Lover's Tears, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall and even Sauna Beef (cooked with a bit of theatre at the table) are all on the menu. In the end, we opt for the banquet to sample a range of dishes. When considering the 'art food' concept of the restaurant, I expect tiny, pretty morsels to appear with long gaps in between courses but the portions for each course are actually quite generous and the food comes out fast and steady.
The lychee prawns are perfect for 'fashion food' lovers!
The Peking duck pancakes are absolutely divine. As a dish that can vary from succulent perfection to bland, stodgy disappointment, this version is near perfect and packed full of flavour - the pancake reminds me of roti, a nice crunch before it melts away and the duck is top-notch.
There is no doubt the goldfish dumplings are the star of the meal, they swim to our table looking alarmingly lifelike. The detail in the appearance of the dish is amazing and thankfully, the flavour matches - this dish is not a one-trick pony and even my six-year-old is happy to dig in once we explain they aren't real goldfish.
An all-around favourite at our table is the lychee prawns. This dish is shamelessly marked on the menu as being for fashion food lovers so if you still snap your food for socials, they're a must-try. Shaped to look like the pretty fruit, there is no lychee in the dish which is actually deep-fried prawn and cheese balls. The sweet and slightly spicy sauce is a perfect match adding to but not overwhelming the prawn flavour.
The salmon Royal Boat is laden with a precious, delicious cargo - on paper there is a lot going on with nori, sweet chilli sauce, mustard seeds and even basil but the fusion of flavours somehow comes together and makes this dish hard to resist.
The five-spice beef tacos are bite-sized flavour bombs. The beef reminds me of jerky, an intense little piece of food wrapped in a crispy shell snug under some intensely flavoured sauces. This divides the table a little but in the end, nobody dislikes it, it just isn't the favourite either.
The Palace Corn Pancakes (corn and condensed milk) are sadly the most disappointing dish. Perhaps a victim of their placement as the last morsel in a long line of culinary slam dunks, this looks average and tastes the same with a bland flavour and unappealing presentation. But on reflection, it's easy to forgive one blip when the rest of the meal was a gift from the gourmet gods.
If you want delicious food, pretty food, photogenic food or just want to support a Canberra restaurant trying something a little out of the usual box, No 9 Palace won't disappoint. It's bringing some fun and creativity to the Dickson food scene while managing to add a little fine-dining finesse to your Chinese food. If you plan to visit, consider booking at busy times to ensure your table then pack your camera, your appetite and enjoy.