Oriental Teahouse, tucked away in Little Collins Street, is one of my favourite places to try and buy loose leaf teas. The store has a vast collection of teas that border between traditional and contemporary, such as the classic gunpowder green and more floral rose and jasmine black teas. Despite the quality of the tea, I was admittedly dubious when I saw the 'night beats and unlimited yum cha' sign in the window when I walked past.
Around lunch and dinnertime, traditional restaurants are loud, crowded and vibrant. No one orders their own dish in yum cha. Instead, people share food and drink tea together. Waiters push trolleys between tightly packed tables, explaining the contents of eight or nine different plates or towers of bamboo steamers as best as they can over the chatter around them. Each plate or bamboo steamer typically has three items of dim sum, and they're placed on a Lazy Susan so everyone can have a taste, whether you have one to yourself or share it with the person next to you. The teapot always runs out, so you take the lid off it and place it either askew or upside down and someone will fill it up within a few minutes.
Oriental Teahouse was both everything and nothing like I expected.
Gone was the the cavernous room with the expertly navigated trolleys, bamboo steamers and Mandarin and Cantonese conversations. Instead, Oriental Teahouse forges a restaurant and night that - just like their teas - is so entirely modern, but holds the traditional comforts from the yum cha I grew up with.
Each waiter carries a tray or bowl filled to the brim with one single type of dim sum and offers it to the table. Each person can have as many as they want (but there is so much variety that you could have one of everything and not need to eat for a week) and that item is either placed in the individual's bowl or on a more communal platter.
The intimate atmosphere of Oriental Teahouse lent this change to the yum cha tradition, and allowed for a rapport to happen between the more frequent waiters and the guests. I was particularly impressed by the employees who remembered we had a vegetarian in our midst and made a special effort to point out which of their trays were vegetarian friendly, and the final round they made at the end of both dinner and dessert in case any tables wanted anything more.
Throughout the entire night, music can be heard from the speakers, not loud enough to overpower the conversation, but a comforting beat that you can't help nodding along to. The night I was there, they played funk music and I'm not sure if this is what they usually play, but it was everything I didn't know I wanted.
The dim sum was delicious, although I suspect that it was toned down slightly to appeal to a broader audience. My friend and I were slightly disappointed by the lack of braised chicken feet.
Dinner was a relatively safe array of dumplings, wonton, fried rice, chicken san choi bao and vegetables. I found myself going out of my comfort zone by trying some of their spicier treats and almost crying at how good it was and how much it hurt to each. Desert was brief, as my friends and I had tried almost everything that had been offered to us and there wasn't much space left. Still, their white chocolate dumplings were astounding and worth the wait.
For a flat 'all you can eat' fee of $30, it was definitely a well-priced yum cha, but certainly not something I would regularly go to. If you're going for the genuine Cantonese cuisine experience, you might be better going to a different restaurant. But if you're looking for a special evening with a small group, this is the perfect restaurant for something new and different.