At first glance Ruyi looks and sounds like a Japanese restaurant. Its laneway windows display blond wood furniture, handmade ash and concrete light fittings (from France), white tiling and small gold details. The Japanese-style aesthetic continues with the custom handmade crockery by Melbourne ceramic artist Andrei Davidoff.
But this cool, serene laneway restaurant is actually a modern Chinese restaurant. It serves mostly Cantonese favourites, with some Sichuan and Shanghai dishes thrown into the mix.
We visited on a weekday lunch when it was fairly empty. A shame because their set lunch menu of $18 is great value and you’ll definitely come out full. Not to mention soothed by the quiet and subtle interior and the friendly service.
The two of us shared one $18 set menu and one $35 set menu, which included some overlapping dishes. First up was the soup of the day fragrant duck and tofu broth, with tangles of eggwhite swirled throughout. It was warming and hearty without being heavy and flavours of all the various elements shone through.
From the $18 menu came one ‘bao bao’ with a curious combination of chicken, mayonnaise and coriander. The bao itself was feather-light marshmallow so on balance still a winner.
From the $35 menu came the lettuce cup with a choice of waygu, chicken, seafood or vegetarian fillings. The frilled lettuce leaf was daintily presented in a specialist egg-cup style plate and the filling was on the verge of being too soggy – but overall not bad.
Back to the $18 menu came some fried chicken wings. They looked blackened and burnt but in fact the crust had retained the juiciness of the meat and they were an unexpected highlight of our meal.
Another highlight were the handmade chilli wontons, fat slippery parcels in a soy and vinegar based broth. They were not just stodgy meatballs wrapped in dough but elegant parcels of pork and prawn and our waitress advised us to scoop the leftover sauce onto our bowls of steamed rice.
Our least favourite dish were the thickset, heavy pan fried pork and chive dumplings, a stark contrast to the lightness of the wontons.
The main course from the $35 menu was a choice of kung pao chicken, citrus pork, oyster beef steak or vegetarian. Our kung pao chicken was not overly fried and not too sweet or sour. But without the numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns it detracted from the authenticity of the dish, so I’d describe it as a lightly-flavoured sweet and sour chicken instead.
As one of the owners noticed me taking photographs she offered one of their desserts for us to try. We each received a serve of warm sticky rice pudding ($12) with a mound of warm sticky rice, a drizzle of coconut sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with pistachios. It was a dessert that I’d not normally order but it was very good – not too sweet thanks to the relatively bland rice and a playful contrast between hot and cold on the plate. My only gripe would be that the ice cream could have been better quality – no evidence of vanilla beans in the making of the commercial product that I could see.
Overall we really enjoyed our lunch at Ruyi. The Hecker Guthrie decor is to die for – a polished Scandinavian palate with hints of warmth and lots of beautiful little details. Everything has a feeling of being handcrafted and handmade and its a space that’s obviously been built with love. The food was just as well presented and included many familiar Chinese dishes done without fluorescent artificial colours, excess grease and throat-drying MSG. Ruyi is a refined experience and a fresh take on our traditional perceptions of Chinese food in Australia.