5 November 2010
Spice Temple @ Crown Complex, Southbank
Spice Temple is the latest satellite in the Neil Perry empire and, on account of the reputation of its highly regarded one hat Sydney sibling, its opening in Melbourne was one of the more anticipated openings of the culinary calendar. In a somewhat lofty philosophy statement, Spice Temple is described as a "modern Chinese restaurant" whose cuisine is based on a "solid foundation of respect for the history and authenticity" of its offered dishes. The open propagation of such an exalting philosophy without the delivery of similarly exacting food would be mere pretension. We reserved our judgment for when the meal was complete.
The furnishings in dining room of Spice Temple are very modern with dominating dark red hues providing a very "Asian" feel. The extremely dim lighting ensures a warm and atmospheric environment, albeit while making reading the menu mildly difficult.
Teething problems, as would be expected of a restaurant barely weeks old, are evident in Spice Temple's operation. The dining room service did not operate with precision and knowledgeability of the wait staff was a distinct problem. On one notable occasion, a waitress was flummoxed by a diner's enquiry regarding a particular dish. She promptly disappeared into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later to describe the dish and emphasise, as if from first hand experience, the "deliciousness" of the dish – hardly a credible recommendation.
We ordered the Spice Temple equivalent of a degustation menu - the "Banquet Menu #2". This menu is the more expensive of the two banquet menus offered and, at $95 per person, is more expensive than equivalent menus offered by respectable Chinese restaurants around Melbourne.
Our meal started with a selection of cold items. A dish of pickled cabbage and radish was similar to Korean kim-chi but had a depth of sweetness to balance out the sharp acidity. It was a refreshing and appetising and reminiscent of the highly regarded pickles produced by David Chiang (of New York's Momofuku fame). The cucumber with smashed garlic was similarly refreshing but rather more mildly flavoured and provided the requisite cooling effect to counteract the other, spicy dishes. The dish of tingling prawns arrived as a stack of peeled and cooked king prawns and julienned herbs - green chillis, spring onion and coriander. The prawns were very fresh and the herbs provided punchy fragrant flavours. It was a good dish, but contained too few prawns for the amount of herbs. The oddly named strange flavour chicken dish comprised several pieces of silky steamed chicken covered in a sesame based chilli paste; the flavours were pleasant but relatively restrained in comparison to the other cold items.
Next came a hot dish of clams with black bean and salted olive; a dish that was unfortunately highlighted by the sand-riddled clams. The waitress graciously offered to have the dish exchanged and the kung pao chicken which followed was similarly disappointing. It arrived as a jumbled mess of ping pong ball sized chicken pieces with open chillis, cashews and green sichuan pepper corns. While the chicken was well flavoured, perhaps a touch over-seasoned if anything, it was also very soft and mushy.
The dish of stir fried spanner crab with whole garlic, chilli and coriander that followed was pleasantly surprising with the underlying broth delightfully flavoured with the sweetness of the crab meat and the fragrance of the herbs. However, the dish was dominated by the herbs, and in particular large pieces of spring onion, with small and few crab pieces.
The dish of Hunan style crisp pork belly with fresh and dried chillies and mushroom soy was similarly flavoursome. The light coating of mushroom soy providing the requisite seasoning to the fatty pork belly pieces which were cut small and highlighted by crisp exteriors covering decadent bursts of pork fat. It was a delicious dish but, in a recurring theme for Spice Temple, contained too few pieces of the pork belly.
Next came a dish of stir fried Wagyu rump with Sichuan black bean and Pixian chilli paste. It was a very poor imitation of the Cantonese classic. The sauce was lacklustre and insipid and the steak pieces had the texture of over tenderised poor quality meat. On a $95 banquet menu, one would expect better.
Accompanying the Wagyu was a vegetable dish consisting of stir fried wild bamboo pith, snow peas and quail eggs with ginger and garlic. It was a fairly standard Asian vegetable stir fry with the sharp crispness snow peas contrasting nicely with the spongy crispness of the bamboo pith. The addition of quail eggs provided a rich indulgent note to the fragrant sauce.
The dessert of orange jelly cake with orange blossom fairy floss was very disappointing. At $6, the dish is the cheapest of the desserts offered by Spice Temple - not usually an item worthy of inclusion on a restaurant's most premium banquet menu. It was unfortunately neither particularly suited to the menu nor particularly good. It ate like what (I presume) it was - an average lamington with basic home made jelly and fairy floss. It was pleasant enough, but hardly fitting for a $95 banquet menu.
In the restaurant scene, and in life generally, quiet overachievers will draw praise while boisterous underachievers will draw ire. Unfortunately, Spice Temple falls squarely into the latter category. We found its cuisine to be neither genuinely authentic nor high quality; on the whole, its dishes are pale imitations of the originals. One would expect its service standards to improve as it continues to operate. Its dishes, however, being tried and proven in the Sydney fine dining scene, are the more significant problem. On the strength of the Neil Perry reputation alone, Spice Temple may well win over cashed up business types and culinary philistines, but it has not won over this reviewer and, one expects, will not win over the more discerning sector of the fine dining market.