Crown Entertainment Complex, Southbank
Phone: 8679 1888
Let’s just say Spice Temple was always going to be a hard sell for me. I understand that Neil Perry is was well-respected chef who has an extensive knowledge of Chinese cuisine. But in the same way that one of my friends has an inexplicable disdain for anything that encroaches on ‘authentic’ Thai culture – inexplicable because he’s not Thai – I have an underlying issue with a ‘Chinese’ restaurant without any Chinese staff in sight. And I’m also not really one for the fine dining scene, except for on special occasions.
But this was a special occasion. It was the divine Ms D’s birthday, and she booked for Spice Temple, so who am I to deny one of my BFFs? We started out with a drink at Nobu in the bar area, another place I’ve yet to try. This meant we were running a bit late for our 8:30 booking, which turned out to be just as well. When we arrived at Spice Temple, our table was apparently not ready yet, and we were escorted downstairs to the bar area to wait.
I’d just like to note that the bar area is in the basement, while the dining area is on the ground floor, at entry level. This, to me, seems a little odd. I guess it’s an efficient use of space, but it feels odd to walk downstairs to hover at the bar for five minutes, only to be led back up the same stairs to your table. Surely the basement could have been made the function room, and the bar could occupy the rather incongruous boardroom setup which is presumably the ‘private’ function space? I say ‘private’ because it’s shielded from the entry by a rather sparse curtain of glass beads. Anyway, we were off to a rocky start.
I’ll do a complete about-face right now and say that I love the fit-out of the restaurant. The vertical blinds of raw unfinished slabs of timber give a warmth to the room at night, and along with the interesting battens on the ceiling, make what is actually quite a large space feel quite intimate, acoustically. It was nice not struggling to hear anyone at the table speak, despite it being quite a busy night at the restaurant. The dim, moody lighting also helped, and I’d highly recommend the restaurant for a date, if only for the atmosphere. In fact, there was a couple over by the faux stucco brick wall who were definitely dating it up that night. I’m going to apply the word canoodling here, and leave it at that.
So, the food. We started off with the Lamb and Cumin Pancake.
Cumin-spiced lamb mince sandwiched between two thin crepe-like sheets of what I think was a rice-flour pastry, this entree wasn’t a great start to the meal. The mince was a bit fatty (but that’s authentic!) and it was a bit hard to handle – the pastry was a bit soft, and the mince wanted to fall all over the place. It came with a chilli paste, which had a nice medium kick; a kick which hardly warranted the warning from the waitress that it was only for people who liked spicy food. She obviously
didn’t know who she was talking to.
Then the mains started arriving, in reasonably quick succession, but with eight people at a table sharing dishes, I think it would have been wiser to bring at least three dishes out simultaneously to begin with, instead of one at a time, leaving us to sample the dishes in a piecemeal way. We also had to ask for the steamed rice to be served, once the second dish came out. Not to make too many assumptions, but I don’t think that would have happened at a Chinese restaurant run by Chinese people. Rice is the staple, around which the meal is built, people!
Anyway, the first dish to arrive was the stir-fried wagyu brisket with baby eggplant and chilli.
Oh, by the way, the reason most of these photographs will be of half-eaten dishes (or of my potion in my bowl) is that:
a) I’ve been chided for straying from my original vision for this blog, and
b) I was seated at the ‘wrong’ end of the table, and the waitstaff seemed to think it appropriate to serve most of the dishes up the other end of the table, which would then work their way down.
But yeah, the brisket was good. It wasn’t particularly amazing, and I really don’t understand the point of wagyu if it’s brisket (the way wagyu mince in a burger perplexes me) as there wasn’t much of a flavour nor textural difference from non-wagyu brisket I’ve eaten in the past. I did really like the baby eggplant, though. Nice little slices with plenty of crispy skin, and melty, oily flesh.
Next came the ‘Hot and numbing crispy duck’, which was in my opinion, neither not nor numbing. In deciding what to eat, as a table, we’d concluded there would be some serious Szechuan pepper action in this dish.
Maybe the ‘Hot’ referred to the temperature at which the duck would be served, though even there, I’m not so sure. There definitely was no chilli, or even pepper, heat to this dish. There also was a lack of any real Szechuan pepper presence, and it seemed mostly like an apologetic Beijing-style sauce; slightly sweet, a little tangy. The duck itself was well-cooked, though it didn’t seem ‘particularly Chinese’, according to one of our dining party, to which I replied, ‘That would be the lack of star anise’. As with all poultry, I prefer the thigh to the breast, so the fact this was all breast was disappointing to me. Some things get lost in the name of ‘refinement’. I’d prefer to deal with bones, thank you Mr Perry.
Next up was the Hunan style crisp pork belly with fresh and dried chillies and mushroom soy. We decided pretty quickly as a table that we were going to get pork belly. Then there was the question of which pork belly to get. A stupid question, in my mind. ‘Why both, of course!’ But others at the table were convinced there were other items we needed to try, so we settled on the Hunan one.
This dish was really quite good. I’d happily eat it all on my own. As you can see, I managed to score an almost exclusively pork fat piece of the belly. WIN! The diced beans and mixture of fresh and dried chillies were a nice foil to the luxurious faaaatttttt….. *drool*
Despite Ms P being adamant there was table over there who had a fried whole fish, we could find no such dish on the menu, so we settled for the whole steamed Snapper with black bean and salted chilli.
A pretty classic dish, executed well. The fish was perfectly steamed, and the chilli and black bean was plentiful. The rest of the table was a little perplexed when I started in on one of the fish eyes, but I was brought up not to waste a thing, and fish eyes are a textural joy. When a fish is fresh, and has been cooked just right, there should be quite a bit of gelatinous tissue in the eyeball, though watch out for the hard, pithy centre of the eye.
On the waitress’ recommendation, we ordered the stir-fried quail and peanuts with steamed egg custard. She was talking up the lusciousness of the egg custard as if it were some revelatory thing; again, I don’t think she knew who she was talking to. Steamed egg custard is quite a pedestrian, homely dish.
Not to say that it isn’t wonderful, when prepared well. It completely is! I found the Spice Temple version a bit too runny, however. The quail and peanut topping was good, but the gaminess of the quail was somehow lost, and I think leaving the skin in the mix would have been a good idea. Oh, and it didn’t help that I recently had a more exciting version prepared by my friend Mr H at his home.
Finally, with some theatricality, the waitress brought out the mushroom hotpot. Hot pot of fresh shiitake, oyster, enoki and wild Chinese mushrooms, Yunnan style, to be exact. She explained the different mushrooms which were going into the earthenware pot, though she forgot some of the mushrooms’ names!
After the little presentation, we were left to divide up the fungal goodness ourselves.
I appreciate a good mushroom hotpot. I used to hanker for it regularly in Saigon, where there’s a chain of Japanese-style mushroom hotpot restaurants
. While I’m sure the mushrooms in this hotpot were of exceptional quality, I think that somehow got a bit lost in the soy and chilli which dominated the flavour of this dish. Still, it was very tasty!
So what’s my final analysis? Spice temple does manage to serve up food that’s high quality, but it’s not particularly innovative. Which is fine, but there are a lot of other places which produce dishes of a similar quality, which are much better value.
So if I’m not paying more for some special and innovative food, I’d expect I’m paying more for a great dining experience? Unfortunately, this wasn’t what we experienced on the night. While the service was unfailingly warm and polite, it was quite often patchy. Wine glasses were left empty, and there were a number of times we were left craning our necks in search of a waitress for assistance. Perhaps they were a little short of staff? Hopefully these are just teething problems, and they’ll be ironed in the future. Still, I probably won’t be back soon. It’s just not my cup of oolong.