Neil Perry's Fine Dining Chinese Restaurant at Crown, Southbank, Melbourne
|A line-filled eating den|
The quiet tone of Spice Temple (Shop 7, Crown Complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank) could well be due to its design. With lots of dark wood and more traditional red and gold carpet, one might be forgiven for thinking it's a little dated. What keeps it current is the symmetrical and perpendicular fittings, creating neat squared-off eating nooks, and the dark, felt-like soundproofing material spaced out overhead, muffling any white noise.
|Overhead soundproofing and visual design effect|
Walking into the restaurant's reception area, you immediately notice the cool darkness of the space, brushed with warm gold finishes, arresting portraits of dour-faced Asian women, and the odd rustic lantern. To your left is a staircase that leads to a luxurious bar downstairs, and straight ahead the restaurant opens out into the brighter natural light of its riverfront windows.
|Windows drawing in riverside light from Southbank|
Service is smooth and warm - frustratingly, mostly provided by attractive young women in Asian-inspired dresses. (C'mon - where are all the attractive male waiters?!) Perhaps this is one aspect which contributes to the restaurant's feel of a 'gentleman's club' - not that Spice Temple is trashy in any way, of course, but it certainly has an exclusive, traditional air about it. In spite of this, I still felt relaxed and well-accommodated whilst there. I'd call it Accessible, Slightly Traditional Fine Dining™. ©
|Gentleman's club-style fine dining in Crown|
In case you haven't heard (!), Perry boasts an empire of restaurants and variety of cuisines, including meat, seafood, Chinese and Italian food, various incarnations of Rockpool, Spice Temple in Sydney and Melbourne, more recently, Rosetta (also at Crown Melbourne), as well as multiple other ventures. He consults with Qantas on their menus, has presented and made guest appearances on television, and of course, released cookbooks (the current running total is eight). Spice Temple Sydney was opened in January 2009; its Melbourne twin in October 2010.
|Chunky crockery, not uncommon in modern Asian venues|
So what does this very Caucasian Sydneysider know about Chinese food? As well as cooking in the ever-evolving and strongly varied Australian food market for around 35 years now, he has long held a keen interest in Asian ingredients, and travelled the world to learn them. The food at Spice Temple is apparently influenced by multiple Chinese regions, including Yunnan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang, but most heavily Sichuan and and Hunan. Moreover, it is actually delicious. I mean, you would hope so, considering all the hype, but this guy seems to know what he's doing. Spice is obviously key here, and all the dishes we sampled were a lovely melding of pickled, chillied, salted flavours, offset by fresh ingredients and cleansing drinks.
|A cleansing glass of Pinot Gris from Alsace|
We were a small lunch group of just three, and wanted to cater to our different tastes but still share a light meal. This is what we ate...
From the 'Pickles' selectionCabbage and radish:
From the 'Raw' selectionKingfish with pickled green chilli, black sesame and shallot oil:
(this was melt-in-your-mouth)
Yellowfin tuna tartare 'typhoon shelter style' with chilli and cucumber:
(with a surprising slow build of spiciness)
From the 'Steamed and Poached Dumplings' selectionPork and prawn siu mai:
(fresh and tasty)
From the 'Small Plates and Salads' selectionSpice fried chicken wings with heaven facing chilli:
(the boys loved this one)
Crispy school prawns, heaven facing chilli, salt and pepper:
(so good, we got them twice! incredibly moreish)
From the 'Large Plates' selectionTea smoked duck with Mandarin pancakes, cucumbers, spring onion, hoisin sauce:
(the perfect softer-flavoured, fresher and more filling dish to end on)
(And yes, that is my photography getting more shonky by the end of the meal. Typical.)
Spice Temple is regularly spruiked to Melbourne tourists as a good example of what an Australian chef can achieve - and of course its location doesn't hurt. Having known of its existence for years, I was mildly surprised that I enjoyed it so much - frankly, I'd expected more pretentiousness and prepared myself for the food to be a let-down. But I was wrong in both cases - I felt comfortable there, and the food was great. Although I don't necessarily see Spice Temple becoming a regular fixture on my dining calendar, I will gladly return. Most likely with a tourist in tow.