8 Whiteman Street
Southbank, VIC 3006
Happy birthday to me! I thought this was going to be the first year in yonks that I would be able to celebrate my birthday on my actual birthday (which is in May), as I’d finally escaped exams. And once again, I was out of luck, as I had ended up with wisdom teeth surgery scheduled 2 days before the happy occasion of my birthday. However I was not to be deterred from the opportunity for an indulgent meal, and finally in mid-June, after my tooth sockets had healed over sufficiently, we took ourselves to Spice Temple for a long lunch.
Belonging to Neil Perry (who by this point owns about half of the Crown Complex), Spice Temple is a buffed and shined version of traditional Southern Chinese food. I was excited, but I also had my food-critic-cum-native-Chinese hat on. After all, the food here draws from 6 different Chinese provinces; Dad and I are from Yunnan, Mum is from Hunan, and sandwiched between the two is Sichuan. Top that off with the fact that the other 3 provinces shares borders with Yunnan, I am one tough customer. Just what exactly does Mr Perry have for me?
Unlike Rockpool Bar and Grill, Spice Temple is dim and sultry, even during the day. It is exotically furnished with luscious carpets, dark wood, and a low ceiling with dangling lamps. The staff were subdued and gently spoken, and the service unobtrusively attentive. The small and intimate scale of the restaurant does not extend to the menu however. Printed in tiny font over an A3 page, the options graced over everything from pickles and salads, yum cha and cold snacks, hot pots and stir-fries, to noodles and rice. Oh dear.
We whetted our appetites with a bowl of slippery King Prawn Wontons with Aged Black Vinegar Dressing ($12, 3pcs). Wrapped in a sheet of silky, translucent skin, the prawns were plump and succulent, its dainty flavours enhanced rather than overshadowed by the malty black vinegar. Adding another layer to the flavour was a slick of chilli oil, infused with the fragrance of scallions and peppercorns. There was also house-made chilli paste and soy sauce served on the side, for those of you who like to ruin a perfectly balanced mouthful.
The Northern Style Pan Fried Pork Buns ($9, 3pcs) on the other hand were a lot less thrilling. The pork may have been of excellent quality, but it came finely diced rather than as a ball of mince, and there just wasn’t enough of it. The dough was not sweet enough, not fluffy enough, and not crispy enough at the bottom. And let’s not even talk about the lack of broth inside the bun. This time the chilli and vinegar are highly encouraged, just to make these lacklustre morsels pop.
It’s no secret Chris hates coriander, so it was lucky that the Steamed Eggplant with Three Flavours: Garlic, Coriander, and Sweet Pork ($10) was served with all three flavours sitting separately on top of the eggplant… at least until the waitress mixed it all together before we could utter a single complaint. Everything came up Milhouse in the end though, as this turned out to be a subtle dish despite the copious amounts of garnishing. The gently steamed strips of eggplant were fantastic at soaking up the saucy mix of ginger and minced pork, whilst the garlic was cooked just enough to render it sweet and aromatic. Though simple, this was nevertheless a striking dish, owing to its elegant balance between subtlety and boldness.
On the other hand, there was absolutely nothing subtle about the Spice Fried Chicken Wings with Heaven Facing Chilli ($15). Golden crisp and reminding me more than a little of KFC, these 6 full pieces of wing and drumette were large and in charge. Generously flavoured with a mixture of spices and a warm, sweet undertone of cinnamon, this was a highly enjoyable plate of succulent fried chicken. And don’t worry – the fried chillies are mostly for show, and only the barest hint of their smoked spiciness was actually transferred to the chicken.
I tried to order a salad at this point, but excuse me if I don’t find snowpea tendrils to be very exciting. So instead we had some Steamed Shredded Chicken with Ginger and Spring Onion Oil ($10). The tender cold-cut chicken was covered with the contrasting coolness of macerated spring onions and the warmth of ginger oil. And because I love a bit of variety, I tried it with the chilli sauce that originally came with the wontons, and the match turned out extremely apt.
We had wanted some duck, but they were out for the day, so we finished our savouries with a half serve of Stir Fried Cumin Lamb with Bread Pockets ($38, 6pcs/$22, 4pcs).
Compared to all the other dishes, this was very straightforward – sweet steamed buns to be stuffed with a juicy lamb slices fried with pickled onions in bold cumin broth. Oh, a word of warning: even though this isn’t a ‘red’ item on the menu, the heat in the lamb actually built quickly and ferociously, so beware!
I had barely even finished asking the waiter if we should get the Spiced Cake or the Chinese Pavlova ($18) before he emphatically insisted on the latter. And my goodness does Mr Perry know how to make a breathtaking dessert. It was sunshine piled high on a plate, radiating sweetness and summer in every bite. There was passionfruit ice cream and vanilla panna cotta, slippery custard apple and tangy passionfruit pulp. Most amazing of all was the Sichuan pepper meringue, melting in the mouth with a burst of sugar crystals and the undertone of winter warmth.
Though my standards were high and my prejudices higher, I found myself to be grudgingly impressed with Spice Temple’s take on Southern Chinese food. Despite having been remoulded and re-imagined, the food payed homage to its roots with its boldness and punch. Though there isn’t a whole lot prompting a hasty return visit, I would take my own opinion with a grain of salt. After all, I grew up eating this stuff, and I have some very deep-seated preconceptions of just what Southern Chinese food should taste like.