I didn’t know whether to thank our waiter or slap him across the face with a fetid dish rag. On our first visit to Spice Temple he charmed and impressed us with detailed answers to our menu interrogation, good humorously hovered and helped us narrow down our choices, and even returned to inform us we had over-ordered when a colleague served us in his absence.
We took his advice and slashed a dish from the order we had painstakingly deliberated over then, amongst ourselves, quietly praised Spice Temple’s honesty policy and level of customer care. By our meal’s finale we had eaten our words.
Admittedly, we struggled to finish even our reduced order – heaving ourselves inelegantly from our seats and waddling with all the finesse of a trio of sumo wrestlers up the curved staircase to street level. But we swore we would have crammed excess forkfuls into our gobs, the food was so good. It would have been a display of sheer gluttony, but we could have lived with it. Where are Sydney’s shameless, up-selling, floor-staff when you need them?
I jest. But in all seriousness there is a lot to worship at the Neil Perry restaurant i’ve dubbed ‘The Temple’, which takes its inspiration from the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang. Under head chef Ben Pollard’s watch, many dishes are fired up with Sichuan pepper and liberal use of dried and fresh chillies.
Beer-friendly small morsels of fried squid with whole five spice and dark chili paste were subtly spiced and endorsed our decision to defer to Tsingtao beer for the meal’s liquid accompaniment. Meanwhile, our dining triad fought unashamedly over eight bite-sized Northern style lamb and fennel dumplings and cursed our decision to take up the menu’s offer of half portions of some dishes in order to sample more of the menu. These bite-sized pot-stickers burst in our mouths – delivering a hot shot of aniseed followed by sensational lamb. We would have easily devoured a full-sized portion.
However, the half-serve option worked in our favour when it came to stir fried quail and peanuts with steamed egg custard, which lived up to its description of ‘spicy, crunchy, creamy’. Rich was another word that sprang immediately to mind and we suspected a double dose of intensity would have stymied our ongoing eating efforts.
Other dishes included three shot chicken, the cooking finished off theatrically at the table in a clay pot. It had an intense, warm undercurrent thanks to a shot glass each of Tsingtao beer, chili oil and soy sauce. Whole shiitake mushrooms were braised until tender and 20-30 cloves of blanched garlic were simmered until soft and only faintly garlicky. It was a hearty, wholesome dish.
Hot and numbing crispy duck was marinated in stock over-night, steamed, de-boned, rolled, pressed, rubbed in egg white and Sichuan pepper and deep-fried. The slices of meat, drizzled with a treacle-thick and sticky-sweet sauce, fell apart with that tender seduction that keeps you going back for more. We were left with a slight tingling sensation on roofs of our mouths – the Sichuan trademark.
A single mango pudding with condensed milk, Chantilly and a crisp sesame tuille – not to mention three competing spoons and a silent wish for an elasticated waistband and a couch to recline on – was a rich and decadent end to our over-extended evening.
While the standard of Spice Temple’s food is extremely high, service levels fluctuate like the scales at a dieter’s weekly weigh-in.
On another occasion, we were seated at 6.30 pm and warned that the table will needed again at 8.15 pm. That was fine, we didn’t intend to linger. Staff were sufficiently attentive in the first half hour. But we were soon forgotten in the flurry of service. Our mains were cleared but no one returned to offer dessert. For a full 30 minutes our table was devoid of any front-of-house contact. Then, spurred on by the looming deadline, we were hurriedly served green tea, given the bill, and ushered out in under 10 minutes – the opportunity of a mango pudding was lost.
Another night our waitress professed the hot and fragrant prawns to be her favorite menu item, yet didn’t know the ingredients when quizzed. Later, she tried to waltz off with the dessert menus without asking for our order – taking it for granted, i suspect, that two female diners would resist the sweet temptation. I nearly took her hand off at the elbow, i was so determined to have my very own mango pudding that evening.
Nonetheless, we’ve returned – with groups of friends in toe to celebrate birthdays and to share quieter meals with visiting out-of-towners – the food has never let us down. Spice Temple may be Perry’s baby, but Pollard is the hands-on nurturer – the man in the kitchen with a consistently magical touch.
In hindsight, i thank our waiter for his guidance on that first visit to Spice Temple. His reassessment of the quantity of our order was actually spot-on and served to encourage repeat visits to sample dishes that didn’t make that first cut.
And the fetid dish rag? I’ll leave for his next colleague that gets between me and a Spice Temple mango pudding.