Rewind to the fourteenth of February, 2011. My boyfriend has arrived at my doorstep and dazzled me with a bouquet of pink tiger-lilies and roses. He then drops a hint as to our ‘surprise destination’: “we’ll be going to a Chinese restaurant”. It’s our first Valentine’s Day together. I immediately conjure up an image of a steamy back-alleyway affair with chipped porcelain and stained teacups… Surely not? Instead, we drive into Sydney CBD and he leads me to an LCD screen featuring images of rippling embroidered silk brocade. It can only be Neil Perry’s Spice Temple!
I feel like Lucy stumbling into Narnia through the wardrobe as I step through the screen-that-turns-out-to-be-a-door, and descend into a candle-lit space filled mostly with couples chatting quietly to each other. This is magical. So far, so good. Suddenly, we turn a corner and five creepy (seemingly nude profiles of) Oriental women with slanted bedroom eyes stare at me from their frames on the wall. Holy moly! Thankfully, we are seated in a different enclosure where we are spared from those piercing eyes.
The Boyfriend has ordered the banquet meal for two, and so we are also spared from having to choose dishes. (Let me just mention that those same lovely ladies graced the covers of the menus – and in my reasoning, the less I had to look at them the better.)
We select our drinks from the special celebratory Chinese New Year edition list of zodiac cocktails. His is the Year of the Tiger: pistachio fat-washed whiskey with orgeat, chartreuse and bitters. Mine is the Year of the Horse: fresh pomegranate with molasses, fresh citrus and four year old rum.
The meal starts off with two varieties of pickle, which is not bad if you like that sort of thing. I’m rather ambivalent towards them myself as I find that whatever you eat with pickle just tastes a whole lot like pickle.
Then comes the salad of silken tofu and preserved egg. A mild dish (in terms of spices, that is) yet very flavoursome. Nothing extraordinary going on here, just a simple and pleasant to eat combination of textures. The portion is small and thus rather disappointing – but this turns out to be necessary, as I find out towards the end of the meal.
Next we enjoy the steamed eggplant with three flavours. Again, it tastes great, but it’s nothing mind-blowing. So far, just as decent a fare as you would get with any eggplant and minced pork dish in any nice Chinese restaurant.
The fried squid with five spice is a nice variation of its homely cousin, the classic takeaway-lunch special salt and pepper squid. The dish that follows is also seafood – steamed Blue Eye fillet with salted chilli black bean (pictured at the top). Another pleasant dish that tastes somewhat similar to the silken tofu.
This is the dish that blows my senses (literally) and turns my evening around – by leaving me gasping for more water. ‘Numbing pork’, they call it, and numb it does! My first experience of Sichuan peppercorns (which I will come to eat quite regularly in Beijing, as it’s a main ingredient in malaxiangguo, or 麻辣香锅, which is a sort of dry hot-pot stir fry). I think with this dish, it’s more the strange, numbing sensation that I can’t get used to, rather than the spiciness itself.
By this stage, my head is spinning – a little from my pomegranate cocktail, and a lot from the recent escapade with numbing pork. The red tinted lighting, which had appeared romantic/exotic until now, begins to look and feel like a garish nightmare. I’m reminded of a time at Chat Thai when both The Boyfriend and I had ordered two varieties of the same spicy warm salad dish by accident (one in chicken, one in pork), and huffed and puffed our way through it, with copious amounts of water and jasmine rice.
Thankfully, the last two dishes (which I forgot to photograph in my dazed efforts to cool my tongue) are a stir-fried Wagyu brisket with baby eggplant and chilli (a not too spicy variety) and stir-fried greens.
This is followed by a lovely concoction of crushed ice, watermelon and ginger syrup which is welcome news to my weary taste buds.
The verdict? We enjoyed dining here – the ambience was perfect for a low-key, romantic night out and I liked the modern/minimalistic elements of the restaurant interior (minus the creepy girl photographs – they gave me the heebie jeebies).
The food itself didn’t leave me ecstatic. Each dish on its own would have fallen a little flat; it was the sheer variety of the banquet menu saved it from being mediocre. It’s highly worth it, because it will give you the opportunity to taste the whole spectrum of flavours on the Spice Temple menu, but as to the authenticity or even how well Perry has adapted/interpreted those ingredients, I can’t really say!
» Spice Temple is located @ 10 Bligh Street Sydney NSW 2000, (02)8078 1888