Crown Entertainment Complex
8 Whiteman Street
Southbank VIC 3006
+61 3 8679 1888
On Saturday, Adam and I drove to Geelong, then Torquay, then back to Melbourne. Upon arrival in our state’s capital, it was decided that we were going to maze to sample a dessert or two at its temporary dessert bar (which has since closed). But first, dinner. We weren’t utterly famished yet we still wanted a handful of small savoury tastes to nibble on before we got our sugar fix. Therefore, we decided that an hour or two at the bar in any of Crown’s many restaurants would suffice.
Enter Spice Temple. Neil Perry’s Asian-inspired eatery slithered into Crown quietly last year like a dragon about to creep up behind its prey unaware. Given the success of the inaugural Spice Temple in Sydney, opening a Melbourne restaurant was inevitable. Not that we needed more ‘Asian-inspired’ restaurants that are run by gweilos or anything like that, especially another one that charges double the price of the same dish that you could find at Sichuan Dining Room, for example. Well, at least that was the opinion of one or two of my dinner crew buddies when we skimmed through the menu sometime in December last year. Still, Adam and I decided Spice Temple was worth a try. We arrived just after 6pm, with fingers crossed, and asked the receptionist if they were able to accommodate two losers at the bar for nibbles and drinks. She did one better – she was able to seat us at a proper table but we had to be out before 8pm. Easy.
A waitress led us downstairs where the dining area was, through a long corridor and into an class, yet intimate dining room that was so dark that it was borderline sinister. Still, I give props to Spice Temple’s architect and interior designer; the place just screamed out ‘class’ and ‘money’ but without the tacky opulence that pervaded the similarly-named Spice Market. I also gave a nod to the slow, sexy jazz that growled from the speakers throughout our meal. No props were given to the terrible lighting though. It was one thing to not be able to take decent photos with my camera, but another thing to NOT be able to see the menu without shining your mobile phone’s light onto the page to see what the effk you were reading!
Although Spice Temple has a decent wine list (of exactly 100 wines), I couldn’t help but be seduced by its cocktail list. Each cocktail, exclusive to Spice Temple, was named after a Chinese zodiac sign. For example, you might choose an earthy ‘Ox’ which contained tomato, Sichuan spices and vodka or perhaps a carafe-sized lychee, gin and sparkling water aptly called ‘Pig’ might tickle your fancy. I am not pompous (well, not really anyway) but I went with the Rooster ($18) because the likes of aperol, orange, limoncello and passionfruit screamed out, ‘Come back, summer!’ and dammit, I miss summer!
The food draws influence from all parts of Asia with a strong focus on regional Chinese cuisines, Sichuan cuisine in particular. Our waiter explained that the dishes were designed to be shared and that in order to gain the best experience, to choose a small mix of dishes from the entrees/salads/noodles menu and maybe one or two from the larger dishes in the seafood/poultry/pork/beef and lamb menus. He also pointed out that the dishes that were written in red were the really spicy ones and to ensure that there was a balance between spicy and non-spicy dishes. We were really only here to graze rather than have a proper meal so we ended up choosing a couple of entrees, a salad and a noodle dish. And because they were on the ‘cheap’ end of the Spice Temple spectrum, we expected them to be tiny too (foreshadowing, much?).
The first dish we received was the bizarrely-named ‘strange flavour white cut chicken’ (‘SFWCC’) ($18) which, to me, sounded like Mr Perry was being fob-in-cheek and giving a nod to all the Asian restaurants out there with grammatically incorrect menus. A single trail of drunken chicken-style sliced chicken, with bone intact, lay idly in the middle of Lake Inferno (‘Burn, baby, burn.’), a cold but fiery mixture of Sichuan peppercorns, chilli, oil. chopped roasted peanuts, sesame seeds and a little bit of egg noodle. We were instructed to scoop up a piece of beautifully tender chicken, along with some broth, with a Chinese soup spoon and eat it all in one mouthful to savour all the flavours. And savour, we did. Hot damn! It was like a flavour bomb had detonated in my mouth.
You’d think that the aromatic duck salad with tea eggs and coriander ($18) would be a cooling welcome from the SFWCC which showed no fury before I even took my first bite. Wrong. Despite its subdued demeanour, this salad proved to be much hotter than the SFWCC thanks to the literal dosage of chilli seeds and Sichuan peppercorns. Whoa! It was a lovely salad that packed a lot of bite but I honestly thought that it would have worked better with the heat down turned to medium, or even low.
We welcomed a small side of Sichuan pickled shitake mushrooms and cucumber($8), one of the many pickled dishes on offer that was designed to ‘awaken the palate and … cool the fire.’ While it didn’t exactly put out the ring of fire that was threatening to burn my chompers off (I thought cucumbers were good at diffusing heat?), it was good to NOT eat something that had chilli in it. Still, it wasn’t enough. The more we ate (and of course we had to eat – everything was delicious so far), the more our mouths burned so finally, we ended up ordering a bowl of steamed rice which was a pretty general serving for $3 – enough to feed the two of us.
Thankfully our final two dishes took a walk on the mild side. A lamb and cumin pancake ($14), cut into mini-pizza slices. It was served with a sambal oelek-style chilli paste which was tame compared to the two hot dishes we had before. The pancake went down a treat. It was amazingly golden and crispy and although the amount of lamb and cumin filling inside was negligible, we still enjoyed it. Who wants love when all you need is cumin?
Finally, our stir-fried sea scallops with velvet noodles and chilli paste ($23) arrived. The ‘velvet noodles’ were home-made flat potato noodles that tasted like gnocchi, but more delicate and silky as its name suggests. Despite the dish having ‘chilli’ in its name, the noodles was more sweet rather than hot -thank goodness. To be honest, if it weren’t for the novelty that was the awesome ‘velvet noodles’, this dish would have been verging on pedestrian. The scallops were fresh but they sat awkwardly next to the crunchy capsicums. But the noodles! Oh, the noodles! *slurp*
When we received our bill, we were also handed complimentary almond cookies which I love. They were beautiful – sweet, slightly crunchy and not too doughy and dare I say it, better than Flower Drum’s almond cookies. Looking back, I had to laugh – we had only planned to stop by for a few drinks and nibbles but we somehow ended up having a complete meal. In saying that, the dishes we ordered were all from the cheap end (entree) of the menu and to think that the portions were generous for a place of this standard, we thought that the $115 we paid for dinner was reasonable. In fact, we were so full that my Easter food baby was kicking me in the belly and (shock horror), we even thought about skipping dessert at Maze (but no, we did persist).
On top of that, the service was excellent – staff were on hand to help with with menu selections and swiftly refill our glasses of water every time it looked like we were struggling with the chillies (which was, well, most of the time). Is Spice Temple simply glorified Sichuan food and does it rip off food from Sichuan House and Dainty Sichuan? Not really. While the portion sizes here aren’t as big as the food at the aforementioned restaurants, you get bang for your buck when it comes to quality. Everything here is super-fresh, delicious, and clean-tasting (yes, even the hotter spices) without the nasty greasy residue. I’m definitely making return visits until I’ve gone through all the Chinese zodiac cocktails and have sampled their larger dishes. Mad hot.