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Another birthday celebration equals another excuse to escape studying and indulge in food … shhh I didn’t say that =P. Anyways, to celebrate Mr PW’s birthday we made ourselves a last minute booking at Spice Temple Melbourne – the newest addition to Neil Perry’s successful Rockpool chain. This place offers a modern Chinese cuisine drawing inspiration from the various provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang; with a strong emphasis on produce philosophy – fresh and sustainable.
The interior was extremely dark, with deep mahogany walls and swanky red-yellow carpet, with splashes of light from a horizontal venetian timber wall and hanging lights from each table which – fortunately – made eating and photography much easier.
The cocktail menu is designed around the Chinese Horoscope, with each of the 12 horoscopes represented by a cocktail. The Dragon was refreshingly sweet and citrusy, with hints of lemongrass which actually became stronger as the alcohol became diluted out by the melting ice.
For starters we had the Northern style lamb and fennel dumplings (8 for $18). The skin was soft and ‘Q’ (just ever so slightly chewy) with a somewhat crispy base – personally I like pan-fried dumpling bases to be more crispy. The morsel of meat was scrumptious and had a subtle lamb-i-ness to it, not too overpowering. The chilli paste relish was rather (disappointingly) mild for my Asian palate – I could seriously eat it by the spoonful. But otherwise it was nicely balanced with acidity, sweetness and savoury elements, with fragrant hints of garlic, onion and possibly fish sauce.
Given raving reviews for the Hot, sweet, sour and numbing pork ($30), I was very intent on giving this a go. Each piece had a crispy deep-fried shell covering the succulent pork interior. It was lathered in a sweet honey; tossed with tangy black vinegar and also had a peppery sharpness from the Sichuan peppercorn, which gave a slow-onset tongue ‘numbing’ sensation. This would easily have been my favourite for the night – and normally I’m not a particularly big fan of deep fried food – so that says something!
Though labelled “red” (aka HOT), Mr PW initially agreed with me that it was pretty mild. But, over the course of the dish he found it progressively more “numbing” and difficult to palate. I still insist that it is ‘mild’ – though my spice-scale is rather biased ever since coming back from India with an awesome spice tolerance.
A side note. The steaming rice was served in a communal shallow bowl with no lid (or insulated container that you may typically see at other Chinese restaurants). My initial disappointment that I would possibly have cold rice for later dishes was doused with delight when the waitress politely replaced the “cold” bowl with a “hot” one. This occurred subsequently for each new dish – though very pleasing, it seems rather wasteful. Wonder how much rice they waste?
Originally we had ordered the Sichuan style Wagyu beef hotpot with wild bamboo pith and tofu, only to realise later that Ms JG cannot eat beef (religious reasons). Luckily for us, the staff were very accommodating and efficient, allowing us to amend the mistake with the Three shot chicken. This dish was finished off at the table with a blend of three shots – shaoxing wine, soy and chilli oil. This was heated to a boil to infuse the flavours; and OMG the wafts of shaoxing wine and sautéed chicken was just mouth-watering. The chunks of chicken were tender, the mushrooms were juicy, even the slices of carrot was so strongly infused with the aromas of wine. The waitress also reassured us that the cloves of garlic were edible, and though I did have a few, I’m not a big fan of so much garlic in my mouth.
Next up was huge inverted pyramid bowl of Shanghai Style Spanner Crab and Tofu ($55). The crab broth was deliciously rustic and pour-in-rice worthy. Within lay cubes of delicate, silky white tofu and a variety of almost unrecognisable pieces of de-shelled seafood. We actually had so much fun guessing what the other seafood ingredients were: with the succulent spanner crab being an obvious given, the scallop being quite easy to pick out, but then there was an unknown seafood which we couldn’t discern. It had meaty fibres that resembled lobster, but a texture too soft to be so; and it had an infused crab aroma and didn’t particular fit with anything. So confused… I wonder if it prawn, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe that. This was Mr PW’s favourite of the night!
Looking retrospectively at the receipt, I am now certain that we actually ordered the Shredded Duck, Water Chestnuts and Black Fungi with Pixian Chilli Paste and Fried Tofu ($39), and NOT the spanner crab. Lucky for us, the spanner crab was SO GOOD and we were only charged for the “cheaper” shredded duck dish – I’m not complaining =). P.S. check your receipts!!!
Despite feeling quite full, we still managed to order the Peanut and salted caramel parfait with milk chocolate ($18). It had quite the resemblance to Il Fornaio’s Snickers in composition and flavour, but completely different construction. The surface shell was half salty caramel & peanut, and half milk chocolate. I actually prefer this version of the salty caramel, which was not as salty, but still exploding with flavour. The dense parfait interior was rich and decadent, but not so much creamy. The base was pleasingly crunchy and buttery. Ms JG liked this so much she acclaimed it was better than the Snicker’s. I however, still can’t decide which is better.
Rating: Yummy +2. Yes that’s right, I have given it a +2. Aside from my typical rants about the muted levels of spice, the flavours were perfectly well balanced and executed, hitting all the right notes!
The experience was pleasant with service that was attentive, albeit food coming rather slow (finished up being a 2.5 hour sitting). It is definitely pricey, and my wallet certainly won’t allow me to come frequently, but certainly return-worthy.