I’ve been to Niel Perry’s Spice Temple twice now, and I figured it was time to write a review for it. I have a lot of respect for Neil Perry. He’s done wonders with the QANTAS food, is a massively internationally respected chef, and for me to feel disappointed by his food, was something I was not expecting.
But there it is. I was disappointed. In terms of cuisine and flavour, the best description I can give is ‘lite’. It was ‘lite’ in a number of ways I would normally expect from a Chinese restaurant. It was ‘lite’ in oil, which was good. It was ‘lite’ in size–i.e. servings were quite small–and it was ‘lite’ in drama. For me it feels like Perry has taken the western sensibility of flavour balance, understated, restrained and refined food and applied to Chinese cuisine, where I’m not sure it sits.
The words I associate with Chinese–and specifically Cantonese–food is powerful, generous and dramatic. Heavy’s probably in there too, but not in the good way. Cantonese food is about powerful, bold flavours, large servings to be shared and visually stunning. I find this important because if it looks appealing, I want to eat it, and I get more excited about eating it. From a cultural standpoint, having expensive, dramatic food was also a way to show your status–as if to say ‘hey, look at me, I can afford to eat crab’, and everyone could tell because you had a giant platter mounded high with noodles and the crab shell perching proudly on top. When I lived in Hong Kong, my father pointed out how some families would deliberately over order. Much like Jewish families traditionally want to have leftovers–otherwise someone may have gone hungry–Chinese families have often seen being able to waste food as a sign of wealth, and one that can be done very publicly.
I’m not advocating that mindset in any way, but looking at that, I hope you can understand why Cantonese food is so dramatic–the piles of crab shells, the giant serves, the way you can identify what a dish is just by looking at it, the hand made noodles stretched and shaped tableside–and why I expect it. So when Spice Temple served up a crab already de-shelled as a rather insipid looking stir fry, I wondered why someone would bother ordering it when it looked just like chicken–a rather dry chicken, given crab meat’s tendency to fall apart very quickly.
So it was with some trepidation that I returned for yum cha with my sister, ordering a range of dishes, from our favourite pot stickers, xiao long bao, a fish fragrant egg plant hot pot (pictured) and a garlic cucumber salad and a few other oddities such as a szechuan style Wagyu beef and imaginative ‘sliders’–a fusion of the white Chinese bao and a western style burger. It started well–after the daintiness of the previous dinner I was ready for miniscule servings and a very large bill, but I wasn’t expecting overt and heavy handed saltiness of the eggplant and wagyu beef (although it worked well on the beef), the complete lack of soup in the xiao long bao, little dumplings which should have been full of tongue scalding soup, and the rather scant filling of the cha sui bao (BBQ pork buns). At the end of it all, I ended up feeling slightly cheated, especially given the hefty bill I was anticipating, and indeed received, although they were nice enough to leave the xiao long bao off the bill after we voiced our concerns. There were some bright spots–the wagyu beef was lovely and tender yet crisp and beautifully flavoured, the sliders were amazing, and the lamb potstickers, while very few in number, were very tasty and full of unexpected flavours.
Personally I think Neil Perry is best when he reinvents food and puts a major twist on it. At least with his Chinese food, I find some of it attempts to mellow out the bold and heavy flavours into the delicate and restrained ‘balance’ that is so prized right now, and in doing so removes the joy and drama and essentially leaves the diner longing for the original dish. This isn’t to say his food is bad, but my recommendation if you’re going to Spice Temple is to steer clear of any dish that appears to be traditional cuisine and go for the ones where there’s been a substantial reinvention in terms of flavours and concepts–the fusion food. If you do that, you probably won’t be disappointed.
I look forward to trying Neil Perry’s other restaurants some day, as I hope to have a better experience there.
Rating: 3 spoons out of 5.
Price: High $40 to $80 a head.