03 8679 1888
About 40 years ago a new culinary buzz went around New York – which is pretty big news in a place where it is not easy to impress. A revolutionary new restaurant had opened on 2nd Avenue and it was packing them in.
The place was called Hunan. Wasn’t far from the United Nations building on the East River and maybe that had something to do with decision to launch a new style Oriental restaurant so far from Chinatown.
It was also around the time that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were prying open the xenophobic Bamboo Curtain and the world was getting a new look at China and its customs and its food.
Hunan, we soon discovered, was not just the name of a major province in China but, along with Szechuan, had fiery foods to rival anything in India or Mexico.
And so we would punish ourselves at the Hunan with dishes so hot that your mouth salivated to counter the burning sensation and perspiration poured down your face. We loved it.
(Now, I suspect, and future visits to the Spice Temple will test this, I need to get my body and mouth re-trained and acclimatised for future chilli assaults.)
In Szechuan, much of the heat comes from the peppercorns but in Hunan they use chilli peppers –especially the seeds and membranes which hold most of the fire.
During my days of cooking Saturday night Chinese banquets in New York I painfully remember my first experiment making Szechuan oil for a chilled, but fiery, chicken dish known as hacked chicken.
You heated a handful of peppercorns until the oil smoked but unless you had a good kitchen fan system, or a well- ventilated apartment, you were in trouble. At my first attempt the fumes made my eyes burn and breathing difficult.
I learned quickly to always make the oil hours before any guests showed up and to thoroughly air the place.
But once you are used to the fire, places like Spice Temple are gems. A wondrous mixture of spices like star anise and fennel. And chillies that have been dried and pickled and soaked in brine and even fermented.
Calling Spice Temple a ‘Chinese restaurant’ (as they do in the menu) is a bit like calling Neil Perry’s other Melbourne venture, Rockpool, a steak joint.
As the menu promises: ‘Seasoned with an unmistakable Chinese flavour these unique and truly special dishes are driven by a long fostered passion for Asian cuisine’. A passion first introduced to the Sydney market with the Spice Temple up there.
The new offering – where Guillaume used to be until a hasty, and to me unseemly, exit -- is classy, has been expensively fitted out to provide the ambience, and has a knowledgeable and attentive staff that is a Perry trademark.
The dishes are designed to be shared and the menu is a cracker. With a few firecrackers which, wisely, are printed in red. There are some fire alerts with dishes described as ‘tingling’ and the waiters point out which dishes are ‘numbing’.
It was our first visit, so I didn’t think it appropriate to crack the ‘ numbing’ joke about Raquel Welch or the Australianised version about Elle MacPherson.
We were a bit restricted because Mrs. Nosebag has an aversion to shared dishes – being an only child – she’s a vegequarian and she doesn’t like hot chilli dishes.
But we managed. She had a half abalone mushroom starter which was subtle while I had the best crisp pork belly and smoked tofu salad with spicy garlic and ginger dressing.
A great blend of spicy, vinegary, tastes in a cold salad where the sauce provided the heat and the crackling came in tiny delights sprinkled through it.
For mains (and you can get half serves) we had stir fried Spanner crab with silky tofu and garlic, chilli and coriander. Also a dish of tingling prawns which were fairly mild, with green vegetable stalks, and a perfect palate cooler of cabbage and radish.
The Chinese broccoli with ouster sauce was a pleasant surprise. Large broccoli leaves with a perfect, light hint of oyster sauce. When most Chinese restaurants serve oyster sauce with a dish it comes as an overpowering sludge that you suspect spurts out of a supermarket bottle.
A friend dinking at a nearby table raved about the lamb and cumin pancakes and the caramelised pork spare ribs.
I’m keen to go back but next time with four people, including some serious carnivores to do the place justice.
Mrs. Nosebag would go back for the dessert which I ordered and she wasn’t even going to taste. Ordered it in the name of Hungry Hinch research of course.
It was called a ‘Caramel chocolate and peanut parfait’.
It was one of the best, most indulgent desserts I’ve eaten in years.
It’s not a parfait really. Not the sort we used to order as a birthday treat. A huge glass filled with ice cream balls and caramel sauce and sprinkled with lollies.
This was more of a ice cream cake – the shape and size of a large round of brie.
Half was chocolate casing on perfect choc ice cream and the other half was salty/sweet, crunchy nuts with caramel ice cream.
This was one dish Mrs. Nosebag was happy to share.
The Spice Temple is aptly, fairly, named. It is a place that worships exotic oriental spices and uses them to bring out the best in lamb and pork and lobster and beef.
It must be good. I even forgave them for replacing Guillaume.