Crispy Guangxi pork slider
Recent visitors to Crown Casino might have noticed that Emperor Neil Perry has new clothes. His Asian sensation, Spice Temple, now serves yum cha at lunch. Well, the dim sum dishes at least.
Those who think of yum cha as barking trolley ladies, lunchtime chaos and lazy susans will be disappointed with Perry’s reinvention of the Cantonese institution.
There is none of that usual chaos where you run out of table space, debate what to try next, spill the soy, over-order and then slip into a fried-food coma. It’s like all the fun’s been sucked out of the steamer basket.
On arrival, diners are escorted to their sleek black tables by an equally sleek hostess wired to a walkie-talkie. Take great care if she leads you to the basement dining room rather than the riverside one. It’s so gloomy down there it reminded me of one of those novelty restaurants run by the blind. If you own a pair of night-vision goggles or a headlamp, best bring them along.
Down in the bunker everything is discreet and designer oriental, from the wafer-brick walls overlaid with timber slats to the pendant lanterns that cast a feeble orange glow over each table – just enough to make out the menus and spotlight each dish as it arrives.
The printed page of à la carte Chinese snacks is categorised into salads and cold cuts, steamed dishes, baked and fried … and sandwiches.
This last incongruous category consists of miniaturised dude food such as a crisp Guangxi pork slider (which is more coriander and cucumber than pork) and a steamed bun stuffed with cumin-scented lamb.
At an average price of $10 for two mouthfuls of mini-burger, you can decide whether these gimmicky trifles are good value for money.
Speaking of which, on the first visit we have wine – two glasses each – which blows out the Sunday lunch bill to $165.50. We could have had three or four yum chas in Chinatown for that price. Perhaps I’m missing the point.
The wine list is capped at 100 labels that lean towards more aromatic, cool-climate drops better suited to the subtleties of this cuisine.
There are also seven teas, ranging from jasmine pearls (served strong and satisfying) to blackcurrant and hibiscus.
Clear glass pots are topped up by passing staff but, again, it’s not quite the same as a squat porcelain teapot that’s refilled whenever you flip the lid.
Staff recommend ordering three to four dishes each to start, then add more as appetite dictates. Plates come in whatever order the kitchen decrees.
Perhaps the best dish we try is an egg custard of impeccable consistency, firm and yielding at once, topped with minced crabmeat and oozing a sauce of chilli-laced XO. It’s sensual like a dessert, but also intensely savoury, a delicious discovery.
Steamed rice-noodle rolls with prawn and summer bamboo are dressed with shredded coriander and sesame seeds and arranged in a black bowl for maximum optical impact.
Each slinky roll contains a few slivers of bamboo and half a prawn. They’re perfectly nice (but barely warm), as are the deftly steamed har gow prawn dumplings. Better are the scallop dumplings with their peppery bite and fresh hint
of spring onion.
A tumble of soy-baked Fremantle octopus pieces with soybeans looks polished, like every dish here, but it’s disappointingly salty.
It’s only a little bowl but we don’t finish it, preferring to concentrate on the guilty pleasures of braised and fried pork-hock pieces with “floss” (a tumble of fried chilli, shallots and garlic, we think – the waitress isn’t too sure; it’s probably a good idea to floss after eating it, though).
The sizzling, spicy fried quail is also worth ordering. It comes as a quaint pile of two breasts and two legs and, while there’s nothing sizzling about it, the tender, pinky meat is juicy and has a pleasant chilli afterburn.
Beside it there’s a separate bowl containing two tightly rolled, moist napkins, like the ones you get on aeroplanes. They’re handy for wiping up after you’ve dissected the bird with your fingers.
Steamed rice-noodle rolls
As we’re tucking into dessert – a silky “Eight Treasure” rice pudding studded with sugar rocks and candied cumquat, and an addictive mango pudding with condensed milk – I spy an acquaintance who’s flown in from Hong Kong for the food festival.
“How was your lunch?” I ask her.
She pulls a face and says: “Confucian.”
For a moment I think she’s referring to Neil Perry’s Delphic quote printed at the top of the menu, which reads: “Balance, harmony, fire, strength and beauty.”
But no. When I query her, she corrects me. “Confusion!”
I must say I’m confused too. To me, Spice Temple’s new dining experiment doesn’t feel at all like yum cha, which is as much (or more) about the atmosphere as it is about the food.
And it’s certainly not priced like yum cha either. But this is a casino after all, so feeling out of pocket is probably nothing remarkable.
Spice Temple, Crown Casino, Southbank
Cuisine \ Regional Chinese
Chef \ Ben Pollard
Hip pocket \ $40-$50 a head, without wine
Open \ Daily from noon
Highlights \ Flattering lighting
Lowlights \ Poor value and vibe
Bookings \ Recommended
Phone \ 8679 1888
WE RATE IT 6.5/10