Crown Complex, Southbank, Victoria, Australia (03) 8679 1888
Open for yum cha 7 Days, 12.00 pm to 3.00 pm
We recently went to Spice Temple for Neil Perry’s Yum Cha menu. Over the past five years I have been trained by überjoi to appreciate Yum Cha and to distinguish between good and bad Yum Cha. So. This is going to be the first really critical review I write. I know only five people are ever going to read this and the writing of this is really only for the fun of it – but I’m still going to provide a proper rationale for this review. Mainly because the food isn’t actually bad at Spice Temple. It’s just not Yum Cha – and I need to properly explain what I mean by that without becoming a complete wanker about food and authenticity.
You can call anything ‘authentic’ because it really doesn’t mean anything. Authentic grilled steak, cooked using real heat. Authentic Japanese hamburger with real tofu cheese. Authentic Italian cuisine. From which part of Italy would that be? Which town, which family recipe are you claiming to have authentically reproduced?
Restaurants can claim anything they like. It’s like the scientific principle of the infinite sharwarma that allows every kebab shop in Melbourne to concurrently display a “best kebab in Melbourne” sign on its window. I explain this by the existence of dimensional portals at either end of the slowly spinning stick allowing every kebab shop in Melbourne to join to one another – the meat from one kebab show extending down to rotate through to the next and the next. The thin slices of meat and fat somehow eschewing the normal conditions of space and time to exist in all places at once. Hence all these shops are by definition serving the best kebab in Melbourne because they are all serving the same kebab. This is me trying not to be a wanker and as usual failing miserably.
What I wanted to say when I started that paragraph was that any restaurant that wants to claim ‘authenticity’ is perfectly able to and in the end it doesn’t matter because really how would we know if it was or not? And who cares? What correlation is there between Royal Mail’s excellent cuisine and any notion or claim of ‘authenticity’? They’re trying something new and innovative and innovation can be way more exciting than some ambiguous attempt to be authentic.
I first had Yum Cha when I was about 11 or 12 at a Dragon Boat franchise in Burwood. I went with my family and had no real expectations of what kind of food would be served. We went and we ate but I don’t really have any memories of the food other than a kind of uncooked dough filled with ice-cream (which is how I described it at the time). Some glutinous rice flour concoction that I bit into expecting… I don’t know, jam or cake. Finding ice cream inside this weird smooth dough was absolutely amazing to my tiny little brain. How did they get it in there? This is what I remember eating.
The next time I had Yum Cha was when überjoi suggested we go to Gold Leaf in Sunshine. My mid-20’s self immediately thought hey, the dough covered ice-cream. Neat. They didn’t have that dish. What they did have was a f*** load of food, all of which I wanted to eat.
My first time at Yum Cha with überjoi, we had twenty-one dishes between the two of us. To clarify for anyone who maybe doesn’t understand, this is an obscene amount of food. The second time we went to Yum Cha we had twenty-two dishes. The problem was firstly that I was excited and wanted to try everything. The second was that I was greedy enough to actually order everything I was excited by.
I guess my experience with Yum Cha could be seen to parallel the career of an 18 year old who gets drunk four times a week to a 35 year old who buys single bottles of wine at auction. Through trial, error, success and experience I refined my ‘pallet’ and found what to avoid and what made a Yum Cha dish good. Being good at eating Yum Cha is truly a skill worth acquiring.
Now at Yum Cha we struggle to get to ten dishes between us – and that includes some egg tarts to take away. In the beginning there was everything. There were the fried wontons and giant oyster shells filled with creamy mornay sauce. There were the pork spare ribs and so many different dumplings to try. After time and experience, the deep fried carts are sent on their way and being non-Asian I have to specifically ask for the Tripe or Blood pudding or whatever traditional dish I might want.
After a period of letting me try everything (I still usually have to try something new every time we go) we settled into a set menu of items that we would order.
- Har Gao - Prawn dumpling
- Lo Bak Go - Radish cake
- Har Cheung - Prawn in flat rice noodle
- Jiu Hung - Blood pudding (überjoi’s dish)
- Ow Jarp - Mixed intestines or some kind of braised tripe
- Law Mei Gei - Sticky rice in lotus leaves
- Mango pudding (I can’t help but get this)
- Do Fu Fa - Silken tofu pudding in ginger syrup
- Egg tarts
There will usually be one or two other dishes that are swapped in or added to this list, but generally, this is what we end up ordering or looking for when we’re there. There are exceptions – such as getting the Suckling Pig at Golden Dragon Palace, Chicken’s Feet if I can be bothered spitting out the thirty-odd bones, or sometimes the fried Chinese doughnut in rice noodle (this is pretty big and filling but really yum as well.) but this is our standard Yum Cha list.
Yum Cha is a pretty standard weekend meal for us now – if it’s not a Pho weekend, it’s a Yum Cha weekend. That’s how it goes. It’s not a bad set of options.
We spent a month in China last year and having Yum Cha was a high priority. We took our cues from Anthony Bourdain and some food blogs but we managed to take in a variety of places during our visit. We had a high class Yum Cha in Shanghai, no cart service, just order what you want. Once we were in Hong Kong we tracked down one of the oldest Yum Cha restaurants in the city – I was made to feel pretty unwelcome but I put up with the glares and refusal to change our tablecloth (it was really filthy and they changed everyone else’s) for the reward of eating Yum Cha in a restaurant that had stood there for over four hundred years. The food was great and in all pretty similar to some Yum Cha in Melbourne.
So five years of Yum Cha experience which includes most places in Melbourne and a few in China has taught me that I couldn’t tell you what would make Yum Cha authentic. What makes Yum Cha good? The same as any cuisine – good ingredients, technique and flavours. This is a cuisine that has been tried and perfected over hundreds or thousands of years. As with a lot of Chinese food it is often about texture as well as taste. Stripping away the deep fried messes (and my beloved Mango Pudding) that fill up some of the carts, there is a lot of tradition in these dishes.
So, Spice Temple. The place was packed by the time we left. The people who were seated either side of us were uncomfortable with the layout and asked to be moved to somewhere “away from other people”. So it’s safe to say they’re probably not regulars at Gold Leaf or any other large Chinese restaurant. We were seated downstairs in a very low-lit, very moody series of tables. Single spotlights illuminate each table and trip hop plays on the sound system. It’s pretty odd to be sitting in a dark basement at midday but obviously the place wasn’t designed to serve lunch and perhaps there isn’t any other setting on the light switch.
We get told that it’s mainly an a la carte menu but there will be some table service. For the table service a little tally sheet is provided as per any standard Yum Cha place. A nice touch is that at Spice Temple this sheet actually lists the item price as opposed to the usual “standard, deluxe, super deluxe” that I swear is just ticked at random at some places.
We had arrived a little early and so had taken some time to read the menu posted outside. It was a mix of old and new. Standard Yum Cha dishes such as dumplings and steam buns – then a few nods to Beijing style cuisine in the form of lamb ‘sliders’ (tiny burgers) which are based on a Beijing street food imported from Turkey. Then there were some Neil Perry creations – his additions to the standard fare and I was interested to see what this turned out like.
We start with four dishes: Turnip Cake, Scallop Dumpling and one of each of the ‘sliders’ (one Chicken, one Lamb). The turnip cake arrives first and it looks really pretty. Charred and soft at the same time. There was a touch of genius here in having a small amount of black vinegar in the bottom of the bowl. The vinegar combined with the patty of turnip cake and the salt of the Chinese sausage and really made this amazing. A small amount of pickled chili on top gave it a little spice and it all just worked so well together. This is exactly what I wanted. A beautifully presented, well executed take on Yum Cha by a quality chef.
|Radish (turnip) cake|
This is not to take anything from the chefs at Gold Leaf or Golden Dragon Palace – but this is a smaller restaurant and we’re paying a premium price. This needs to be more than regular Yum Cha. Unfortunately the first dish had teased us with the possibilities of what we could have had. What could have been.
The sliders are the Spice Temple version of the Momofuku Pork Bun or the Miss G’s Banh Mi or the Huxtable Po Boy. It’s a slow cooked cheap cut of meat stuck in a bun. They were both good (the Chicken better than the Lamb) so tiny that they were gone in an instant.
|Cumin lamb steamed bun and white cut chicken steamed bun with salted chilli and pickles|
The Scallop dumpling was the first real disappointment. The dumpling filling was soft and mushy. Like a ravioli more than a dumpling. There were small bits of something in the filling that could have been scallop, could have been egg. To be honest I couldn’t taste any scallop and the texture of this put us off trying any of the other dumplings.
|Steamed scallop dumplings|
We had ordered the first four things from the menu and before we had tried everything they had started to bring around single plates of other dishes to try. We got the ‘pork floss’ and also their roast pork with peanuts. I usually wouldn’t order roast pork at Yum Cha but how could I resist trying it at Spice Temple?
The Pork Floss was okay. It was chewy, had been caramelized in dark soy and sugar so had quite a strong flavour. This dish showed a downside to their table service – we got to see the serving size and the price at exactly the same time. The pork floss was served on a plate that in a normal Yum Cha place would have served to hold the chili sauce. This dish was marked down as $14. This for a small piece of pork shoulder. If it had been amazing this wouldn’t have been a problem but it wasn’t amazing. It was okay at best. I’ll admit that the prices did start to leave a sour taste in my mouth.
|Braised and fried pork hock with "floss"|
The roast pork was good. It was served in the traditional manner – thinly sliced and room temperature. Not as good as the suckling pig at Golden Dragon Palace. Not as good as the Roast Pork omelette at Rose Garden on Elizabeth St. There was no flair to the dish. No addition to make this somehow more than what you would expect at any Yum Cha restaurant.
|Crispy roast pork|
We were getting full at this point and wanted to try one last thing – the Radish cake was excellent so why not try another traditional dish to end on? So we ordered the tripe to see how it was handled here.
|Steamed tripe with black bean|
My mum hates tripe. She was raised on it and her mother used to boil it for hours which would make the whole house stink like a cow’s armpit, apparently. At Yum Cha it is usually either stewed with lung, heart, tendon and other ‘mystery meat’ or it is braised with black bean or some other spicy bean paste. Spice Temple seems to have tried a combination and served the tripe in a stew, with some black bean visible in the sauce. It was the most tender tripe I have ever eaten. It was cut into very thin strips and must have been cooked for a long time. The sauce itself lacked seasoning and I was so used to having something to chew on when I had tripe that this soft melting version just didn’t satisfy me. This may just be me though.
We decided that we had tried enough of the savoury dishes. The totals were adding up and we still had dessert to come. Mango Pudding was on the menu so that was an easy decision for me. No Dofu Fa for überjoi, so she went for the 2nd best thing, egg tarts.
The mango pudding was pretty good. Lovely presentation and more of a soft mousse than the jelly like pudding you get sometimes. The addition nice of a piece of sesame praline on top that was so thin it cracked when the spoon tapped it.
|Mango pudding and condensed milk|
I wasn’t sure what to expect when überjoi ordered the egg tart. What I didn’t expect was what arrived. One regular egg tart on a white plate. This was eight dollars. For one egg tart. I don’t really mind spending money on food but seriously - eight bucks for one egg tart is completely ridiculous. If there was an explanation as to WHY it was eight dollars? But there was nothing in the presentation, no fine details, nothing to explain the cost. Having had the $2 egg tarts from Yummie in Footscray, 50 cent portuguese tarts in Macau, the $12 Crème Caramel at Movida (which is my high bar for eggy desserts), all I can say is that serving one average-at-best egg tart and charging eight dollars for it is, like the nurse who empties your colostomy bag, taking the piss.
Yum Cha at Spice Temple ended up costing just over double what we would usually spend at Golden Dragon Palace or Gold Leaf. The food was not as good as either of those places. So the summary would be – Authenticity isn’t a factor but I guess tradition is. This is a case where the traditional fare can be cooked well or cooked badly but the dish itself can’t really be improved on. At least it hasn’t been improved on at Spice Temple. The restaurant is pretty and you’re paying a lot for the privilege of eating there. Maybe people who don’t go to Yum Cha every couple of weeks wouldn’t know what they were missing out on. überjoi commented that she would hate for Spice Temple to be someone’s first experience of Yum Cha. She probably would have hated my first experience with Yum Cha as well.
Go and eat Yum Cha at Golden Dragon Palace or Gold Leaf. Take your friends. Drink copious amounts of tea and try everything you want. Leave the Spice Temple to those who want to stay in the dark.