The man with the ponytail needs no introduction. Chef Neil Perry's Rockpool has been wowing steak lovers in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth for years. Perry opened subterranean Chinese restaurant Spice Temple in 2009, the same year Rockpool Bar and Grill expanded his empire at the same address. Numerous bestselling cookbooks later, Spice Temple is still going strong as one of Sydney's leading Asian fusion dining experiences.
A door-sized LED screen, tucked into an alcove in the business district, is the psychadelic entrance and promises an Alice in Wonderland-type trip. On the screen, a digital curtain blows in a digital wind, like a moving bus shelter poster. Push the heavy door, and there's a not very impressive stairwell descending what seems like two storeys to the main action, an underground bar and dining space, separated by thin planks of wood suspended from the ceiling. The bar's bright, the restaurant almost pitch black, save for a single spotlight over each table. It's an ideal date scenario; dark, intimate, seductive, sexy.
With more than 50 dishes on the epic menu, Perry has pushed the fusion aspect of Chinese food without losing traditional flavours. The extra spicy dishes are highlighted in red either as a warning to those intolerant of fiery mouthfuls of food or a beacon to those who love burning sensations.
The dishes, to be shared, are monumentally large, even for two people. Even a half-share of any main, at three-quarters of the full price, is a minor challenge to finish. Divided between salads and cold cuts, hot entrees, noodles, dumplings, seafood (live from the tank and pre-prepared), poultry, pork, lamb, beef and veggies, Spice Temple's variety is impressive.
"Tingling" and "hot and numbing" pop up frequently on the menu, an indication of the tongue-burning content within. The starter of lamb and fennel dumplings ($8 for 18) is a cautious beginning, as the pastry is clumpy and slightly burnt, and the fennel an odd intrusion. But things soon improve with the shredded duck in a mountain of dried chestnuts, black fungi, fried tofu and chilli paste ($42). It's a formidable fusion, old school yet unusual.
For the next hit, the braised pork short rib is served in a beautiful black vinegar tea ($38) and shredded apart by a waiter, pretty much deconstructed in front of your eyes into a wonderful dish.
The highlight, a beef fillet in fire water ($45), a fancy way of saying wagyu beef strips in a chilli broth with peppercorn, is volcanic in taste and appearance. To cool the fire, and a recommended necessity, the cucumbers with smashed garlic and ginger ($9) are a great juxtaposition to the spice. For dessert, the three-milk cake with pistachio and almond ($16) is delicious treat in a custard and raspberry bed.
For Chinese food, yes, this is a tad expensive, and to truly dent the vast menu, you need a group or repeat visits. If you're keen, there are two comprehensive banquet options, but a return trip or two is recommended, especially if your body is your temple, and your tastebuds are the entrance.