So Neil Perry is doing yum cha. It’s no secret that the head of the Rockpool group has a soft spot for the wok, but when Perry launched Spice Temple in 2010, Cantonese cuisine was notably eschewed in favour of Sichuan, Xing Jiang and Hunan dishes.
So why yum cha? And why now? "We felt it was the appropriate lunch solution for a Melbourne crowd," says Perry, "and we decided it was important to have the cornerstones like the har gao (prawn dumplings) in place, but delicate versions with sustainable ingredients and distinct flavours, as well as the (non-Cantonese) dishes that we love to make."
It’s not your typical yum cha. The sound track dips between hip hop and indie singer Lanie Lane and there’s not a trolley in sight. Which, if you crave the rattling chaos of places like Tai Pan you may find disappointing. But if you seek the silken dumpling, skin translucent yet firm, filled with a giving mixture of juicy prawn and a fine crunch of garlic and ginger you’re in the right seat. Albeit a seat that you can’t see – Spice Temple is the land that lighting design forgot.
Still, the banquettes feel comfortable and the dark tables are spot-lit enough to highlight neatly crimped trios of juicy scallop ($9) and plump chive dumplings ($7), flavours so well balanced we don’t even notice that the traditional chilli paste booster is MIA.
There are no pork siu mai dumplings - those little wonton wrapped dumplings of pork and prawn with faces open to the sky, or mango pancakes, but take a moment to get over it because the alternative gear Perry has constructed with head chef Ben Pollard is worth investigating. Like the sliders ($9). Perry’s mad for a sandwich, and here, mini brioche buns are filled with roasted pork belly, salty crackling, chilli and coriander, a rogue entry from the Sydney Spice Temple bar menu. We rate them over the steamed pork buns ($11) which are a little dense and elastic in the dough, although the honey-sweet barbecued pork filling is the best we’ve found in a char siu bao.
Chilled slivers of tea-smoked duck ($8.50) with a rich vein of fat running down the side are worth a double-order, as is a dish of savoury egg custard topped with sweet hunks of crab meat and a throat tingling pool of chilli-garlic XO sauce. There’s messy finger action like little beef ribs in black bean and olive sauce (interesting concept, but unrelentingly salty) and the show-off’s best friend – sticky chilli-coated chicken's feet. They’re mentally challenging, but worth it for fans of ultra braised meat. Dessert is traditional – warm egg tarts and creamy pots of mango pudding, topped with a nutty crunch of sesame praline. You’ve got the full Temple bar on your side too, plus pots of blossoming teas. But we’re all about the house made sodas. Try the ginger beer ($7), spicy and savoury with fresh ginger juice.
There’s an integrity to the dishes at Spice Temple, in every sense of the word. The produce is sustainable and there’s a clarity of flavour unmatched by any other ‘cha house in town. In Perry's words "it's a sophisticated yum cha experience where you can get a glass of wine and still only spend $35 to $50 a head." Which, surely, is worth braving the dark for.