Neil Perry opening his first new Sydney restaurant since 2004 is a pretty big deal. And rather than choosing some airy harbourside venue with Opera House views, he's gone subterranean in the city for Spice Temple. "I'm asking people to go down a number of steps and come underground in beautiful Sydney," says Perry. "To do that, I felt I had to have something really special."
And special it is – a Chinese restaurant that does not serve any Cantonese dishes. Instead, you'll find a menu that roams China from Sichuan to Yunnan to Guangxi. But the question tingling on everyone's lips is the chilli factor. "The dishes [on the menu] that are in red, they're hot," explains Perry. "Chilli isn't just about blowing people's minds out. It really is about adding that flavour and mouth-feel and excitement." Go with a bunch of friends and try as many different dishes for the table as you can. You're guaranteed to taste something here that your mouth has never experienced before. In a very, very good way.
The room has a bit of a swingin' Shanghai gentleman's club atmosphere with rich red carpet, deep, chubby leather banquettes, vases of bamboo and curtains that look like giant matchsticks. The service is breezy yet professional, and if you don't want to sit down straight away there's a bar out the front serving cocktails named after the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Start with some pickles and cold cuts - the smashed cucumbers with garlic and ginger are a refined version of the classic cucumber salad, and the pickled cabbage and radish is a great way to refresh your palate. Hot and numbing white cut chicken is less scary than it sounds. Cold poached chicken, with its thrilling gelatinous quality, provides respite from the lava-like sauce, enriched with peanuts and sesame. It's a very interesting dish: a big hit of incredibly complex flavour very gradually turns into a long, cool burn that eventually numbs your mouth. Or try the more innocuous steamed-then-shredded chicken with garlic and spring onion oil (we couldn't help thinking it would make an awesome chicken sandwich). The lamb and cumin pancake is a table favourite - thin, crisp salt-flaked sheets of Chinese-style pancake with a scattering of cumin-scented lamb sandwiched in the middle. We're keen to try the cat's ear noodles with peppers and chilli sauce on our next visit.
Three shot chicken sounds exciting on paper. A hot pot of chicken, mushrooms and carrot is placed on a portable burner at the table; the idea is that you pour the individual shots of beer, chilli and soy into the hot pot. Unfortunately, the romance of everything else happening at the table is disrupted by the clunky gas burner. Better is the tasty mess of bacon, pork, garlic shoots and chives stir fried with smoked tofu and spiked with chilli - vegetarian food made fun with meat!
Dish of the evening, though, goes to the quail stir fried with peanuts served over steamed egg custard. It's all about texture in Chinese food and here the squish, crunch and sigh all work together with chilli that emphasises rather than bullies.
Feeling the heat? Cool down with the watermelon granita (pictured) – it's sweet, looks pretty and does a great job of killing a chilli burn. Or go the creamy mango mousse topped with a thin sheet of sesame nougatine. Or the delicate, gelatinous island of shaved ice layered with sago and condensed milk and perfumed with rose syrup. Or the caramel ice cream with coffee granita served with a couple of chewy chocolate cookies... Oh boy.
There are 100 different wines on offer.
Spice Temple is an exciting restaurant – not just because it's Neil Perry's amazing food in a casual, fun environment. It's unlike anything Sydney's seen before. Bravo.
Licensed, around $60pp, not including alcohol. .
Read our exclusive interview with Neil Perry
Go here for… the pork burger