It's dark in Spice Temple. So dark that you might find yourself clutching myopically for the banister on your way down the stairs to the two-level restaurant's basement bar for a pre-dinner Chinese zodiac-themed cocktail. There is light on the stairs, obviously, but it's trained on the curtain of white beads hovering in the internal void, so with the dark walls and stairs, the effect is dazzling and theatrical rather than practical and illuminating. But at Neil Perry's modern Chinese diner, dazzling and theatrical are all part of the plan.
Spice Temple is one part of Perry's latest foray into Crown Casino. Having won over suspicious Melburnians with Rockpool Bar & Grill three years ago, he's trying his luck again with this down-south version of Sydney's Spice Temple, taking over the space formerly occupied by Bistro Guillaume.
The second part of the Perry plan takes the form of a rather swanky bar in the lobby of Crown Towers, The Waiting Room. It's the Rockpool group's first stand-alone bar and it's only a short marble-paved walk from Spice Temple. The lobby provides real opportunity for topnotch people watching, but it's better to venture deep inside where the bar really gets to work channelling the opulence of grand hotel cocktail bars. Small intimate spaces with walls of glittering mirrored tiles, velvet drapes and rich, flattering lighting give The Waiting Room an undeniably glamorous jewel-box, genie-bottle feel, and that glamour is mirrored on the sharply directed drinks list, most noticeably with the list of cocktails borrowed from (or "inspired by") great hotel bars, from Raffles in Singapore to The St Regis in New York.
Spanish- and South American-inspired bar snacks (bocadillos, montaditos, pinchos et al) are equally impressive, and it would be madness not to order at least one of The Waiting Room's shiny, golden empanadas, perfectly formed, mixing textbook short pastry with a robust roast beef filling and a dash of peppery salsa ranchera. This is vibrantly flavoured street food made glamorous by its surrounds.
There's certainly no dip in the glamour factor back at Spice Temple, though it's of a flashier sort and accompanied by a faint, appealing waft of chilli and spice. Bare timber tables and Thonet chairs are dark-stained and shiny, each table picked out by an individual spotlight like glowing islands in a dark sea. The windows looking out onto the Promenade, screened by timber slats, have been coated in a translucent pink transfer, so that even during the day the room is bathed in an appealingly louche gloom. Carpet, a gaudy floral swirl of yellow and red that nods to pubs and suburban Aussie-Chinese restaurants of yesteryear, adds vibrancy (and a little welcome irony) to the well-orchestrated theatrics.
The carpet plays a key role in the acoustics of Spice Temple. Just as a dish like Kung Pao chicken - delineated in red on the menu to warn off the chilli wimps, and with chicken pieces coated in a scorched chilli oil resting among a truckload of "heaven facing" chillies, crushed Sichuan peppercorns and roasted cashew nuts - has the volume turned right up, so has the restaurant's sound system with its soundtrack of beat-heavy tunes.
The music's loud and gets louder as the clock ticks on, but with the carpet and some attractive, well-designed sound baffles on the ceiling, it's surprisingly easy to talk. The sound, combined with the table spotlights, has you cocooned at your table, aware of the action elsewhere, but leaving you, your companions and Spice Temple's chilli-stoked food to be the evening's main event.
A menu preamble explains that the dishes at Spice Temple take influences from the Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang provinces and that ingredients, as in all Neil Perry ventures, are meticulously and ethically sourced. With the super-hot dishes printed in red, the menu does provide some guidance on how to order, but it's a good idea to choose carefully; otherwise, you could find yourself with an unbalanced meal that might seem either relentlessly hot or too heavy and fat-laden.
A good way to achieve some balance is to order up big on Spice Temple's superb pickles. Whole peanuts and diced cucumber soaked in black vinegar make an excellent starter but the one you really want to take with you all the way through is the cabbage and radish pickles flavoured with salt and a vinegar-sugar syrup and topped with a dark chilli paste - a rich and surprisingly gentle mix of slow-cooked long red chillies, garlic, ginger and salt. The pickles are perky and refreshing with good crunch and acid that quickly restore the palate after a chilli overload.
They're also good for cutting through some of the fattier dishes, such as the lamb and fennel dumplings, representatives of China's Muslim west. Steamed and pan-fried, the dumplings are chewy, thick-skinned and oily with the fennel flavour in the lamb pretty muted. Sprightlier are the lamb and cumin pancakes of slow-cooked fragrant lamb and onion mince tucked into thin, salty pockets of naan-like bread and pan-fried: both robust and delicate with some enormously satisfying crunch, these pancakes have potential to lodge permanently on the must-have list.
There's plenty of other goodness that can quickly snag a place in the subconscious. Slices of prosciutto-like pink duck breast brined in a mixture of salt water, ginger, spring onion and star anise then briefly tea-smoked (the smokiness hints rather than dominates) have a voluptuous richness and are perfectly teamed with pickled cabbage and the muted heat of Chinese mustard. Small squares of fried squid are coated in a dukkah-textured roasted rub of fennel, coriander seeds, cumin, star anise and cinnamon and then eaten rolled up in Bibb lettuce with a dab of dark chilli paste. Classic fried salt-and-pepper silken tofu, already close to definitive with its brittle coating and slippery texture, is lifted with a spicy, feisty coriander salad, while a completely disarming dish of minced quail mixed with peanuts, pickled mustard grains and chilli (including a pungent fermented version) shares its bowl with a creamy savoury steamed egg custard.
There are several varieties of "hot and numbing" dishes on the menu, including beef and pork, but it's hard to pass up the duck version, a sort of sparkling sweet-and-sour for the 21st century. The marinated, steamed and roasted duck meat, crisp and fatty in all the right places, arrives sliced and sitting in a rich Sichuan-style sauce of caramel, soy, chilli oil, vinegar and Sichuan pepper and topped with sliced spring onions.
With a menu such as this where balance is important, the service - unfailingly polite and often engaging though it is - needs to be better attuned to ordering glitches. Many of the staff seem a little green ("I haven't tried that one"), so time and experience may correct the situation. The problem isn't repeated in the wine department, however, and deft suggestions for the list of 100 spice-friendly labels (France, Germany and Austria play a strong part) are close to hand.
Desserts are less of a minefield in the balance stakes and take the path of mixing French technique with Asian flavours. Brilliant-orange mango mousse, inspired by a yum cha pudding in its texture and flavour, and topped with chantilly made from condensed milk and a sesame wafer, makes for a cold, sweet and refreshing final stand, while the rockmelon granita, peanuts and chocolate and the orange jelly cake take a similar sweet, soothing and fruity path.
There's a great sense of fun eating at Spice Temple, not least because of the dramatic fit-out with its intermittent pools of dazzling light and impenetrable gloom. The food is similarly dramatic, opting every time for authentic and robust over safe and polite with an admirably high strike rate. Just as with Rockpool Bar & Grill before it, there's nothing quite like Spice Temple in Melbourne and there's every chance local diners will clutch it to their hearts just as fervently.