Move over umami, there’s a new taste in town and it’s taking no prisoners. Its name is “numbing” and I discovered it the hard way last week at a friends’ birthday dinner at Neil Perry’s Spice Temple.
The entire experience was a bit of a comedy of errors. Until the day before we ate there, I thought Spice Temple was an up-market Thai restaurant akin to Sailor’s Thai or Longrain. So wrong. The restaurant belongs to category of “fancy chinese”… perhaps THE MOST fancy chinese restaurant in Sydney?
Next, my friend forgot that the restaurant is actually the darkest restaurant OF ALL TIME (with the exception of those “dining the dark” restaurants that I don’t think exist anymore) and set the dress theme for her dinner as “colour blocking”. Sadly, the dimly lit ideal-for-a-first-date-if-you’re-insecure-about-your-face venue washed everyone out to a dull brown.
Finally, as a large group we had to pre-order, and because we’re all five years old we must have all been like “ooh! Ooh! Colour!” and pretty much ONLY ordered the “red coloured” dishes on the menu. Yes the menu did specify that dishes in red were particularly hot, and no we’re not stupid enough to have thought that they indicated something else like Chef’s specials. The person taking our order also warned us that most of our order were spicy – but even this didn’t stop us!! As a group of girls, all different kinds of Asian – we must have thought “this menu is clearly for silly weak-stomached white folk who cry at the taste of chilli”. Also, I’m Korean, so I eat raw chillies for breakfast.
This was a mistake. More about this later…
To start, we sat at the bar and had some cocktails – which are themed according to the Chinese Zodiac. A good conversation starter – “I’m an oxe! Oxe looks delicious! You’re a tiger – Tiger looks even better!”. I decided to have a mocktail, or as the drinks menu elegantly describes “hand made soda”. My mocktail hand made soda was lavender tea with mint. Delicious! Much better than Coke Zero and delicately made by cute bartenders.
I was actually REALLY looking forward to this dinner because I hadn’t been “fine dining” in a while. So when the food came out, I was aalllll over it. Food is clearly the focus here because the little lighting available is designed to give the dishes centre stage. The overhead lamps are actually moveable to cast a “spotlight” on each dish – which does add some drama to the food and provides some great lighting for food porn shots.
Tea smoked duck breast – smokey goodness (we didn’t make the 24 hour cut off for the whole tea smoked duck or chicken).
Hunan style egg noodles. Actually my favourite dish of the night – really tasty and the RIGHT kind of spicy. I’m apparently more of a Hunan girl than a Sichuan girl.
Fried salt and pepper silken tofu (forgive the half-eaten action shot – we were really hungry). Second favourite. Deep fried crunchy outside + silky inside = food texture heaven. Like a sexier, crunchier agedashi tofu.
So far so good. And now, we introduce the “numbing”. Specifically “Hot and numbing dry Wagyu beef”.
When I read “hot and numbing” on the menu, I interpreted it as menu puffery like “wicked wings” or “fire chicken”. I learnt the hard way that “numbing” is not figurative… it’s very very literal ie. your tongue feels like it’s been dipped in acid. Apparently, hotness (otherwise known as “piquance”) is a totally different taste to “numbing” (otherwise known as “hydroxy-alpha-sanshool”). The latter is unique to the Sichuan Peppercorn, in fact the whole appeal of the Sichuan pepper is this “numbing” sensation. Now, as a Korean, I’m all for sadistic chilli-eating, but this is taking the joke too far. Maybe it’s an acquired taste but as a first-timer, the experience was unpleasant and there was a lot of “Why does my tongue feel so weird???” and “I canth feel my thongue”.
It didn’t help that the wagyu was CRAZY salty. Like beef jerky soaked in brine then marinated in soy sauce. Then it was kinda downhill from there…. most of our mains were “numbing”. To be fair, it really was our fault making the rookie menu-ordering error – I’m sure it would have been much more pleasant to have a mix of “hot and numbing” with regular mild dishes. The highlights were mushroom hotpot (we were actually introduced to the mushrooms before they were taking to their boiling death) and the stir fried garlic chives with scrambled egg (super simple, but anything with egg excites me).
Lowlights included the pork (again, I couldn’t get past the numbing.) and the snake beans (I didn’t mind them, but my Malaysian friend was appalled by their blandness and considered them worthy of being sent back to the kitchen).
But it wasn’t a complete fine dining fail, dessert, the great redeemer, rescued the evening. We had chocolate parfait which was basically a jumbo-sized frozen reeces piece with peanut praline on top and a biscuit base. Really makes your inner fat kid squeal with delight.
Our other dessert was gorgeous to look at, but a little strong on the rosewater in taste.
Interestingly, neither dessert was even vaguely Asian.What, no sichuan peppercorn infused chocolate mousse? Getting a bit lazy there Neil tsk tsk!
There are some strange things about Spice Temple. The decor consists of large photos of beautiful but despondent looking Asian women – I think Mr. Perry was going for “sexy and exotic oriental girls”, but you can’t help but think “victims of sex trafficking” and suspect that “Spice Temple” is code for something more sinister.
While non-Asians trying to cook Asian food usually makes you feel ripped off for paying $50 for a stir-fry you could have bought for $5 in a chinatown food court – Spice Temple is at least interesting. The flavours and sensations are new (to me, anyway) and could be described as creative – which isn’t easy considering Asian food is mostly peasant food (meat and veg thrown into a wok with some oil and sauce but still tastier than any thrice cooked assiette of so-and-so).
Until I take a trip to northern china and learn to love the numb, I don’t think I’ll be back at Spice Temple. Except maybe for a hand-made soda and choclate parfait cookie!