Saturday, 10 May 2014
I’ll be the first to admit that I’d set myself up for disappointment: for more than a year, I’ve been saying that Neil Perry cooks the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in Australia. This was based on the strength of a meal I enjoyed at Spice Temple and a crab wonton I had as part of a degustation at another of his restaurants, Rockpool.
On both occasions, I was impressed not just by the quality of the preparation and cooking and presentation, but also the observance of little details, little flavours, that are important to the Chinese palate. So naturally, when I discovered that Perry is adding yum cha to his menu at Spice Temple in Sydney, I was thrilled and incredibly curious to see how he’d approach it.
Yum cha is a treasured ritual for me. Not only is it a reminder of my home away from home, it awakens a nascent appreciation of my roots that I’ve been nurturing for some years.
With that in mind, here’s a quick review of what I ate from Spice Temple’s yum cha menu and how it’s changed my views on Neil Perry’s Chinese cooking.
1. Gua bao with white cut chicken and pickles — $9.00 each
The presentation seems to be inspired somewhat by David Chang’s pork belly buns at Momofuku Seiobo, but that doesn’t matter. It’s light, fresh, tastes great, and I have no complaints – it was probably my favourite dish of the meal. It was also a bit like eating a sandwich, which isn’t my idea of yum cha.
2. Shallot pancake — $11.00 each
A guilty pleasure, which I frequently have with a bowl of congee. This dish looks the part, and the pancake is certainly packed with shallots — probably three times more than you’d find in a regular yum cha joint. The trouble is, biting into this thing is like living an episode of Master Chef: my thoughts went firstly to the light and fluffy pastry that’s holding it all together, and then to the thick layer of salt that’s suddenly covering my lips and enhancing the pastry flavour. Master Chef fans might be impressed by this, but I was left wondering why I couldn’t taste the shallots.
3. Wagyu beef and chestnut siu mai — $14.00 for three
A colossal disappointment. The wagyu beef is, naturally, cooked to absolute perfection, just barely done (and maybe a hint of pink in the centre) so that it melts completely in your mouth. It also felt like a glorified hunk of ravioli, filled with mush and collapsing on itself as I held it in my chopsticks. A proper siu mai has a quality that the Chinese describe as ‘bouncing off the teeth,’ which is completely overlooked here because the key ingredient (the beef) was cooked to cater for Western tastes.
4. Lobster siu mai — $12.00 each
There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman orders a five-dollar milkshake, and John Travolta is so taken by the idea of paying so much money for a glass of milk and ice-cream that he asks if he can try some. After taking a sip, he says “That’s a pretty fucking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars but it’s pretty fucking good.”
I was kind of hoping that’s what would happen here with the lobster siu mai, easily the most expensive dish in the house by weight. I didn’t eat it personally as I can’t eat lobster, but Samantha’s feedback sounded a lot like what I said about the wagyu beef siu mai: perfectly (barely) cooked and collapsing on itself.
5. Hunan-style barbecue pork buns — $12.00 for three
This is going to sound really familiar in a second. My thoughts went firstly to the light and fluffy pastry that’s holding it all together. It was like an episode of Master Chef. But the filling… oh cripes the filling. Much too jammy. And way too much vinegar. But the worst thing about this dish? The pork. Chinese barbecue pork has a very particular taste that comes from the way it is prepared. You can get it from any Chinese butcher. Samantha has even made it herself at home. But this stuff? Had I not already known, I would never have guessed that this was meant to be Chinese barbecue pork.
6. Mango pudding with condensed milk chantilly — $16.00; and egg custard tart — the day’s special
It wasn’t a bowl of mango pudding in as much as it is a bowl of mango custard. It was a different take on a dessert that I’m not crazy about anyway, so I didn’t feel one way or the other about it. The sesame and caramel wafer stabbed into the centre, however, is awesome.
The egg custard tarts, on the other hand, were utterly disgraceful. Like all the other dishes, the pastry was impressive; and the custard was a little on the sweet side, which is fine. However, they came to us at room temperature. They were cold and they felt stale. It’s not uncommon to eat these things at room temperature, but people who frequent yum cha restaurants know that there’s often a race to get these things fresh and piping hot — because that’s when they’re at their best. I’ve got no recollection how much I paid for them, but I would have expected an establishment of this type to be able to deliver them hot.
I can see how people might be impressed by yum cha at Spice Temple, but it’s fairly plain to me that Neil Perry isn’t cooking with Asian tastes in mind. There’s a difference between having a bold new interpretation of what a dish could taste like and simply bolting two incongruous ideas together into a Frankenstein’s monster. I would suggest this is treading into the latter territory. What Neil is producing is a Westerner’s interpretation of Chinese food, cooked to Western tastes, and it’s not for me.