Well, I'm glad I booked as it was packed. Possibly the post-cricket hordes strolling along Southbank.
Spice Temple Melbourne has been open a few weeks. It is in a dimly lit space between Rockpool B&G and Nobu in the Crown complex. Windows, heavily tinted, look out onto the boulevard and water. There is a similarly dim bar downstairs. The feel and service reminded me of Rockpool so I don't know if there has been waitstaff swapping or shared training - I found it spot on, not oily but still helpful and knowledgeable.
To the food! Menu is all mainland Chinese, with a bias to the north and west. It's divided into pickles, cold starters, hot starters, then mains by type and finally side veggies. Some dishes (about 40%) are printed in red, which denote chilli. We ordered cucumber pickles, strange flavour chicken, steamed eggplant with three flavours, hot and numbing duck, hunanese pork belly with black vinegar, and some stir fried spinach. We also got a pitcher of 'lychee wine', a bad habit we picked up at Chilli Fegara in Hong Kong that goes very nicely with anything with a bit of heat.
I was concerned we would get tame westernised dishes. Strange flavour chicken, a deboned chicken fillet with skin in a famous sichuan dressing, put that theory to bed - it was authentically hot. (We flirted with the firewater beef, a chongqing dish that is a watery casserole, that is hotter but decided to hold back). Eggplant was tasty. Hunananese dish was superb - cubes of roasted pork belly with green beans and a lot of chilli with a wisp of sharpness from black vinegar - perfect balance and no unnecessary ingredients. The chilli was essential. Hot and numbing duck was disappointing to us after the strange chicken - a whole duck breast (no skimping here!) had been roasted with sichuan pepper and a little honey - a bit one dimensional but I can see why many people like it as its not very confronting and there is nice la. About half the tables had ordered it. Portion were substantial - we were both stuffed after the above (It was mentioned that some dishes are available in half sizes but I need to investigate further)
I think the thing that sets it apart for me was the superb raw materials and flawless execution of some well designed dishes. This isn't fusion cooking, just some unusual dishes tweaked a bit. The good produce is a big plus, and is of course is reflected in the prices - but as a snobby westerner I would rather have a deboned free range corn fed chicken fillet for strange flavour chicken than a small boney cage-raised fillet and I'm prepared to pay for that.
I think Melbourne's Asian dining scene gives a contrast here as well that may not be in Sydney. The handful of extremely good Asian restaurants in Melbourne are all Cantonese or HK-style. The regional restaurants tend to be home style and are at the less expensive end of the market which is reflected in ingredient quality, terrible service and often execution that is a little off. There isn't much in the middle ground - there are no top end Hunanese restaurants for example. And once you hit the canto top end, the prices go through the roof (Flower Drum anyone?) and Spice Temple starts to look inexpensive. So I think it's got itself a niche it can exploit - I would take UK business visitors here for example - and the professional service is a huge plus.
I'll happily go back, possibly in a four to widen the choice a bit.