To my surprise however, I went home at the end of the night not with a tear-soaked face and a fiery throat, but only a burning desire to return.
The illusion of billowing silk curtains at the entrance to Spice Temple is well-known and no longer a novelty for most people. Except me. I touched the door and reeled back nervously, half expecting my hand to disappear. Muffled laughter around me. Moving on.
Entering the restaurant via the long winding staircase, you feel as though you're descending into a dark cave. Which would be a fair assumption.
Each table is illuminated by a single low-hanging light that allows you to see just your food and your companion's chin, before everything else is eaten by darkness. The dark, combined with the smell of incense and spice, creates a wonderful sense of mystery.
Spice Temple's cocktail menu is based on the 12 zodiac signs of the Chinese calendar, that is, the animals of rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon etc. This particular cocktail was the Rabbit: granny smith apple, jasmine soda, Hendricks gin and citrus. A sweet, refreshing way to kick off the night.
Fried squid with whole five spice and dark chilli paste. The squid was cooked beautifully, very soft and tender, with a dusting of spices, but the chilli paste was a little dry and lumpy. Probably not a dish I would order again.
Northern-style lamb and fennel dumplings. Normally I gravitate towards dumplings like a planet orbiting the sun. They're just so satisfyingly squishy. These lamb and fennel babies were good, but not incredible. In fact, they were a little chewier and stodgier than I expected and the fennel flavour was too subtle to detect. A good dish, but not earth-shattering.
Close-up of dumpling innards.
This is where the party really began. Almost as soon as the plate was set down, heaving with spice fried chicken wings and heaven facing chillies, we looked at each other in amazement: 'That's an entree?!'
Bird's eye view.
I don't think words (or even photos) could capture the magic of this dish. Each wing was cooked to absolute perfection, encased in a thin flaky layer of crunchy, golden skin. As soon as you bit into it, the skin splintered willingly, revealing soft meat that just melted in your mouth. Most fried chicken wings are covered in such thick, hard batter that it's almost a battle to get to the flesh, but these babies were the absolute opposite. Incredible.
We thought long and hard (okay, just for a minute) about the reasons for, and signs of, chillies facing "heavenward" (as the menu described) and couldn't find an answer. Not that we really needed to know. It was enough that these chillies gave the dish a poetic name, and bejeweled the plate with their shiny ruby skins.
Stir-fried cumin lamb with steamed bread pockets. Another magical dish. Minced lamb, beautiful herbs and spices, a melody of flavours. The serving style actually reminded me of San Choy Bau, except that the lamb was cuddled up inside smooth steamed bread pockets rather than lettuce cups.
The bread pockets arrived in a round bamboo box (the kind usually reserved for dumplings) and they were incredibly light and fluffy, not the stodgy, floury bread pockets I'd expected.
A bed of lamb. Yum!
Shredded duck, dried chestnuts and black fungi with Pixian chilli paste and fried tofu. This was my second favourite dish of the night (after the chicken). It was every bit as flavorful as it was colourful. Literally, a party in the bowl. And what a nice bowl it was too.
I liked that the tofu was cut into generous cubes, rather than those mean little strips that sometimes accompany salads. Chunky-cut tofu just can't be beaten.
Guangxi style roast pork belly with coriander, peanuts, red onion and sesame seeds. This was a textural minefield. Literally. You'd pick up a bundle of innocent-looking herbs, take one bite, and nearly lose a tooth on a chunk of crunchy pork crackling, only to be saved by the soft pillowy pork meat that followed. Add crunchy peanuts and sesame seeds to the mix and you literally have a textural maze. Yum!
The changing of the guard. Nah, I'm kidding. It was just the changing of bowls to make way for dessert. But it did feel like quite an occasion, and the bowls with birds were too cute not to photograph :)
Chocolate and caramelized peanut parfait. We were tossing up about whether to order dessert (being ridiculously full by this point). We were also distracted by our quest to do the best impression of Donkey ('but ev'rybody loves parfait!') Finally, we decided to bite the bullet and order one dessert to share between the five of us.
The parfait was another textural delight. Cracking its chocolate ceiling provided the same level of satisfaction you get when you tap open a creme brulee. And the parfait struck the perfect balance between sweet and salty, rich and creamy. Mmmm peanuts. A good way to end the meal.
If you go to Spice Temple for anything, at least let it be the glowing pink Buddha. I imagine it gets rather lonely sitting in a corner by yourself. But then again, we were all too distracted by the quality of the food to notice him until the very end.
Until next time.