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Rockpool. Wokpool. XO. Spice Temple. And now Jade Temple. With the July 3 opening of his new Cantonese eatery in Sydney, Neil Perry taps into a well of experience rocking the woks over 20 years and at least five different venues. And just to make things really interesting, he's opening it not much more than a noodle's length from the biggest, busiest and most celebrated modern Cantonese restaurant in the southern hemisphere, Mr Wong.
In the red corner, weighing in at 240 seats and two storeys, we've got the champ, Mr Wong. Opened by the Merivale group in 2012 with Dan Hong heading the kitchen, it raised the stakes (and the prices) for dumplings in Sydney thanks to secret weapon Eric Koh, a dim sum master imported from celebrated London yum cha houses Hakkasan and Yauatcha. That role that has been ably assumed by chef Michael Luo now that Koh is cooking at Queen Chow in Enmore. Mr Wong is celebrated by critics and the public alike, scoring two stars in the Gourmet Traveller restaurant guide (and a top ranking for its brilliant wine list) and remaining as popular as ever today, despite grumbles about service, regularly feeding in excess of a thousand customers a day.
In the green corner, is the challenger, Jade Temple. Headed by Neil Perry, one of Australia's most celebrated chefs, and, as an author with two books of Chinese food under his belt, not to mention two Spice Temple restaurants (and another on the way), one of its best-regarded interpreters of the cuisine in the country. Jade Temple seats 120, and has the benefit not just of the Rockpool Dining Group's substantial reserves of kitchen talent, but also its reputation for floor staff who are a cut above.
The lemon chicken at Jade Temple.
In opening Spice Temple in 2009, Perry moved away from the Cantonese cooking that had been his Chinese touchstone, choosing to explore instead the spicier food of Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, and to a lesser extent Jiangxi and Xinjiang provinces. At Jade Temple, he comes full-circle, not just to Cantonese, but to the Australian-Chinese food that first fired his imagination visiting Haymarket as a boy with his dad and the family's Chinese friends.
You want beef and black bean, honey king prawns, and sweet-and-sour pork? You got it. Albeit with some Perry tweaks. Mongolian lamb will have "a nice marriage" of leeks, brown sauce, "and a really nice punch of cumin", he says, while a good hit of acidity and some lightly candied lemon rind will distinguish the lemon chicken. "All these dishes are super-tasty - they remind you of why classics are classics."
If you're a real classicist, meanwhile, you'll be thrilled to see these dishes complemented by the likes of Dong Po pork (with the option of an abalone upgrade), fried chicken stuffed with eight-treasure rice, and garlic chives with bamboo pith and bacon.
Add to that line-up roasted and barbecue meats, and of course plenty of live seafood from the fish tanks - mud crab, lobster, abalone and pipis done with garlic butter, black bean, XO, ginger and spring onion or typhoon shelter-style, and optional steamed or fried noodles.
Perry says that even though Jade Temple follows a more traditional path, some crossover with Mr Wong's menu is inevitable.
Asked whether he thought there'd be any rivalry, Mr Wong chef Dan Hong LOLed, saying that he thought the atmosphere and experience at Mr Wong were unique. Jade Temple, he said, would be "totally different".
"I'm very confident in our dim sum. Obviously Michael Luo is the best dim sum chef in the country. And our roast meat game just gets better every year. We've been perfecting it for almost five years now."
The roast duck and dumplings "are probably Wong's strong suit", says Perry. "But I think we can match them on dumplings when Moon Kuen Ng [Jade Temple's new dim sum chef] gets here at the end of July. I think on roast [duck] I'm really happy with the gear we've been testing. We have lots of drying refrigeration [for the birds] so the skin is coming up really well. If anything, our normal dishes might be a little more authentic than Dan's; by that I just mean we won't be reinventing the wheel."
Dong Po pork.
If there's rivalry, both chefs are framing it in friendly terms. Perry says that along with Spice Temple, Mr Wong is his favourite Chinese in town, while Hong plans to spend his days off eating his way through the Jade Temple carte.
The takeaway: the battle for duck and dumpling supremacy on Bridge Street is going to be pretty tasty. Whoever emerges as the victor, Chinese dining in the Sydney CBD just got that little bit more interesting.
Jade Temple, 11 Bridge St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 9252 1888, jadetemple.com.au. Open Mon-Sat noon-3pm and 5.30pm-11pm, Sunday noon-3pm and 5.30pm-10pm.
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