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Mixed Marriage

Upstairs or downstairs, Neil Perry’s new restaurants

words Paul McGillick photography Earl Carter architect Bates Smart location Sydney | AUS project Spice Temple & Rockpool

make for a fine dining experience

or anybody who grew up in Sydney before the depradations of the 1960s boom, the heart of the city will always be in the precinct between Martin Place and Circular Quay. Here the mix of colonial, neo-Gothic and art deco buildings still give the city its character. That’s above ground. But below street level there used to be (between the wars) another world – of cafés, restaurants, bars and bookshops – with more than a whiff of the bohemian and the exotic. Much of this is now gone. But with the opening of Spice Temple and Rockpool Bar and Grill, chef Neil Perry (and partners Trish Richards and David Doyle) has revived the spirit of Sydney’s inter-War years with a heady blend of elegant glitz and subterranean sensuality. The location in the epicentre of downtown Sydney couldn’t be better – Emil Sodersteen’s exquisite 1936 building for City Mutual Insurance. One of Sydney’s art deco gems, the building’s faceted façade mirrors the triangulated corner it sits on at the junction of Bligh and Hunter Streets. Spice Temple, situated in the previously unused basement, is entered off Bligh Street. Here what might have been a heritage constraint has been turned into a feature, creating mystery, intrigue and a mood of excited expectation. Unable to interfere with the façade, architects Bates Smart have made the entry through an anonymous, recessed street door and down an unprepossessing stairway, angled to disguise the final destination. After this tantalising sequence of arrival, we reach the bar and reception where a screen of suspended unfinished timber battens allows intriguing glimpses to an underlit, sultry, sensuous world beyond. This is the central dining area wrapped by a perimeter of polished concrete flooring and unfinished brick walls, penetrated through beaded curtains and lit partly by indirect light from the perimeter and inside by Flaming Beacon’s exotic table lamps and pendants with their hint of Chinese calligraphy. There has always been a heightened erotic frisson about cross-cultural mating – which is probably why Neil Perry’s unique blend of regional Chinese and western cuisines has carried its own sexy cachet. Here


Left Spice Temple’s moody interior, with Earl Carter photographs on back wall



Below Spice Temple interiors, where a

screen of unfinished timber and lighting from Flaming Beacon are features opposite View of Rockpool from the first floor balcony

“Upstairs in the Rockpool Bar and Grill it is not so much  a cross-cultural marriage as a union of eras � Paul McGillick




above Rockpool ground

floor plan

right Spice Temple sub

basement floor plan

spice temple and rockpool bar & grill Architect Architecture & Interior Design Bates Smart Project Director Simon Swaney Project Designers Grant Cheyne,

Bates Smart

(61 2) 8354 5100

Project Leader Martin Schmidt Project Team John Gounios, Herbee

Spice Temple Budget (Spice Temple) $3,500,000 Total Floor Area (Spice Temple) 465m2 Time to Complete (Spice Temple) 14 months

Project Manager Armour Consulting


Mark Leib Gutierrez

(Brian Armour)

Construction and Finishing

Buildcorp Interiors Lighting Flaming Beacon Joinery Karisma Joinery Art Work Mahon and Band Art Photographs Earl Carter Kitchen Designer Mack Group

Mechanical, Electrical, Hydraulic & Fire VOS Group Structural MPN Group BCA Steve Watson & Partners DDA Accessibility Solutions Acoustic Acousticlogic Planning and Heritage URBIS Audio Len Wallis Quantity Surveyor Currie and Brown

Chairs and bar stools all supplied by Thonet. Lighting

All custom lighting by The Flaming Beacon. Flooring

Custom carpets supplied by Brintons Carpets.

Rockpool Bar & Grill Budget (Rockpool) $6,500,000 Total Floor Area (Rockpool) 1400m2 Time to Complete (Rockpool) 16 months Furnishings

Dining chairs supplied by Camm Upholstery. Bar chairs from Thonet. Lighting

All custom fittings from The Flaming Beacon. Flooring & Walls

Custom carpets from Brintons Carpets. Custom wallpaper from Publisher Textiles.


‘Eco-panel’ acoustic ceiling baffles from Woven Image. Access Hardware (61 2) 9635 3566 Brintons Carpets (61 3) 5226 3200 Camm Upholstery (61 3) 9555 7580 The Flaming Beacon (61 3) 9606 0255 Publisher Textiles (61 2) 9569 6044 Thonet (61 2) 9332 1600 Woven Image (61 2) 9913 8668


above Rockpool’s main dining space with

balcony above

Top right One of the upstairs Rockpool

dininig rooms right The bar with glass rack feature opposite Views of the trees outside are visible from the main dining room

at Spice Temple it is embodied in the below-ground location and expressed through the dark exotic finishes – the carbon black tables, rich red carpets and banquettes, russet chairs, the suggestive beaded curtains, the conspiratorial table lamps and Earl Carter’s atmospheric photographs of simmering Eurasian beauties. Upstairs in the Rockpool Bar and Grill it is not so much a cross-cultural marriage as a union of eras where the saucy elegance of inter-War Sydney meets contemporary taste, the revival of a long Sydney tradition of fine eating. For the architects, this was not a case of generating a new experience as adapting an existing one. “We didn’t want to compete with what was there,” says Bates Smart’s Simon Swaney. “It’s about like we have just put in the furniture and, hopefully, it looks like it’s always looked like that.” There are three ways to enter the magnificent volume of the main dining room. You can enter from a side door off Bligh Street, you can enter off Hunter Street through the bar with its amazing glass rack feature (subtly lit by Flaming Beacon), or – ideally – up the steps at the front point of the building, through the original black granite lobby and then into the main space. Here one is brought up short at the reception desk because, after the constrained lobby, the interior space explodes – massive plaster marble Egyptian columns support a moulded ceiling, splendid walls of back-lit, mullioned, wire-glass panels, handsome windows which look out on to tree lined streets, and the mezzanine at the far end with its wrought-iron balustrade. The mezzanine was a later addition (in the 1940s) and there had been some talk of removing it. An even later addition, a stairway up to the mezzanine was removed, but the mezzanine itself has been retained and now provides an extra dining area. In fact, Rockpool is replete with a variety of dining spaces, both upstairs and downstairs, providing for degrees of intimacy. All the windows are screened by a system of acrylic rods (some clear, some opaque) which allows views to the

outside while maintaining privacy inside. Wherever possible the original finishes have been retained and restored. Otherwise, a palette of American Oak heightens the sense of restrained, sophisticated elegance and, for a large, double-height space (once a banking chamber), the main dining area is surprisingly good acoustically. Food preparation is upstairs, but the grill kitchen is open to add that now familiar sense of theatricality to the dining experience. This is where the bank’s back-of-house used to be and the new bulkhead replicates the original plaster marble finishes. In the bar and in the more intimate dining spaces upstairs (where again any new timber or stone finishes are carefully matched to the original), Earl Carter has supplied another series of black-and-white photographs, this time largely nudes in a subtle reinterpretation of the art deco tradition. Similarly, Flaming Beacon supplies the floor lamps, table lamps and pendants to lend an aesthetic consistency to the whole complex. Like Carter’s photographs – and, in fact, like both restaurants – the lighting seems to be simultaneously of both the past and present. Upstairs or below stairs, this is an exquisite dining experience where, for once, the quality of the décor matches the exceptional quality of the food. Paul McGillick is Editor of Indesign.


Spice Temple & Rockpool Bar & Grill, Indesign Issue 38, Jun 2010