A good friend and work colleague of mine and me were well overdue for a catch up, so we wanted to find a nearby CBD location that offered a little more than a sandwich, without going overboard on cost.
Red Spice Road delivered exactly what we were after. For $25 per person, you receive an appetiser and a choice of three of five listed dishes plus rice. Me, cynical as ever, was waiting for a catch. Are the portions going to be tiny? Is it going to represent what might be served up from an ‘all-you-can-eat’ style bain marie? No and no.
The appetiser was a betel leaf with prawn, coconut, chilli and mint. The prawn was ever so slightly opaque, so biting through it there was still some ‘give’ in the texture. Perfectly cooked and no one flavour dominated it all worked harmoniously, albeit two bites and it was gone. A plateful of these babies over a few icy cold beers or a chilled Marsanne or Roussane and all you’d be missing was the beach and a sunset.
Of the five mains to choose from, we selected the pork belly with chilli, caramel, black vinegar with an apple, cabbage, mint salad; Lap Khmer – a Cambodian beef salad with basil, mint, snake beans, roasted rice powder and chilli. For our third dish, we were a little stuck. Would we go for the squid with green papaya and peanut salad, the chicken with snow peas, chilli, ginger and green onion or the barramundi sour orange curry with silk melon and potato? Our server helped us with our decision and we opted for the barramundi.
In the blink of any eye, three large bowls of our selections arrived with a mountainous bowl of well cooked rice. This was more than enough for three people!
Two of the three dishes were a little… not underwhelming, but just missing the mark. The Lap Khmer was pretty close though; beautifully thin slices of rare, marbled beef amongst crisp snake beans… fresh, clean and a great foil to the rich pork belly, albeit there could have been some more defined punch… perhaps some more chilli, basil and mint?
The barramundi sour orange curry was a little bland. Upon recommendation from our server, on two occasions, she made a point of highlighting that it had some “punch”, us assuming it was a little on the spicy side. Unfortunately, it was not. There was a subtle sour note from the orange, but there was nothing else to carry the dish. The barramundi was a good choice because of its meatiness, but it was a little on the dry side.
Then there was the pork belly.
The pig is the best animal in the whole world. Bacon and ham are delicious. A world without crackling would be joyless and then there’s a part of the pig that I truly believe is God’s subtle hint that if prepared and cooked right, there is a heaven and it comes in the form of unctuous and tender meat and small layer of fat and a skin that is somewhere in between tacky and crunchy. Yeah, I liked the pork belly. I LOVED the pork belly. My friend and I both made sure that there were an even amount of belly pieces in the bowl to avoid an embarrassing confrontation over an odd piece. The sweetness of the caramel was wonderfully off-set by the accompanying small jug of black vinegar. Alas, I think my only recently discovered dish of 2011 had been knocked off its pedestal in only five days.
Red Spice road offer a comprehensive list of cocktails, mocktails as well as several decent beers on tap and the usual suspects on the bottled beer list. The wine list is also extensive, with many choices under $50, but expect to pay around $60 as a mid point.
Service was brisk but without being rude. However, I believe the underlying expectation is to not linger if you’re not ordering anything after you’ve finished your mains. There are plenty of other people waiting to take your place. And be prepared to share a large table with your fellow diners.
It’s hard to find somewhere good in Melbourne’s CBD that offers a variety of dishes, made with quality ingredients and in most cases punches above its weight in flavour country, leaving you more than satisfied for $25 in a restaurant ambience. Actually, if I looked hard enough, I’d probably find heaps of places that come close… this is Melbourne we’re talking about, but for the sake of this review let’s pretend there aren’t too many. Red Spice Road ticks these boxes and I’ll be sure to go back.
Red Spice Road
27 McKillop St, Melbourne 3000
(03) 9603 1601
Good for: eating pig, quick work lunches, large groups, small groups (provided you don’t mind sharing a table, nor are you about to discuss your plans to take over the world)
Not good for: long lunches… unless otherwise arranged (I guess), fostering a healthy, long-term relationship with your waitress