Spice, Spice, Baby!!!

Red Spice Road (RSR) is one of my all-time favourites ever since I visited a few years ago. The restaurant serves Thai food with an Australian interpretation and is often compared to the likes of Gingerboy and Longrain. Traditional Thai food has a special emphasis on the use of different spices and herbs to enhance flavours without one overpowering the other. It is this balance that is tricky and hard to capture, but RSR does just that. Here, spice thankfully doesn’t translate to tongue-numbing sensations. Rather, you find yourself unable to resist a third and fourth (if anyone on the table hasn’t rapped your knuckles yet) serving of the delicious and beautifully presented food. RSR is a foodies dream and a dieter’s nightmare. There is a quagmire of temptations and you have to wonder if it is even worth resisting your urges. Afterall, why would your body lie to you? 🙂

For those who enjoy contemporary dining, RSR is aesthetically pleasing. As you enter, your gaze drifts immediately to the large orbs suspended from the ceiling. Delicately spun, they resemble orbs of moon. RSR also has a huge wall-space dedicated to one of David Bromley’s painting that can be an eye-opener for elderly. Don’t bring Nana here if she is the more conservative kind. I don’t think my parents batted an eye-lid when they came here for dinner one night, although Dad was a bit wistful that he couldn’t really see his food. The lighting is fairly dimmed at nighttime to impart a romantic mood, but the trade-off is that it is hard to take photos of the food. So arrive during the day to capture those Kodak moments. RSR is also home to one of the most gigantic red lanterns I have ever come across. I think it lights up at night to create a festive atmosphere and it floats above an equally impressive horse-shoe shape wooden table. I know a few diners dislike sitting in close proximity with their neighbors but I find this aspect of communal dining reflective of South-East Asia. There is enough space that you won’t find yourself knocking elbows with each other. Another plus is that you get to see the different dishes being ordered and you can even strike up a conversation with fellow diners. For those who crave personal space or wish to host functions, there is the option of booking a private room for your enjoyment.

If you need another reason to come and try RSR, here it is: they offer fantastic value for food. Really! Their lunch banquet is very popular and you can’t really argue with paying $25 for an appetizer and three mains of your choice with rice. The dishes are all generously portioned and I haven’t dined with anyone who is able to polish off all the food. For those who fancy themselves big-eaters, there is the $50 lunch banquet or you can order a la Carte. If you are spending a night out with friends in town, be sure to invite them to try the Earlybird special or dinner banquets at RSR as a rollicking good time is almost guaranteed.

During the week, I caught up with a few friends over lunch at RSR to try out their latest offerings. The lunch banquet changes once every two weeks so you won’t get bored – variety is the spice of life eh? To kick things off, we enjoyed the appetizer which was Tom Kha (spicy coconut broth with prawn and chicken) tremendously. Instead of bowls, the soup was served in a tea-cup on a long green leaf. Deliciously creamy with a slight fiery heat to the back of the throat, the medley of spices in this soup would be perfect for a cold Winter’s day. There was a whole prawn and shredded chicken at the base of the cup which we picked up with the chopsticks. We all agreed that it was a great start. For mains, we ordered: (1) Pork Belly with Chilli Caramel, Black Vinegar and Apple Slaw; (2) Beef Red Curry with Potato; and (3) Yum Talay – Prawn, Squid and Barramundi Salad with Chilli, Herbs and Lemongrass. Another dish that sounded interesting was the Chicken with Soup Cart Broth, Water Spinach, Basil, Peanuts and Beanshoots. We hesitated with ordering this dish because we were not sure what soup cart broth meant. Our friendly waitress zoomed off with our orders and left us to trade stories with each other. Service is unobtrusive at RSR as we were for the most part unaware of our glasses being refilled and plates cleared throughout lunch.

I mentioned that the lunch menu changes every fortnight. But the one item that is never taken off is the pork belly. It is one of the signature dishes of RSR and enjoys a God-like status amongst food served at this place. Almost everyone I know who has been to RSR cannot stop raving about the pork belly. They mightn’t remember what else they had, but they always reminisce about this one. As ridiculous as it sounds, squabbles have arisen as to who gets the last piece. It is seriously that good and memorable. Generous squares of the softest, most tender meat sit lazily in a pool of dark honey-coloured caramel. Like hidden treasures, they are covered by crisp green apple slaw which elicit contented sighs when eaten together with the sticky pork belly. A little jug of black vinegar is provided and we drizzle it over the scrumptious meat – elevating it to another level of sweet and sour. I can’t quite taste the chilli caramel but who cares?! We absolutely love the visual appeal and how the skin crackles, and the melt-in-your-mouth fat that surrounds parcels of pork. The fragrance of the entire dish served on piping hot rice is so enjoyable that we now understand the pork belly’s cult-like following. And no, we didn’t fight over the last piece because my friends were nice enough to let me have it. Or perhaps they caught sight of the slight maniacal gleam in my eye, whatever it is, I scored the last piece. Hooray for me!

By comparison, the red beef curry with potato was a little bit of a let down. We didn’t feel that there was anything very special with this dish. The meaty chunks of beef were tender but didn’t carry much of the flavour of the red curry that it was immersed in. We spooned the curry on to our rice and tried our best to finish the dish but we were defeated in the end. It was a heavy dish and so the next one was a very welcome change of scenery for our stomachs.

Initially, we were surprised by the generous mix of prawns, calamari and barrumundi included in the Yum Talay. I thought that there would be small gold nuggets of barrumundi but instead, white barrumundi flesh was stripped and tossed throughout the herbacious salad. My fears of it being fishy soon dissipated when I tried a tiny piece of it – fresh! I think all the seafood was marinated in a tangy vinaigrette which meant that all elements were really tasty. The translucent orange-striped prawns were fairly big, lovely and crunchy. Our waitress even brought over a small bowl for us to discard the tails in – something that we appreciated. We loved the texture of the calamari – it had a soft chewiness that is so different from eating calamari the consistency of rubber-bands at other eateries. There was plenty of cooling cucumber salad to go around and despite us not being fans of coriander – we ate it all even after finishing the apple slaw served with the pork belly! That was how much we liked it.

I would happily recommend RSR to anyone. It is an incredibly versatile place where you can bring friends, family and fellow colleagues. The lunchtime crowd is dotted with plenty of businessmen and women in suits as well as those who want a casual get-together or celebration; so be sure to make a reservation. Currently, RSR is holding a Father’s Day banquet, so bring Dad and the whole family along for an enjoyable meal. Just be prepared that they will talk your ears off about the pork belly for months to come ;).

Red Spice Road on Urbanspoon

65 Degrees CafĂ© – Converting hot chocolate lovers

Lately, something peculiar has been happening. Instead of craving hot chocolates, I’ve been more interested in trying out coffees. I blame it on the blustery and Wintery days, and perhaps, more pertinently the fact that EVERYONE around me is drinking at least two cups a day. I smell coffee in the morning and usually around 3 pm – someone would buy another round of it.

65 Degrees CafĂ© has been circulating in the news for awhile – even my Dad knows about it! It is located at 309 Exhibiton Street which is close enough to where we are during the weekdays. A few weeks ago, I read on twitter that 65 Degrees was promoting their hot chocolates and boy did the picture of it look good. Scrolling through their website – I found that they sold brioche for breakfast. Wow! My two favourite foods – how could I not go now? So, I sold the idea to my friend and off we went two days later. The weather was incredibly and unusually sunny that day. In fact, it was so good that my friend suggested we walk there – unheard off!

Upon entering the cafĂ©, we were pleasantly surprised by how fragrant the aroma of the coffee beans were. The outfit is small but cosy and they sell a selection of cakes/pastries/baguettes behind a glass cabinet. We ordered a medium sized mocha as well as the hot chocolate. One of my guy friends say that people who order mocha or cuppucinnos are girly, but since I am one, I didn’t have a problem with that. Also, I figured that going with mocha was a safe bet because I wasn’t quite ready to take the coffee plunge just yet. If you were to draw a Venn diagram, mocha falls nicely in-between coffee and hot chocolate. Perfect for me!

We sat on high stools as we waited and watched whilst people busied themselves with their iPads and work folders. What caught my eye was a picture of people lining up to get their gridlock coffee. One of them even had pouffy hair. It reminded me of the picture which shows evolution from ape to man. You can even buy their T-shirt with the logo on it, as the website has clevely noted: all the cool kids are wearing ’em. Soon enough, a friendly waitress brought over our drinks.

I made a cardinal mistake of drinking the mocha before the hot chocolate. The mocha was incredibly robust and creamy. I loved that the froth doesn’t just disappear in one sip. With its punchy flavours and just enough sweetness – how did they know my sugar level? – both of us were mocha converts. There was a slight bitterness at the end of each sip and gradually I grew to appreciate why people could be addicted to caffiene. This was the first coffee that I drank and really enjoyed. Ice coffee doesn’t count! The only downside to the mocha was that it kind of stole the hot chocolate’s thunder. My friend drank the hot chocolate before the mocha and she found that she quite enjoyed it. For me, I prefer hot chocolates that are dark and decandantly creamy – such as the ones served by Gânache Chocolate. The hot chocolate at 65 Degrees CafĂ© was silky light without being watery thin. Again, the sugar level was just spot on. We found ourselves enjoying the mocha a lot more perhaps because the hot chocolate didn’t share the same intensity. Due to us arriving a little later in the afternoon, we sadly missed out on trying the brioche.

65 Degrees Café derives its name (I think) from serving coffee at this temperature – great to warm hands in the cold Wintery months. Coincidentally, this is also the optimal temperature for sharing smiles and laughter with friends any day of the week – Mondays especially. We are delighted to have found this gem of a place and can’t wait to return to satisfy our next caffiene hit!

65 Degrees Café on Urbanspoon

Gyoza Douraku – Something Beautiful

I like most things Japanese because they are either cute, tasty, or a combination of both. When we holidayed in Japan, we saw first-hand how creative the Japanese people were with food. Their presentation of food is both impressive and unrivalled. There is a fresh vibrancy of colours splashed across the plate and a certain symmetry in the way that each morsel is placed. They produce desserts that are jaw-dropping beautiful, each one striking a balance between sweetness and fluffiness. I don’t think a day went by where we didn’t indulge in cakes, crepes, or ice-creams. Funnily enough, we didn’t gain an ounce because we hot-footed to just about every place we visited. We loved visiting their depachikas and markets. I remember how unbelievably polished the apples looked. Nestled between crinkly brown paper, they were the darkest shade of red and looked almost as though they had been plucked from a fairytale forest. You could smell their fragrance without even touching them. How was that even possible? But that’s the way things are in Japan, they constantly surprise you in the most pleasant of ways.

Anyhow, returning to the Japanese food scene in Melbourne was somewhat of a plummet. For awhile, my friend and I steered clear of them. Then, one day, we noticed how a new eatery was in the works along Bourke Street. Not yet open for business, the shop hung out a sign that read: Gyoza Douraku. Given the number of Japanese restaurants near the vicinity (Shoya Nouvelle Wafu Cuisine, Heirloom, Izakaya Hachibeh, just to name a few), I thought this shop was rather brave to set up there. However, Gyoza Douraku has a competitive edge. They focus on being a Japanese Gyoza Bar – something that sets them apart from the standard sushi, sashimi, bento and ramen fare. My friend and I were thrilled to bits, our interest in Japanese food reignited. We held high hopes that this shop would be our new go-to place for lip-smacking gyozas. Each time we caught the tram, our gazes would inevitably fall longingly on that one spot. I have forgotten how long the shop gestation was, but we waited weeks with growing excitement as we saw lights being fitted and then windows polished. Finally, Gyoza Douraku was opened this week!

We visited Gyoza Douraku on Wednesday as a midweek celebration. Barely did we finish flipping through the menu outside before we were warmly greeted and ushered into the restaurant. On sight, we love the contemporary feel to the place. Their tables are a Jenga mix of blue and turquoise which funnily enough reminded me of playing tetris. There was a square tray at the centre of the table that held a variety of condiments in impossibly cute containers (one of them a racoon) that you can jazz up your food with. A small mountain of minced garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil was present. Mix the chilli oil, garlic and soy sauce together to dip the gyozas into – it’s great, trust me!  The stools are wooden but comfortable. We found ourselves sitting straighter – not that we are slothful normally….We knew we were off to a good start when one of the waitresses kindly brought over another stool for us to place our bags on.

Choosing dishes was rather difficult because they have quite a large variety that sounded really good. The restaurant serves the standard pork and vegetable gyozas, pork and minced garlic gyozas, and prawn gyozas. They also offered premium options such as chicken and lemongrass, and wagyu beef gyozas. For the adventurous, you can even order cheese gyozas which I was really tempted to try.In the end, we ordered two different lunch sets and opted to try the prawn gyozas as well as the pork and vegetable ones. Both sets are accompanied by wafu salad, pickles, fried rice, and miso soup. We even had tori karaage in one of the sets. Our waitress suggested that we tried their coffee beans – freshly roasted on site – so we settled for a latte and a mocha.

Our drinks were the first to arrive and they both came with some lemon shortbread on the side. The thoughtful inclusion of the buttery pastry – which I am given to understand is baked in-house – went well with the drinks. My friend commented that her latte was light yet robust and I concur as the mocha was the same case. It wasn’t creamy but it didn’t lack flavour, and more importantly, it had a nice aroma to it. In this instance, Gyoza Douraku allows you to add any amount of sugar to suit your preference. The next dish to arrive was the Wafu salad and pickles. The salad was served crisp with a generous dollop of Japanese mayo. Both of us adore Jap mayo and my normally carnivorous friend even polished off her vegies. A rare event to witness! Ever since I visited Nishiki market in Kyoto, I have been hooked on those crunchy pickles. I found myself enjoying the different pickles – which were very colourful – adding to the pleasure of eating them. The miso soup was served piping hot – so plus points for that as we dislike luke-warm soup – with tiny tofu cubes and wakame. I didn’t feel that the soup was too different from any other Japanese place I had eaten at, but it was nice all the same.

It was the tori karaage which produced an O-M-G moment for us. I cannot begin to explain how much I adore this dish. Having had the authentic karaage back in Japan, I couldn’t find one restaurant in Melbourne that even came close to replicating the magic. But now I have!!! The tender morsels of chicken were coated with the thinnest golden batter – super crunchy and perfectly seasoned. Finely shredded vegetables of green and purple lay casually on the side – no pressure to eat more veggies – but you can if you want to be healthy. Again, a dollop of creamy yellow mayo was present. Biting into the chicken, you can taste the garlic and ginger, but they are not overpowering. It is a small slice of heaven on a plate that I will very happily eat ANY day of the week. I didn’t want to share after the first bite – but I did – because I wanted someone else to share in the simple genius of this dish. I don’t think we can ever go back to KFC or any other Korean popcorn chicken. You must give this dish a go when you visit!

When we spotted the waitress carrying out the gyozas, we rubbed our hands with glee. Five dainty parcels of goodness were plated up. Their skins were delicate and bottoms slightly charred – just the way we like it. Unanimous in our decisions, we declared the pork and vegetable gyozas the winner over the prawn gyozas. Both types of gyozas were juicy but we felt that the pork ones were more flavoursome. There was a balanced ratio of pork and veggies or prawn and veggies, and we told ourselves that we were definitely going to try the chicken and lemongrass or cheese gyozas next time. Having had the above courses, our bellies were pretty much full by this stage. To think that we had wanted to try their desserts! The last course served was the teppanyaki fried rice. My pet peeve with Japanese restaurants is that some of them serve Jasmine rice instead of using Japonica or sushi rice. Thankfully, Gyoza Douraku cooks with Japonica – and we loved the taste of slightly sticky rice that carried a strong flame-like taste. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t burnt, just that you could feel the element of fire coursing throughout the entire dish. One of the best teppanyaki fried rice we have had to date and dare I say it, better than the ones served at Shoya. We salute those who can fit in desserts after such a pleasurable meal. A brief glance at their dessert menu tells us that they have at least six options to choose from. If you like your green tea ice cream and tiramisu – they serve it here!

In summary, I really don’t think anyone can walk out of Gyoza Douraku without feeling happy. The prices are very reasonable for a Japanese restaurant, and the variety of options will suit even the fussiest of eaters. Packed with warmth and authentic hospitality of the Japanese, Gyoza Douraku deftly delivers flavoursome and quality food. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and this place is set to become our new stomping ground for tasty Japanese food in the city. And if you ever find yourself unsure of what to order – get the tori karaage!!!

Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon

Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon