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? ūüôā

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

The Hardware Soci√©te – Melbourne’s Soul Food

Melbourne is dotted with more cafés than you can possibly visit in one trip, so we had a slight dilemma when a friend from overseas came to visit. The trip was a short one and we wanted to take her to a place which best captured the character of Melbourne city. In the end, we settled on The Hardware Sociéte (THS) Рa nifty little place tucked away at the end of Hardware Street. As far as cafés go, this one has street cred. Open for breakfast and lunch, THS is almost always packed to the rafters. It is a mixed crowd. Hugely popular with the dapper young hippies, this place is also well known amongst more mature professionals in suits. It is quite evident why THS has garnered a loyal following from their fans. They serve good honest food at ridiculously affordable prices. Importantly, their service staff are friendly and always at hand to offer recommendations to the undecided customers.

It seems to me that all the best places in Melbourne are hidden in lane ways, and so our friend had to do a little bit of treasure hunting before arriving at this gem. But that’s alright, because everyone knows that treasure hunting helps to work up an appetite. It was a little cold that day, so the three of us opted to sit inside. As we walked past the front glass cabinet, we tried our hardest to ignore the various pastries like almond croissants, canel√©s, tea cakes and bread-and-butter puddings on offer. The interior of THS exudes a warmth and cosiness reminiscent of visiting your best friend’s house. It is homely and the coat hanger rack looks like a splash of yellow paint dripping down, which is kind of cute and funky all rolled into one. Our waiter beamed and presented us with the lunch menu which starts from 12pm. As he poured us glasses of water, he explained the special of the day before leaving us to make our decision. A couple of dishes caught our eyes and we quickly negotiated to share three different ones. We were keen to try the special of the day which was roasted duck breast served with pomme frites, carrots and celeric pur√©e, and we also ordered the sirloin steak and pork belly. The aroma of fresh cups of coffee was too hard to resist, and so we ordered the mocha as well as two 54% callebaut hot chocolates.

We were delighted to see our drinks served in round yellow, green and pink cups on wide saucers.  The hot chocolates came served in cute little milk jugs so that you can alter the strength or intensity of the drink to your liking. For our friend who ordered the mocha, there was a puddle of coffee with a chocolatey brown hue at the bottom, and she happily spooned brown sugar into it before stirring in the hot chocolate. In contrast, there was a little ball of dark chocolate ganache found at the bottom of our cups. We heaped in two teaspoons of brown sugar before pouring in the hot chocolate and downed the creamy mixture. Instant smiles flashed all around the table. Decadently rich, both drinks were a perfect start to our meal as we slowly sipped in the sugary goodness, swapped stories and giggled. Time passes quite fast when you are in good company, and before long, three beautiful plates of food were presented in front of us.

The roasted duck breast was the special of the day and quite frankly, we would not mind one bit if it became a permanent fixture on the lunch menu. Pink, juicy flesh under a layer of tanned skin, the meat was succulent and just the slightest bit gamey. THS provided house made pomme frites so thin that I initially mistook them for thin strips of deep fried onions. The biggest meat eater of our group also surprised herself and found a love for the celeriac mash which absorbed up the meaty juices of the duck and surrounding rich droplets of gravy. However, she remained unconvinced on the carrots. Rabbit food, she called it. I think those would be incredibly lucky bunnies is they get to snack on THS carrots.

I was the lucky girl who ordered the pork belly which came buried like treasure under a small mountain of vibrant green baby rocket and diced red squares (I think they were capsicum). I’m not fond of rocket because of its bitterness but my friend loves its peppery taste. So we swapped her carrots for my rocket. Thin peels of crunchy poached prawn was thrown into the salad mix which added a delicious seafood sweetness to the healthy greens. There was also a serve of whole baked apple on the side with spiced crumbles decorating the top. But the star of the show is undoubtedly the rectangular piece of pork belly. I did not find the skin to be as crackling as I would have preferred, it was slightly chewy perhaps due to the greens were sitting on top of it. Still, it tasted wonderful and I think they rubbed some spice on the skin to set it apart from other kinds of pork bellies. The moist layers of fat and meat meant that the pork was pull apart tender with smokey flavours that permeate your taste buds. THS has created a playful twist to the traditional pork and apple sauce combination. The juicy saltiness of the pork went down incredibly well with a sweet cube of apple. I would definitely order this again.

The sirloin steak turned out to be a little disappointing. It’s deliciousness was most likely eclipsed by the excellence of both the duck breast and pork belly. I’m not saying that it was a terrible dish, just that it wasn’t as memorable as the first two. The beef was cooked somewhere between medium rare and well done and it came served with a rotund of mashed potato which had a crispy coating. There were a few small white pieces of either marrow or tallow which we found quite fishy and thought that it didn’t go well with the dish.

By the end of our meal, the allure of the hazelnut and raspberry bread and butter pudding became near impossible to resist, so we ordered one serve to share. This is pure comfort food which is best eaten on Winter’s day. Warm, fluffy, and just plain awesome, it capped off a wonderful meal amongst friends who don’t get to meet often. THS is a brilliant place to bring friends to and show them the soul food of Melbourne. A quick glance at their breakfast menu and our minds were set on returning. After all, how can you say no to fried brioche?

The Hardware Sociéte on Urbanspoon