I really want to roll a Jaffa down the table...
This is the first thought that crosses my mind as Billy and I take our seats at the table for the Viet Lane Sunday lunch in Melbourne two weekends ago.
You can't really tell from the photo, but the table--set up along the narrow laneway of McKillop Street--slopes downward to the bottom of the hill. We're seated at the very top. It's the perfect stage for the orange chocolate candy-coated ball sent down the movie aisles by bored teenagers of yore.
Today is a cosy affair, 200 guests seated shoulder to shoulder for an eight-course banquet with matching wines priced at $100 per head. Overhead canopies in red and white add a festive air and provide much appreciated shade as the sun slowly shifts across the sky. As wine glasses are poured and the assembled guests make new friends with those around them, the food is soon dispensed from host restaurant Red Spice Road, a modern South East Asian eatery fronted by head chef John McLeay.
Betel leaves with salmon, chilli, kaffir lime and lemongrass
We start with betel leaves, glossy green in colour, that hold mounds of flaked salmon mixed through with kaffir lime, lemongrass, red onion and chilli. Fat pearls of salmon roe glisten on top. It's pretty to look at but a little mild in flavour, and secretly I pine for the original Thai version of miang goong which has dried shrimp, shallots, peanuts, lime wedges, coconut and little chunks of ginger.
Crispy spiced quail
Platters of crispy spiced quail arrive next. The flesh is succulent and moist beneath its heavy five spice coating and I find there's quite a strong backnote of fish sauce. Almost everyone ends up using their fingers as they try to gracefully gnaw away at the bones. It's one way to speed up the process of getting comfortable with the newly-formed friends around you!
Squid, green papaya, roasted rice, coriander and purple perilla salad
The squid and green papaya salad is light and summery, rings of tender squid contrasting against the crunch of finely shredded carrot and cabbage, the tartness of green papaya and the nutty grittiness of roasted rice powder. Sprigs of coriander and shreds of purple perilla make this dish sing.
Lime-marinated beef, peanut, rice paddy herb,
mint and crispy shallot salad
The lime-marinated beef salad is a little heavier by comparision. The beef is cooked to well-done but refreshed by chunky slices of cucumber, slivers of red onion, lemongrass, fried shallots and plenty of mint.
Sparkling wine refills
Watermelon salad (vegetarian option)
A vegetarian diner seated near us has his own personal banquet going on. We're all impressed by the watermelon salad, pumpkin curry and stir-fried eggplant. A dish of stir-fried oyster mushrooms is plump and saucy and quite simply divine. We all accept the request to help him get through his dishes!
Stir-fried oyster mushrooms (vegetarian option)
Pumpkin curry and stir-fried eggplant (vegetarian options)
Diners digging in
Veal meatball and sweet potato curry
Veal meatballs don't strike me as being particularly Asian, but they're quite a pleasant match with the accompanying sweet potato curry that's a deep tumeric in colour.
Chicken with chilli, lemongrass, sesame, coriander and radish
Chicken with chilli and lemongrass is declared by some diners as their favourite of the day, but I find the breast fillet a little dry and the overall dish a little too dominated by meat.
Pork belly with chilli caramel and apple slaw
Pork belly, on the other hand, instantly wins me over. A Cheshire cat grin appears on the faces of both Billy and I when this dish lands before us. Widely lauded as the Red Spice Road signature dish, it's like a pork version of Southern Fried Chicken, chunks of fat-ribboned pork belly that have been marinated and then deep-fried until the surface forms a golden crackling crust.
Pork belly heaven
The thin veneer coating is sweet and caramelised, a mouthful of crackling and batter and toffee and more. The flesh flakes apart with ease as your teeth sink through melding layers of unctious fat. You can almost hear the pork sigh, or perhaps that sigh was just me.
The apple and cabbage slaw is a welcome palate cleanser.
Billy and I take advantage of the lull between savouries and dessert to explore the restaurant itself, impressively furnished and decorated in a modern Asian theme.
The Lantern room
The Lantern room is at the rear of the restaurant, highlighted by three floor-to-ceiling portraits of young and nubile Asian women. The portraits, especially commissioned for the restaurant, were done by well-known Australian artist David Bromley.
Australia's largest red lantern
A huge lantern hangs from the ceiling, apparently Australia's largest red lantern. It's centred above a spectacular-looking table also said to be Australia's largest round table, seating a total of sixty people along the outer and inner rim. A small gap allows diners and waiters to access the inner circumference.
Australian's largest round table
Banana fritter with coconut ice cream,
tapioca pudding and chilli toffee
After all those nude paintings, it's no surprise that dessert starts to take on a rather suggestive appearance. There are giggles all around when dessert arrives. The deep-fried banana fritter is hot from the fryer, nestled in a soft and comforting huddle of tapioca pudding - plump pearls of sago cooked in coconut cream. A light scatter of toasted rice and barley puffs add a pleasant crunch and a scoop of coconut ice cream is smooth and creamy.
There are no Jaffas to be found in my handbag but after lunch we roll ourselves down the street instead.
Our matching wines:
NV Crittenden Estate "Geppetto" Brut
2009 Crittenden Estate Los Hermanos "Tributo a Galicia" Savagnin
2008 Crittenden Estate Pinot Noir
2009 Crittenden Estate "Pinnocchio" Moscato
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Red Spice Road
27 McKillop Street, Melbourne, Victoria
Tel: +61 (03) 9603 1601
Lunch Monday to Sunday 12pm - 3pm
Dinner Monday to Friday 6pm - 10pm
Grab Your Fork attended the Red Spice Road Viet Lane Sunday Lunch as a guest of Tourism Victoria for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
> Read the next Melbourne 2010 post (MoVida Aqui)
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3/27/2010 03:30:00 am