Spatula, Spoon and Saturday

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Melbourne Food Review: Red Spice Road, McKillop St., CBD

I have heard, and read, many a good thing about Red Spice Road. The deal was clinched when a few colleagues had gone over for a dinner early one evening and came back absolutely raving about their early bird menu. We were going to see Beatlemania* on the night so we thought we would pop in for an early dinner. They have an early bird dinner special which is three shared main courses and shared entree for $25.

Look, let me get straight to the point before you read on: it was one of the worst dining experiences I have ever had. In my 2.0 words: epic fail. And I will spend the rest of this post telling you why.

(betel leaves with chicken filling)

We got there at around 6pm which was the time we made a booking for. The dining room was nice and spacious and practically empty. We were probably one of the three groups of people dining there at the time. My first thought was oh no communal table. Be aware that all seats are communal (except for the private room). Personally I’m not a fan of communal table unless the main is less than $10. However, that’s not by any stretch of imagination my main gripe.

Believe it or not, all of the empty tables and seats, they seated two of us the first two seats near the entrance. Literally 1 metre away from the cash register and waiters’ bench where cutleries, water jugs and all sorts of things are kept. Because it wasn’t busy, we constantly had about 3-4 waiters congregating right behind our backs chattering away.

(the bar – not very far away)

Worse still, the bar in the next room was going absolute full blast. The noise was so loud and distracting. The music was very fast and just pounding and uncomfortable. That wasn’t the only thing fast. The service was extremely fast. In fact, it was so uncomfortably fast. If you can imagine that. Our entree arrived within 5 minutes of ordering. Our mains no more than 2 minutes later. I didn’t even finish taking photos of the entree before our mains arrived. The second our plate looked half way empty, one of the very efficient waiter wanted to clear it away. I had to keep telling them to leave us (the fuck) alone. Really, by the end of the meal, I was that pissed off. Even Mekong on Swanston St. doesn’t rush you that badly.

(crispy pork belly in sweet sauce with Asian-style coleslaw)

It felt extremely rush, in and out. And oh, because it seemed we had the worst seats in the house and there were about 200 other empty seats on the other side of the dining room? I asked if we could move. The reply was no. They were fully booked. Really? At 6pm? When the after work drink crowd was still going full force next door? And that we were there for the early bird which required us to leave by 7.15 anyway? That’s right. No can do. We would not move you.

To add insults to the injury, the table was ‘nipple height’ (Josh’s words, not mine). Absolutely uncomfortable eating. Me being a bit shorter than most people, the table was almost my collar bone height. Imagine that.

All right, I guess by now, having read all that, you would want to know how the food was. First of all, I’m Thai so I am a little biased. The concept of Red Spice Road is pan-Asian (mostly Thai influence) so in a way it takes all the interesting bits of South East Asian food and put them together on a plate. Because these flavours are nothing new to me, I wasn’t blown away.

(beef, sweet potato and pumpkin curry)

Don’t get me wrong, the food was all right – some dishes good and some average. The entree consisted of a bite of minced chicken filling on a betel leaf. It was good. Josh took a bite and proclaimed it to be good. And I concurred. But really, that was as  outstanding as it got. I liked the kaffir lime-y and curry-pastey flavours. But well, there was only one bite per person. What more could I say?

Our three mains arrived together: the pork belly was excellent. It was succulent on the inside and crispy on the outside. But it was covered in this ridiculous sweet sauce. The concept I’m sure, came from moo waan (sweet pork). But it didn’t have the depth of the flavour it should have. A moo waan is generally simmered in the sauce until it’s lovely and caramelised, the pork and sauce fuse together but this pork would have been fried and then just coated in the sauce. It was relatively one-dimensional. Its saving grace was the nice, fresh salad on top. Was the dish good? Yes it was (although Josh didn’t like it but that’s him disliking pork belly in general) but was it good enough to put up with such uncomfortable surrounding and pushy service? Hell no.

(mapo tofu – sorry about lack of focus – extremely poor lighting)

Our beef and pumpkin curry was average. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t any better than your neighbourhood Thai restaurant. Sorry.

Then there was the ugly duckling of a sister, the mapo tofu. This dish was seriously disappointing. Imagine all the things that made a mapo tofu dish nice (the flavourful mince, the kick of the Szechuan peppercorn, the soft, silky tofu) and take all of that away. It was just tofu, mince and some indescriptive sauce. Nice try. But no.

(mocktail – with kiwi, coconut milk etc. – $7?)

I also had a mocktail, which was quite all right. I wonder if the orchid was dyed with food colouring or just any random colouring. It was taken away before I had a chance to finish it too. Oh one thing though, the jasmine rice served with the main courses were rather good. I just thought I might throw that in so I don’t sound too negative! Haha.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief as soon as I walked out of the door, back to normalcy. My heart beat started to calm and my head started to feel better. We only spent about 40 minutes in there because we just couldn’t take it anymore and I guess that was their Friday night business model – herd them in, herd them out. If you don’t mind the communal, nipple height table and feel that the food seems interesting enough for you, I recommend a week night. But for me?

Like I said: epic fail.

Red Spice Road, 27 McKillop Street Melbourne VIC 3000

* Quick Beatlemania review: Great show. Enjoyed it immensely. Although the drummer needs to learn not to bash. He ruined the music somewhat.