31 Artemis Lane Melbourne, Australia 3000
|Opening hours||Daily, noon-3pm,Mon-Fri, 5pm-late,Sat-Sun, 6pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access, Bar|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8660 6300|
What a turn-up. Only a few short years ago QV was a place restaurants went to die. The churn and burn of the city-centre shopping mall harbouring a mammoth open-air square left its first wave of restaurateurs gasping. I missed the memo about its reversal of fortune, so it's a surprise to front up on a miserable Thursday night to punters slurping noodles and scoffing sushi, queueing out the door of a Malaysian chain outfit and making the joint jump at the second Red Spice Road.
QV was a bold play for this broad-scale Thai restaurant. Actually, given the economic climate, it was a ball-tearing leap of faith. The original opened on McKillop Street almost six years ago and the sequel was delivered in November last year on the premium QV site formerly known as French-Japanese fusion graveyard, Duck Duck Goose.
A restaurant consultant might have quietly warned about the cannibalising potential of a second venue less than one kilometre from the first, but all indications are our appetite for good mostly-Thai is robust. The genre remains under-subscribed despite the immense goodwill attached to the city's A-list of Longrain, Gingerboy and Chin Chin.
Peculiar? Possibly. But Thai is tricky. There's a gulf between the excellent and the rest, the natural consequence of the skill involved in balancing all those competing factions: the kaffir lime and galangal, turmeric and fish sauce and chilli. Red Spice Road doesn't get them all right all the time, but there are still things to like.
The menu, much like Longrain's, starts with a surprisingly small number of appetisers before coming to rest on a surprisingly large number of shared mains. Maximise the experience by eating with a group. Bunches of well-dressed PR interns get with the spirit, colonising the split tri-level space that starts promisingly at the bar - pale upholstery, trendy lighting, smart wishbone chairs and broad communal tables - and shucks its cool so by the third level where, with its steel-framed chairs and utilitarian carpet, it feels a bit like an RSL.
Service isn't bogged down by pleasantries. The young wait staff are too busy to take your coat, although they might nod helpfully in the direction of the coat stand - it's just after the three David Bromley nudes, or six nipples on the left. Our waitress oozed impatience waiting for a wine order, which is a little confronting at these prices.
This isn't Thai to make your eyes water. Lemon-and-ginger oysters make an encouraging start, but hot on their heels the smoked chicken betel leaves are wowserish in the flavour department; it's the grassy, vaguely minty betel leaf that dominates with the odd pop of salmon roe.
A sticky, aggressively peppered puck of duck and prawn ''relish'' planted on a wedge of watermelon is Red Spice Road's answer to Longrain's iconic pork and caramelised pineapple, and has a similar flirtation between the protein ball's pungency and the fruit's drenching sweetness.
More betel leaves are fried into a slightly rubbery tapioca batter, decently filled with smoked eel and coriander. Along for the ride is a gelatinous sweet chilli dipping sauce with a tamarind-sour backbeat.
The kitchen comes closest to nailing the balance with the fried duck legs - pull-apart meat cloaked in crisp-skinned deliciousness - and the kind of zesty, lively salad that's Thai food in full technicolour, with mandarin and cashew, cucumber and explosions of chilli, red onion and fried shallots and a whole lot of holy basil. The goat jungle curry, in a wet base more saltily mono-dimensional than spicy-fragrant and complex, shows that minced meat of any persuasion is less than the sum of its parts.
But desserts are a highlight, which is an unexpectedly good thing in a Thai context. A blushing pink dome of meringue, lychee sorbet and aloe vera cubes, stopped from being too eau de cologne by a balancing whack of fresh lime. It's the sort of meal ender that works brilliantly well for Thai. A palate-cleanser dressed up as dessert, really; a good last impression for a place where first impressions surprise, but the middle bit needs a bit of work.
The best bit Lively atmosphere
The worst bit Hit-and-miss food
Go-to dish Watermelon and sticky duck, $8