141 Queen St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Daily noon-3pm, 5pm-10pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Events, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9603 1601|
|Free wine for Citibank cardholders here|
You can't argue with the numbers. On a recent Saturday night, Red Spice Road served 537 diners across 298 seats, letting them in hungry, sending them away full of pork belly and bonhomie.
As happens every evening, most of those 500-odd diners went for the $79 banquet: the eight-course "tour of Asia" is an irresistible draw, a don't-make-me-think procession of mostly Thai dishes, served efficiently and smilingly by well-drilled waiters, part of the fleet of 86 staff who keep this machine humming.
Red Spice Road is a phenomenon that's spanned 12 years, first in nearby McKillop Street and since November at this soaring site on Queen Street.
The old restaurant was big but the new premises are huge, in a building that dates to 1900, with enormous windows spilling onto an impressive lantern-strung, marble-decked, art-splashed playground for convivial dining.
It's lighter and brighter than cave-like McKillop Street, and more capacious too, with three private dining rooms, seating 30, 36 and 60, plus extra mezzanine dining that gets great service but feels a bit out of the loop.
Cocktails feel essential in this happy room, built for slaking snobbery-free thirsts: sweet "Asian-inspired" concoctions and easy-drinking wine go down like water.
Snapper with garlic and chilli, scallops with mint and roasted peanuts, chicken wings sloshed with sambal, they're all a lead-up to the signature pork. Just about every table orders it, meaning the kitchen ploughs through about 150 kilograms of belly every day.
Making the dish is a three-day process: the meat is braised in masterstock overnight, cooled all day, portioned into cubes, then deep-fried to order. The pork pieces are served in a pool of chilli caramel, and topped with lime-dressed slaw. It's a good dish – crisp outer, well-rendered meat, notes of star anise – but, like everything here, when a dish promises "chilli", it has its fingers crossed behind its back.
Flavours are toned down for an "Australian" palate. Personally, I could do with more punch but I am loudly outvoted by the popularity of this amenable restaurant.
Chef Sungeun Mo came from Korea four years ago and took over the kitchen earlier this year. She's brought in new dishes, aiming to express the soul of Asian classics without the ka-pow. It's a tricky balancing act. Her kimchi corn fritters are funk-free but pleasantly golden and crisp. Watermelon salad is fresh and summery, with cucumber, mint, coriander and a vegan version of talay, a Thai seafood dressing. A vegetarian green curry is coconut milky and mild with a profusion of veg, including jackfruit, baby corn and asparagus.
It's less about fusion, more about restraint, though some dishes do dance around the globe. Chimichurri lamb ribs take the idea of the garlicky, herby Argentine dipping sauce and jazz it up with coriander and lime to create a fine foil for fatty fried lamb.
Red Spice Road is unflappable, moving people through with major-event efficiency and five-star-hotel attentiveness. Tricky dietaries delight them: turn up with a vegan, a fructose-free fruit-phobe, a nut allergist and a coeliac and you'll have your needs met on the spot with an unflustered "no worries". It's brilliant, and one key to the restaurant's success.
The toned-down food won't please those seeking authenticity (a mirage, if ever there was one anyway) but Red Spice Road gets its own feedback in queues, five-star Trip Advisor reviews and repeat business in droves. It's optimistic and responsive and in that it's a paragon of hospitality.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)