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“Melbourne is the Lady, Sydney is the …”

…jests by one of the guests during a “Melbourne vs Sydney” conversation at the world’s longest lunch. Helen (GrabYourFork) and I, two Sydneysiders are already stirring the pot once touched down in Melbourne. We both are very fortunate to be invited by Tourism Victoria to spend a full weekend indulging ourselves at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

Despite our flight was cancelled, then another 40 minutes delayed on the flight we are assigned to; we eventually arrived at Melbourne three hours late in high spirits and we are hungry. But thank god we travelled light and only have hand luggage with us; we decided to skip checking in to our hotel and head straight to the our first event of the festival.

The World’s Longest Lunch

The World’s Longest Lunch is always one of the highlights of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, and this year a 400 meter long table is snaking along St Kilda road, in front of the NGV and the Arts Centre. Some 900 diners include ourselves, will be part of this Chinese-inspired delectable spectacle and enjoy a three-course lunch under the beautiful warm sunny day in Melbourne.

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After many emails and phone calls back and forth with the event organiser trying to coordinate when and where to meet up, we eventually arrive at the NGV forecourt 30 minutes after the lunch has already started and missing out on the entree. (“Damn you Virgin Blue!”)

We’ve been told they actually just finished the entree 5 minutes ago as the waitress are still cleaning the plates away as we seated. Our newly-met “lunch buddy” who sits next to us is extremely friendly and volunteers to ask the waitress for any extra leftover entrees so that we still have a chance to taste it while waiting for the next course. The waitress never comes back.

Then I personally ask another waitress for the entrees, eventually she brings back a sample of the entree that has been sitting out in the sun for quite some time which is only good for photograph only, but not to be eaten. The Three Emperors entree actually looks quite good with a mix of soft shell crab with black beans, four seasons dumpling in a bamboo steamer basket and chilli spiced duck salad served in bamboo sampan.

I am just glad that we don’t have to wait for long before the main is served. With a fancy name, the Modern Magnolia is braised lamb slices in soy, star anise and Shaoxing wine, resting on a bed of ginger-infused sweet potato mash, topped with flossy fried leeks which I absolutely adore. The pomegranate seeds is a nice touch which adds subtle citrusy pops in the mouth against the sweetness of the tender lamb meat.

It is an absolutely beautiful warm and sunny day today in Melbourne. Despite caps and sunscreen are provided to all patrons, everyone seems getting a little hot and sunburned after basking in the afternoon sun for too long. Luckily the dessert comes out just in time to cool us down from the heat. The dessert is visually playful with coconut sorbet served on an upturned lid atop of the teapot like an Aladdin’s lamp, with dry ice smoke puffing out from the snout. But everything is melted instantly under the scorching heat, as it doesn’t puff anymore by the time it gets to my table, so as the toffee layer on my mango brulee, which is totally melted into a caramel sauce. A lot of our dining companions are not particularly fond of the poached peach which is still very firm and hard to cut into with a spoon.

As being an introvert, I have to say sharing a meal at a communal dining table is always a challenge, especially when one has to strike a conversation with a total random stranger. But surprisingly I found myself having a blast at the world’s longest lunch and it doesn’t take long for me to get to know my fellow “lunch buddies” – a travel author, an American girl just moved to Melbourne 3 days ago, and a foodie who has no trouble sharing his love for food with everyone, Attica in particular.

We are also pleased to meet the Creative Director of the festival, who is also a fellow Malaysian. (I slowly believe that all Malaysian Chinese are obsessed with food…) The Chinese-themed world’s longest lunch finishes around 3pm with traditional lion dance and fire crackers. It is time for us to bid everyone a farewell, head to our hotel to check in, rest up and get ready for more food adventures to come.

Viet Lane Sunday Lunch

From one long table to another, this time Helen and I are heading to McKillop Street to join the others for the Viet Lane Sunday Lunch organised by the Red Spice Road Thai and Vietnamese restaurant. When we arrive at the venue, there is already a queue of patrons forming itself around the giant marquee which takes most of the space in the narrow lane way, waiting to be seated while the staffs are still putting the final touches at the long table.

At $100 per head, Red Spice Road chef John McLeay will churn up a eight-course Vietnamese feast with free flowing pairing wines from Mornington Peninsula’s Crittenden Estate.

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The first entree is little canape of shredded salmon with aromatic chilli, kaffir lime and lemongrass, served on betel leaf which is more commonly used in Thai cuisine. I also find the entree is more of a Thai flavour than a Vietnamese one, but delicious nonetheless.

Then the crispy spiced quail comes next. The quail is aromatic and heavily coated in five spice then deep fried. It is nice and crispy on the outside and still tender on the inside. Helen can taste the sweet fish sauce in the quail meat, but mine seems to be missing that component perhaps it was buried right underneath while a dash of fish sauce was added on top and missed it.

We are not aware nor neither informed by the waiters regarding the table arrangement as how the dishes are meant to be shared. And since it is a long table with no clear definition which six patrons are meant to share the one dish, the bowl has already been passed to diners a few seats too far down the aisle and some of us are unfortunately missing out on tasting the quail.

Despite the little mishap, we eventually defined our own little group of six and absolutely having a great time sharing the next five main dishes over with some jasmine rice. The lime marinated beef and cucumber salad is a refreshing dish with beef beautifully cooked to medium rare which is still very soft and tender. It has an intense soury tang from the lime juice marination but nicely balanced with aromatic rice paddy herb and mint, then tossed in with cucumber slices, peanuts and crispy fried shallot to add the crunch.

The squid and green papaya salad which seems like a modern twist to a traditional Thai som tum salad. Nice big chunks of tender squid are perfectly cooked, counterbalance with crunchy shredded green papaya while the roasted rice gives it a nice smokey flavour and fragrant with fresh coriander and purple perilla leaves. I prefer my green papaya salad on the firey side, but this is a nice crowd pleaser.

I find the next dish is surprisingly addictive and remind me of the classic Italian meatballs with an Asian twist. The veal meatball is aromatic, beautifully flavoured with lemongrass, served in sweet potato curry which is very rich and creamy. I can easily drizzle the curry sauce on steamed rice and call it a meal.

I find some of the dishes are more Thai influenced than Vietnamese, the chicken with chilli and lemongrass in particular. I can imagine it will be a big challenge to prepare so many dishes to cater over 300 diners all at the same time. I can’t help but forgive when this dish is probably prepared a little earlier as the chicken is little on the dry side when served. Despite it is a little salty on my palate, the dish is actually very rich in flavour and nicely fragrant with lots of herbs and spices.

But the highlight of the lunch has to be the pork belly. Many of us simply gasped when they bring out the dish to our table as we simply can’t take our eyes off from those big hunks of pork belly. The giant cubes of braised pork belly are almost fall-apart tender, then deep fried until nice and crispy on the outside. It is served with a chilli-infused sweet and salty caramel which has a beautiful palm sugar flavour, then topped with a refreshing apple slaw.

Before the last course is served, me and Helen have a quick snoop around inside the Red Spice Road restaurant. The restaurant emphasises on communal dining experience, hence there are no individual tables for two, but two long dark wooden tables pan across the front area of the restaurant. Further back in the restaurant, an even more impressive communal round table takes the center stage. Three massive female portraits paintings cover most of the back wall while a ginormous red lantern hanging above our heads under the skyline.

Our last dessert course is a classic banana fritter, served with coconut ice cream, tapioca pudding and chilli toffee. The banana fritter is still piping hot and crispy, goes exceptionally well with the creamy coconut ice cream. Don’t think I can taste any of the chilli toffee, but the tapioca pudding is moreish with a beautiful pandan flavour. The toasted crispy rice puffs is a nice touch which wraps up the dessert perfectly with a subtle smokey flavour. A perfect refreshing dessert to finish our meal with.

But let’s have a final look of those amazing pork belly!

In the mean time, you might be interested to check out more events of this year’s festival on the  Melbourne Food & Wine Festival website. This year’s festival runs from 12-23 March 2010. Don’t miss out!

[ A Table For Two attended the World’s Longest Lunch and Viet Lane Sunday Lunch at Red Spice Road as a guest of Tourism Victoria for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival ]