Saj revisited

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Saj Mediterranean Grill, Shop 27 320-380 Epsom Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9078 2633

After a happy first-up visit to Saj, I was always keen for a prompt return.

Mostly to see if I could talk the staff into serving their marinated, skewered meats on a plate with accessories – my preferred option and delight.

Perusal of their menu – which can be seen in the story of that debut visit here – seemed to have the meats only available in wrap form.

As luck would have it, a return visit comes to be much more quickly than I had foreseen – five minutes after Nat Stockley and I arrange a quickie impromptu dinner, I’m in the car and headed for Ascot Vale.

And as it turns out, Nat’s eyes prove a lot sharper than mine – what I want is right there on the menu, he points out, under the heading of “Eat in deals”.

Oh happy day!

This is the sort of Lebanese platter I have been yearning for, and wanting in the west, for years.

We both order identical $14.50 plates with one skewer each of lamb, chicken and kofta.

The hommus and baba ghannouj are as on that first visit – excellent.

So is the tabouli, our plates graced with quite large serves of it in cabbage leave cups.

A special word of praise for this Saj salad effort – not only is it sublimely moist and lemony, it also includes the all-important fresh mint, something often omitted from eatery versions.

The meats are fine, especially the nicely seasoned kofta.

We both reckon, though, the meats have all spent about a couple of minutes too long on the grill, the lamb cubes in particular being overcooked – not to the point of being unenjoyable, mind you.

We mention this to the staff as we are paying and leaving, and are told of one customer earlier in the day who expressed distaste for having her lamb pieces “pink in the middle”.

So CTS advises open and frank meat discourse with the Saj folks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zing! Lebanese in the ‘hood

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Many thanks to Josh, Christine, Julian, You Know Who and Eliza for helping CTS check out the west’s new Lebanese eatery!

Saj Mediterranean Grill, Shop 27 320-380 Epsom Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9078 2633

Saj Mediterranean Grill replaces a short-lived Turkish establishment in the showgrounds’ shopping precinct, which has never held much allure for us.

It’s a terrific new arrival – and Consider The Sauce makes the most of our first visit by rocking up with a nice bunch of our regular dining companions.

It’s done out in stark fast-food style, but the food on offer – see menu below – goes quite a bit further than the bakeries our western Lebanese experiences have thus far been restricted to.

We get real plates and cutlery – and cheerful service.

Saj is named after the saj grills, rounded dome plates used to grill the flatbread.

CTS has only ever seen these before at this Coburg institution.

Between us all, we try a good-sized chunk of the menu – but without any intent to do so, we mostly veer away from the more substantial sharwarma and mashawi (grill) wraps.

Even Bennie – given complete freedom to order whatever he pleases (i.e. hamburger) – dines elsewhere.

The skewered meats in the display cabinet look the goods but will have await a follow-up visit.

What we have ranges from good to very good and we’re all very impressed.

Having a new Lebanese eatery in the neighbourhood is a clicking-heels event around here!

Beyond basic descriptions and prices, my assessments and comments are to do with those dishes I personally taste.

 

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Kibbeh ($2) are hot, a little bit spicy, juicy and very fine. Some of my companions find pine nuts, but not so I.

 

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Warak-arreesh (stuffed vine leaves, $1.50 each) are smallish, plain and just right.

 

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Hommus ($5) is fresh and smooth but of only mildish taste.

 

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Baba ghannouj ($5.50) is fantastic – it hasn’t got that prized smokiness but it IS fresh, lemony and full of eggplant flavour.

Both dips are served with the same flatbread used to make the saj pizzas, and more of it is brought to our table without being requested.

 

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Did I say fresh?

Everything here is fresh-as – including this fattoush ($4.50), its joyful jumble of veggies beautifully dressed and anointed with crisp, fried bread.

 

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The tabouli ($4.50) is just as CTS likes it – wet and lemony. It’s a generous serve for the price, too.

 

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The cheese and turkey saj costs $7.50.

 

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Bennie describes his chicken fajita sanger ($10.50) with chook, caramelised onion, capsicum, mushrooms, avocado and cheese with “fajita sauce” as “nice”.

 

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The chicken mashawi ($9) is skewered chicken with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and sauce.

 

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A couple of us order the lahm bi ajin ($6) – saj of “mince meat, onion, tomato and spices”.

It’s nice enough but turns out the description is rather more lavish than what is pretty much the stock-standard “meat” pizza we get at other bakeries.

 

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Mediterranean salad ($6.50) has the same fresh vegetables seen elsewhere with wonderfully chewy, salty chunks of grilled haloumi.

 

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We finish off with a couple of choc banana sajs ($6.50) – a sweet delight with nutty extras!

We’re already looking forward to our next visit.

How can this place not be a hit?

 

Saj Mediterranean Grill on Urbanspoon

 

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Superb spicy Chinese

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Hon’s Kitchen, 228 Union Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9041 4680

At first blush it would be easy to conclude the arrival of Hon’s Kitchen on Union Road is merely a case of one nondescript, generic noodle bar replacing another.

But a solo visit by yours truly – during which a rather fine beef noodle soup, a bit like pho but without the more pronounced seasoning in the broth, was enjoyed – has us thinking Hon’s Kitchen has hidden depths and riches.

Specifically, we have hunch that while black bean beef or sweet ‘n’ sour whatever may be the stock in trade here, careful menu selection may result in the sort of wonderful, top-class yet affordable Cantonese tucker we get from Dragon Express.

We love following our hunches – especially when they come good as spectacularly as they do tonight.

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Special combination fried rice ($9) is good. But really, considering the richnes of our other choices, we should have gone with the identically-priced vego version or just plain rice.

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Spicy chicken ($12.90) … truly superb!

Unlike versions we’ve had elsewhere that involve ribbettes and their bones, this dish is built around boneless chicken pieces deep-fried, with the resulting globules being delicious and marvellously crisp and dry.

Of course, the real prize here is the spicy, dry jumble of goodies that accompanies.

This includes three types of onion – crunchy brown fried shallots, green onion discs and slivers of fresh white onion.

It also includes two types of chilli – crunchy crushed numbers and evil-looking black-red bullets.

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Spicy eggplant ($12.90) is every bit as good and equally chilli-hit, albeit in quite a different way.

This number gets there through deep-frying the raw eggplant chunks and then whipping them into a sauce with chilli, vinegar and some tofu bits.

This dish was started from scratch for us – we saw the eggplant being peeled and chopped.

That such a fine dish resulted so quickly is some sort of magic, the eggplant itself displaying a deluxe lusciousness that beats even Japanese-style eggplant with miso or the slippery big pieces found in laksas.

Perhaps there’s been a mono-dimensional aspect to our meal – chillies rampant in both dishes, both of which have been deep-fried.

But the spiciness has been by no means close to our outer limits and both dishes have been ungreasy.

And while we suspect our selections are most likely among the least frequently ordered at Hon’s Kitchen, their outright excellence just adds weight to our belief that when it comes to Chinese food, some smart ordering at a humble suburban eatery can deliver eats every bit as great as anything to be found in your high-priced CBD palaces.

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Mister Nice Guy’s Bake Shop

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Mister Nice Guy’s Bake Shop, 151 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 0424 422 878

The are no animal products at all in any of the goodies available at Mister Nice Guy’s Bake Shop – including the beverages.

So I am faced with the usually unpalatable prospect of having my cafe latte made with soy milk or the like.

OK, I’m game.

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My soy latte ($4.30) is pretty good – it’s strong and quite bitter in a good, coffee way. I’ve certainly had much, much worse in more orthodox and high-falutin’ coffee joints.

But there’s another kind of bitterness – just a whiff of something a little off.

Could I get used to it? Could I learn to like it?

Well, I’d certainly like to, because this is undoubtedly a place for which its worth cultivating affection.

My mini-cupcake ($2), for instance, is a delicate flavour bomb, with good chocolatey taste and lovely icing.

I restrict myself to that one small sample of the goodness going on here on account of having just completed a more substantial meal elsewhere.

But there’s much to oggle – a wide range of cupcakes, a pecan pie, brownies that exude serious intensity.

Bad luck if you’re after savoury filling here, though – as close as you’ll get are the cheesy scrolls made with vegan cheese.

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But it’ll be a pleasure to bring Bennie to such a sugary haven – and he’ll for sure dig the artwork that comes into its own once the 3D spectacles are donned.

The rest of the retro-styled decor and vibe are happy and friendly, as are the staff.

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Pete’s Charcoal Stop

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Pete’s Charcoal Stop, 562 Mt Alexander Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9375 1169

Charcoal chicken shops = coleslaw and chips.

That’s the pretty much hard-and-fast rule for at least one half of the Consider The Sauce team.

So what am I doing breaking with such entrenched tradition?

I’d been alerted to the merits of this chicken shop several months previously by someone who knows about such important matters.

I’d stuck my nose in at the weekend for a look-see … and discovered that this particular business has a distinct Mediterranean flavour.

There’s dolmades and dips and more.

The takeaway menu lists mousaka, pastistio and spanakopita.

So I go with the flow …

And order some of scrumptious-seeming potato segments residing in tasty- juices instead of chips to go with my half-chook.

And Greek salad instead of ‘slaw.

The spuds are beautifully cooked, but I confess to expecting more by way of lemon/oregano zing. Still, a nice change.

The salad is good, the vegetables are fresh and there’s quite a lot of dressing but not much seasoning.

The bird itself is tender through and through – something that can’t often be said of such places, especially when it comes to the often-dry breast meat.

My chicken is a good roast half-bird – that is, it’s minus the crinkly, crunchy, blackened and pungent/salty skin.

My meal – including a can of soft drink – clocks in at a fine $14.

I suspect next time here I’ll revert to chips/coleslaw type.

I know that if I lived nearby, this would be a far-too-regular haunt.

It has the vibe that tells me it’s run by people who know exactly what they’re about when it comes to charcoal chicken, kebabs and burgers.

Safari Restaurant

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Safari Restaurant, 159 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9372 7175

It’s been far too long since we’ve sailed in the Safari – certainly at least since our early review of this fine Somalian eatery.

So long, in fact, we’re not even sure if it’ll be functioning as we remember on this Friday night with appetites inspired by some overdue winter outfitting.

The Consider The Sauce boys have been shopping and are hungry.

Happily, as we enter we discover everything is as we remember it. Indeed, the place seems busier than was the case on any of our previous visits.

The menu, however, seems to have been streamlined somewhat, but as we soon learn – to our complete and joyful satisfaction – the food is the same and just as good as ever.

We toy with idea of ordering Big Mandy Rice For Two ($32), but this is described to us in terms of being good for big fellas, very hungry.

So we back off and discover there’s a menu item just made for us – The Regular ($13).

This consists of a plate of Mandy Rice and your choice of lamb, beef, chicken steak or fish.

As on previous visits, our bowls of their incredible meat soup are brought before we’ve even placed our order proper.

This is a broth of lip-smacking sensations – spicy, heady with meatiness yet light on meat itself.

It’s simply wonderful.

Bennie’s chicken steak – hidden under a tasty array of grilled sautéed carrot, capsicum and onion – is more plentiful than it looks. The chicken meat is tending towards dryness but falls short enough of that to pass for tender, and has a wonderful charred-like flavour.

I like his chicken, he digs my lamb.

The sheep meat has form and structure yet is far from chewy and falls easily from the bones.

In both our cases, the rice is splendid – cooked in stock, spiced, every grain glistening.

As ever, our meals are helped along by long, tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice clinking with ice cubes.

Killer soup, terrific meat, sensational rice, just the right kind of vegetable accompaniment, freshly squeezed juice … $13.

This is a fantastic bargain.

The service here is friendly but efficient.

We can’t recommend Safari highly enough to anyone hankering for African eating a bit different from Footscray’s mostly Ethiopian fare.

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Yemeni Restaurant revisited

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124 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9372 0854

Yemini Restaurant had been one our earliest outings here on Consider The Sauce, but as the “under new management” sign has been up for some months, we deem it time for a return visit.

The main change seems to be a much tighter and more focused menu – this is no cause for alarm; indeed it may be good news.

The handful of dishes now available all clock in at $12.

A few weeks previous, on my ownsome, I’d had burmah – “Bedouin-style tender lamb on the bone slow-cooked with khubz (traditional Yemeni bread) on rice”. It was pretty good, too, the meal coming to my table in a very hot pot, the cooking liquid then poured into a bowl for soup purposes. It was much like the lamb broth at Safari Restaurant up the road, only much more spicy and piquant.

The meat was eaten separately, with flat bread that looked suspiciously like blandola store-bought roti. Wrong! This was the royalty of  flat bread – flaky and rich and impossible to stop eating.

For our Saturday lunch we tell the staff we are two hungry lads – but not THAT hungry. Would it be possible to enlarge, for a suitable fee, one of the main plates for sharing purposes?

Certainly – and a $5 premium is agreed upon.

As we wait, there arises a certain amount of tension and unease concerning our – OK, my – photographic activities that require quite some minutes of dialogue across and language and cultural barriers.

I succeed, eventually, in assuring them our intentions are only of the highest order, and that, no, we will not be sending them an invoice for a write-up on our website and that, yes, we fully intend to pay for our lunch.

Whew!


I doubt there’s much difference between the standard plate and our deluxe version, but it matters not, for it just right for the pair of us.

Our lamb mandi – “slow-cooked lamb with baharat (mixture of Yemeni spices) served with rice, salad, shitni (green chili sauce) and Khiar bil laban (cucumber dip)” – is similar to meals we’d under the joint’s previous incarnation, with some key differences.

No sign of the green chilli mash – this time the spice hit comes with a much greater kick from red/brown dip that consequently requires much more judicious imbibing.

The rice is minus the sultanas and strands of deep brown fried onion of earlier visits – but it’s even better. In fact, it’s much MUCH better. Rice to inhale, rice to dream about. The mixed jumble of yellow and white grains, obviously cooked in some form of stock, have through them some translucent onion slices and some seasoning that appears to include at the least black peppercorns. It’s very plain but astounding in its effect.

The two pieces of lamb – Bennie is lucky enough to score a four-point rack – are sublimely crusty on the outer and tender on the inner. A piece apiece is more than enough.

After we’d restored goodwill with the staff, we are told that menu changes are afoot, with more and different choices in the offing. We’ll be watching with interest.

Because Yemeni Restaurant, whatever changes have been or are about to be wrought, remains a singular gem  of our western suburbs food scene.

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