Tarabish

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Tarabish, 434 Sydney Rd, Coburg. Phone: 9354 4678

In a week in which higher volumes than usual of preposterous spam have arrived – in both email and blog comment forms – Matthew’s email is a breath of sincere fresh air.

He’s new to Melbourne, has plans to set up a falafel stand and could we meet up and talk foodiness?

Hell yes!

We settle on one of Consider The Sauce’s favourite places in the whole wide world – a purveyor of very fine falafel among other things – on Sydney Road.

Upon arrival, I soon discover Matthew has already checked out that particular establishment, so we wander down the road apiece to another Coburg stalwart, one that neither of us has taken for a spin – yet!

Tarabish has a modest exterior and relatively plain interior but is neat and tidy.

The service we receive from Nouha is wonderful, and eventually she picks up on the falafel-based nature of our conversation and chips in with her own observations.

I love it very much when the eatery folk we meet in our travels respond with such warmth and enthusiasm to our interest in their food and culture!

The Tarabish menu (below) and food is your basic straight-up Lebanese and quite similar to other places in this neighbourhood.

But what we have is fine.

Matthew, unsurprisngly, goes for the falafel meal ($12).

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Various pickles, variously crunchy, sour and/or spicy, all present and accounted for.

Good, moist tabouli, though the cabbage salad is a mite on the dry side; smooth, fresh “hommos”, too.

The falefel balls themselves are very good, with unoily, wonderfully crisp but not tough outers and pale, delicate, mildly flavoured insides.

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My “kebbeh” meal ($13) has slightly different accoutrements – the same tabouli, dip and cabbage, but also a rice salad with wonderful fried onion strands and a drier bulgur number.

The two kibbeh footballs are the highlights of both our platters.

The deeply tanned shells encase a filling that is a wonder to behold and consume – a filling that is far moister than is usual in kibbeh in my experience.

Mixed in with incredibly juicy lamb mince are herbs, onion and pine nuts.

Our kibbeh are high on “wow” factor!

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Through all this I learn with much interest about Matthew’s falafel plans and dreams.

While he’s still in the planning stages, his scheme has enough substance to find him contacting prospective suppliers of “significant cost points” such as chick peas, parsley and pita bread.

We wonder about the lasting power of tabouli.

When I opine that maybe tabouli is one of those things that can actually taste better the day after it’s made, Nouha begs to differ – fresh is always best she proclaims.

Proving her point, she offers us a taste of the day’s fresh batch – and apart from the bulgur not being quite moistened all the way through, she’s right.

It’s been that sort of lunch in that sort of place.

Tarabish Lebanese cuisine on Urbanspoon

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Zaatar

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Zaatar, 365 Sydney Rd, Coburg. Phone: 9939 9494

On my regular forays to the Middle-Eastern riches of Coburg in recent years, I have sometimes gazed at the boxy building on the corner of Sydney Rd and Albert St and wondered about its foodiness heritage.

The architectural style suggests a Chinese eatery and/or a chicken franchise, at the least, have been part of its history.

The Google maps pic has it named as Zorba’s Family Restaurant, but somewhere, sometime on my adventures, I recall seeing faded signage that declared it had once been home for some type of European cuisine.

Croatian? Hungarian? Czech?

It’s gone from my mind, and then just a few months back I noticed renovations going on.

So, of course, I stuck my nose to find out what the story was.

Middle Eastern on the way, I was told, by a crew with family connections to the venerated A1 Bakery much further south on Sydney Rd that is looking to serve cheap and great food of the kind already available in the neighbourhood but with a degree of cafe swishness.

By the time I visit, Zaatar has been open a while and appears to be going gangbusters, winning some Urbanspoon raves and even a review in the Age.

Nice going!

It’s big, roomy and cheerful, with some plain tables and many others of the tiled variety, with a big communal one in the middle of the room.

Any fears about cafe trendiness upping the dollar ask on food available at rock-bottom prices just a few blocks away are dispelled by a quick scan of the menu on the place’s website.

Plain zaatar for $1, cheese and spinach pies for $3.50, salads $4.50 and $6.50, regular cafe latte for $3.

Sounds just fine, but will all count for not too much if the quality isn’t there.

On the basis solely of my “three mezza with dip and salad” for $8.50, that would seem to be a case of yes-no-maybe.

Maybe the pies and pizzas I see being gleefully consumed around me are the go here, and it’s apparent adding some cafe-style decor and vibe is proving a winner.

But my lunch is merely OK-to-good instead of scaling the heights.

In the event, I actually get four “mezza” …

A cheese and herb “sambousik” – light and fresh.

A fat kibbe ball with a juicy lamb filling.

Two good falafel balls.

Two kafta cigars that are on the dry side.

The fattoush is better than them all – a finely-diced jamboree of tomato, red onion, cucumber, parsley and radish topped with crunchy pita flakes. It’s a big serve, but – and it amazes me to say this, as I’m something of a lemon freak – the dressing is actually too acidic in a mouth-puckering way.

The hummus is a tad tasteless, there’s only a little pot of it, and I am bemused that I have been not been provided pita bread. It goes good, mind you, slathered on the various “mezza”, some of which can do with its moisturising effect.

Love the vibe and the idea, but the execution of it in the form of my lunch means Zaatar, so far, is no threat to my affection for nearby alternatives.

I’d be happy to pay more for more zing and bells and whistles such as pickles of various kinds.

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Abbout Falafel House

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Abbout Falafel House, 465 Sydney Rd, Coburg. Phone: 9350 4343

My third visit to Abbout Falafel House.

My third visit unaccompanied.

My fervent desire to share this great place and its amazing food with one or more of my eats buddies is thwarted again.

Last time I was in this Coburg neighbourhood, I had brother Kurt with me, but Abbout’s was closed; we found a more than acceptable alternative anyway.

As for today … oh well, I have the foodie bits from a newspaper and a door-stopping American classic by John Sayles for company.

Meet “Hommos Belahma”.

The zingy hommos is topped with pan-fried lamb mince and pine nuts.

It’s incredible!

The slightly sweet grease of the lamb works like a perfect teammate with the mild astringency of the dip.

Unlike on my second visit here, when perfectly acceptable commercial pita bread was served, today I once more get the rotund house-made bread. It’s beaut – a bit thicker than its commercial cousins and emitting steam when punctured.

No olives today, but the sour, crunchy pickled cucumbers, pickled chillis, pickled turnip, tomato slices and a profusion of mint are all present.

My lunch is perfect, even if I am unable to even go close to finishing it.

It costs $8 and at a pinch could serve as a light lunch for two people..

As I am packing up to leave, the young Asian cat sitting at the next table says to me: “Don’t you do a food blog? Consider The Sauce, right?”

His name’s Sern.

And not only is he familiar with Consider The Sauce, he’s evidently studied it quite closely.

In fact, his presence in this particular Middle Eastern noshery is a direct result of the previous CTS review of Abbout Falafel House.

Sean is of Malaysian derivation, lives way, way on the other side of town and works in the northern suburbs.

But in his soul and in his tummy, he’s a westie at heart.

He’s familiar with almost all of Footscray’s African restaurants and is a big fan of Safari in Ascot Vale.

“The food in the west just seems to have more soul somehow,” he says.

He’s a fellow traveller, he’s a soul brother.

We swap phone numbers and email addresses with a view to a lunch arrangement the following week.

I ask him what other food blogs he likes: “Ms Baklover!”

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Half Moon Cafe

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Half Moon Cafe, 13 Victoria St, Coburg. Phone: 9350 2949

After checking out – with some conscious method – Wang Wang Dumpling, Abbout Falafel House, Al-Alamy and Cafe Sarabella, it’s time to visit Half Moon Cafe and put a big tick against the last of the eateries that have called to me so eloquently to this fabulous stretch of Sydney Rd in recent times.

I’m sure there are many more fab places, fine food and great meals to be had here but these are the ones that first had me making the occasional drive from Yarraville.

For the finest of company I’ve today got Kurt, who is more than happy to get out of his abode and head out on something of mini-road trip.

Half Moon Cafe is a tiny joint of the Middle Eastern persuasion that is just a few doors along from Cafe Sarabella in the Victoria St mall.

The signage outside includes the boast: “Falafel Egyptian Style.”

Made with fava beans rather than chick peas, this is of course the ordering route we both embark on after snagging an outside table.

But first we try a small serve of three stuffed vines leaves ($2.50).

I love ‘em, though Kurt is no big fan regardless of standards of excellence.

They’re lemony and firm of build – perfect. Oddly, the smallness of the cigars helps their cause – two mouthfuls apiece seems so right.

My falafel plate ($12) is fine.

The falafel balls are indeed worthy of their reputation – tender but grease-free, full of flavour (but not much different to chick pea falafels so far as I can tell) and coloured a fetching dark green.

Three dips are on board – the clear winner is the smoky eggplant number on the right.

The tabouli is lemony and wet as suits my preferences.

The pickled cucumber and turshi are fine, too, though the olives get lost between the hummus and a chick pea salad that is a little on the undressed side.

The lettuce, rocket and red cabbage seem a tad extraneous.

It’s a beaut lunch at a good price.

I confess to preferring Abbout Falafel House for delivering virtually the same lineup of goodies with a touch more class and finesse, but it’s a close call.

Kurt, meanwhile, loves the hell out if his $7 falafel wrap with fetta cheese, chilli and many of the same protagonists that grace my plate.

As we sit back after our lunch, watching the passing parade in the autumn sunshine, we both wish aloud that Footscray’s mall could boast such a lively, friendly, relaxed and unthreatening ambience.

A sign behind the serving counter more or less guarantees that one or both of us will be returning to Half Moon Cafe soon.

Half Moon Café on Urbanspoon

Cafe Sarabella

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Cafe Sarabella, 1 Victoria St, Coburg. Phone: 9354 5239

Soul food was originally a term used to describe Afro-American food of quite a wide range cooked and eaten in the southern parts of the US, although given the migratory patterns of last century it’s easily found on both coasts and elsewhere as well.

Soul food, though, is also a perfect description for Cafe Sarabella – not just the delicious food, but also the cafe itself and the warmly welcoming vibe.

It’s situated in Victoria St Mall, which is a lively and lived-in community space.

About half the outdoor tables and chairs seem to be the territory of the various food joints that line the mall, the rest public and communal.

There’s cafes, a couple of hot looking falafel joints, a deli and more.

Every time I’ve been there the mall is chockers with locals of a dizzy range of ages, styles and national origins hanging out, often over coffee.

Cafe Sarabella – it’s named after a mother and daughter team – has been open for about seven years and serves terrific Indian food and a more.

There’s lamb dishes of Persian and Moroccan derivation, for instance, and a chicken laksa. You can get a masala dosa, too.

It’s a tiny, homely space, with seating for maybe half a dozen inside and two small outside tables.

There’s nothing small about the big-hearted and friendly service, though.

Sara, who originally hails from Kerala, runs Indian cooking classes on one Sunday a month for $75 a head.

She tells me that much of her food is made using fresh vegetables provided by her customers, so much of it is organic. In return, she either pays them or feeds them!

One such customer-inclined item is the incredible feijoa, cumquat and tomato chutney that accompanies my vegetable thali ($10.50).

It’s supremely tangy, spicy super dooper condiment.

The rest of my plate’s contents are just as fine …

Two vegetable curries, one with radish, carrots and zucchini, the other with baby carrots and green beans.

Big dollop of creamy yogurt.

Plain yet perfect yellow dal atop the rice.

The surprise is provided by melt-in-your-mouth silky tofu pieces perfectly matched with a spiced tomatoey gravy.

While many of the curries and other dishes listed on the blackboard menu are priced as main courses, Sara tells me she’s happy to assemble combo-style thali meals to suit.

Given the hefty customer input and the consequent seasonal aspect of the food here, I suspect there’s many a surprise to be had by regular visitors.

As we’re talking, she lets me try a mouthful of spud from the lamb and potato curry sitting atop the stove – it’s amazing!

But the most appealing thing about Cafe Sarabella is that it serves pure-bred home-cooked Indian food – so different from the often tasty but overly buttery, salty and rich fare served up by so many of our Indian restaurants.

There’s no fried food here – even the samosas are baked.

The Quince Poacher, a Coburg local, is a fan, too – read review here.

Open for lunch Monday-Saturday.

Cafe Sarabella on Urbanspoon

Abbout Falafel House

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Falafel plate at Abbout Falafel House in Sydney Rd, Coburg.

Abbout Falafel House, 465 Sydney Rd, Coburg. Phone: 9350 4343

My falafel plate is breathtaking in its awesomeness.

It costs $10.

Food, in my world, simply does not get any better – at any price.

Even better, my faith in the eternal goodness of falafel – shaken somewhat earlier in the week – is emphatically restored.

It’s easy to miss Abbout Falafel House.

It has an unremarkable facade and is flanked on either side by several kebab shops.

But what makes me persevere is the endless stream of people trying to get a table in the dining room that adjoins the food preparation/takeaway area.

When I discover how good the food is, and why the place is so popular with many folks who are obviously regulars, the five-minute wait dodging staff members coming with empty plates and dishes and going with full ones seems a mere trifle.

Even if I am wedged between a tiny wooden table in the front area and one of the drinks fridges.

This is not a kebab house.

The fare is almost all vegetarian of the Lebanese variety – but it’s exceptional.

There’s dips and labneh and foul, all of them served with beaut trimmings.

My six falafel balls are amazingly unoily, true lightweights and terrifically tender – although some may find them a little under-seasoned.

The labneh and “hommos” are likewise state of the art, sprinkled with parsley, paprika and olive oil.

The pickled cucumber slices and turshi – pickled turnip – are sour and crunchy in their own different ways, just as I like ‘em.

The pickled chillis are sour, too, although with a nicely mild kick.

The olives fall somewhere between green and black, and are fine.

The two pita breads arrive fresh out of the oven, plumped up like bladders and emit a puff of steam when punctured.

How good is that?

As much as I love our west, I have to concede it lacks a place just like this or Al-Alamy.

Abbout Falafel House is open for lunches only seven days a week.

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Al-alamy

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Al-alamy, 51 Waterfield St, Coburg. Phone: 9355 8866

Since making  a mental note of this intriguing, fantastic joint while checking out the adjoining Wang Wang Dumpling, a fair bit of time has elapsed, during which we’ve ascertained that Al-Alamy is something of a magic foodie hotspot.

And not just for those, bloggers and more, who love to blather on about food in the cyber world, either.

In the hour or so I am in-house for a Monday lunch, an endless stream of savvy regulars comes and goes – young mums with tots, workers in suits and shorts, grandparents with tots, larger family groups, singles such as my self, content to hunker down with their chosen lunches and a newspaper/magazine/book.

There are a number of reasons for the intense popularity of Al-Alamy.

The prices, for starters.

A plain zaatar pizza costs $1.50, dressed with onion and tomato $2.50.

The rest of the usual lineup of pies and pizzas range from $2.50 up to $4.

For about the same price, you can have one of the saj pizzas, in which saj bread is stuffed with fillings and then draped over a spherical heating plate. Different!

The dips platters cost $7.

Outside of the pay-if-you-want Lentil As Anything outlets, could be this is the cheapest of cheap eats in Melbourne.

But that, of course, would mean nowt if the food wasn’t as spectacular.

It is, well based on my magnificent foul meddammes ($7) anyway!

This perfect little spread is cheap, healthy and likely to set a template in our house for lazy don’t-feel-like-cooking summer days – vinegary pickles, olives, pita bread, dips/foul, what could be better?

The plate of pickled cucumbers slices and pink turnip, beautifully fresh tomato chunks and wrinkled, chewy olives is the perfect foil for its lunch companions.

It might be thought all the zing and tang would come from them, with the beans playing straight man, but that’s not the case. Yes, the beans (and a few chick peas) have some of the pasty blandness I expect and desire, but there’s an undertow of lemon in there, too.

What an incredible feed!

A few tables over, I see a couple of blokes tucking into a spread that has the same bits and pieces as mine, but with awarma (scrambled eggs with minced meat, $8.50) instead – and that looks so fine, as well.

My cafe latte is hot, strong, sensational and another bargain at $2.50.

Al-Alamy is one of the enlightened, sensible places that will feed you and sell you stuff to feed you and yours at home. Think Mediterranean Wholesalers, La Morenita or Little Saigon Market.

So obvious on one level, such genius on another – and a potent alternative to the supermarket for shopping, restaurant for eating out syndrome.

It’s been open for about five years, but feels a lot more homely and lived in than that – in a positive way!

I only wish it was closer to home – the traffic hereabouts is a mess just about all the time, and on my way across town I made the killer mistake of joining Sydney Rd WAY too early in the piece.

On the way home I do better by a mixture of Bell St, Moreland Rd and Pasco Vale Rd.

Before departing Al-Alamy, I buy some eggplant and beetroot dips to go, pita bread and half a dozen pieces of a wonderful sweetie that is part marshmellow, part nougat, each piece studded with a piece of Turkish delight.

I truly love this place – how can I not when it’s an establishment that has a head-scarfed female staff member placing my lunch on my table with a cheerful, “There you go, mate!”

Al Alamy on Urbanspoon