These foulish things in Altona

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Seaside Flatbread Cafe, 34 Borrack Square, Altona North. Phone: 9391 6655

It’s a lovely Friday but dad’s not working; nor is son at school.

He’s smashed his right foot something dreadful at school, to the extent we’ve had to get X-rays done.

But the news is all good – no fracture, no further treatment needed than the course of time and the natural healing process. And no need for spending the rest of the day in hospital, waiting to have a cast applied.

Still, he’s earned a nickname for the day – “Hoppy”!

Time for a well-earned lunch break at one of our favourite places.

Since rumour mongering about its imminent arrival and then writing about Seaside Flatbread Cafe and its food, several pertinent things have occurred.

For starters. we’ve become regulars. Not once a day or even once a week regulars, but often enough to satisfy our cravings for Lebanese goodness.

Then both Consider The Sauce and Seaside Flatbread Cafe scored generous, righteous mentions in a story by Nina Rousseau in The Age.

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Along the way, yours truly helped the business – for a small fee – in getting its Facebook page up and running.

That particular avenue of a career-like future generated by this blog is proving more tricky than anticipated.

I still think a lot of western suburbs eateries really, really need help with social media.

But convincing them of that fact – and that it’s worth paying some cash for – is something else entirely!

In any case, Seaside Flatbread Cafe seems to doing a fine FB job all on its own these days … and besides, we love Rouba, her family, their food and their business so much we’d do what we’ve done for free!

And with any suggestion of conflict of interest dispensed with, we can go back to telling you how much we dig the place.

The week previous to the foot injury, we’d visited with another youngster in tow for a fine lunch of pizzas, including divine Nutella pizzas for Bennie and his wee mate.

In the process, though, we noticed a couple of Lebanese blokes chowing down for another kind of lunch entirely, one we did not even know SFC was purveying.

So we’re back today with for the foul.

First, though, some of our usual faves …

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Tremendous stuffed vine leaves, this time – oh yes! – topped with slices of luscious, lemony potato I’m pretty sure have been part of the cooking process.

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Kibbeh ($2 each) tasty and tender, with the delicate lamb and onion mince so liberally studded with pine nuts.

Then it’s foul time …

Rouba tells us that normally she prepares her own fava beans, but as it’s Ramadan, the foul ($8) she whips up for us will be made using canned beans.

We don’t mind that at all.

And if anything, we seem to benefit from having a serve of foul specially prepared for us – the mix of beans, olive oil, garlic and tiny tomato pieces warmed through but not cooked is wonderful and more like a salad than a mashy stew.

On hand are pickles of the turnip, cucumber and very mild pickle variety.

But the real stars of our show are the one, then two terrific breads we are provided straight out of the pizza oven.

They’re big, round and inflated.

But unlike those of a similar bent we enjoy on Sydney Road, these are thin and crisp on top, thicker and moister on their bottoms.

This is a first for Bennie and he just loves the way the rotund breads emit steam when punctured!

Despite it being Ramadan, one other table is enjoying a foul meal.

So I ask Rouba why this dish is not listed on the printed or wall menus.

She tells me “our people” – meaning the Lebanese community – know foul is available without having to be told, and her family has been unsure whether such fare would be enjoyed or even desired by the wider community.

My sense of the situation is that Seaside Flatbread Cafe is feeling its way with what might work and that Rouba and her crew need encouragement to provide broader eat-in food than their very fine pizzas and pies.

In any case, asking what’s available beyond what is listed or otherwise obvious would seem to be a cluey way to proceed at this Altona gem!

One reader who commented on Nina’s story in The Age opined that making a song and dance about a Lebanese cafe in Altona was silly as the western suburbs were rich in Lebanese foodiness.

Well, that’s not my understanding of the situation at all.

Apart from SFC, there’s bakeries in Newport and Altona – and that’s it

If anyone knows otherwise, we’re all ears …

As ever, Bennie finishes with a Nutella pizza ($4).

Despite my skepticism, these really do work, the earthiness of the plain yet wonderful bread working hand in hand with the creamy richness of the saucey spread.

Seaside Flatbread Cafe on Urbanspoon

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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B’stilla

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 B’stilla, 30b Bray St, South Yarra. Phone: 9826 2370

B’stilla is a newish restaurant, on a back street parallel to Chapel Street and near the Jam Factory, that purveys what its website describes as “authentic Moroccan food”.

Strange part of town for me to be visiting, and a rather unusual (trendy) restaurant for me to be checking out.

But this is a Special Occasion.

I have been invited here to see what the food and the place are about by Danielle Gulacci, editor of  GRAM Magazine, to which this site has been a regular contributor and the owner of which, Prime Creative Media, will be paying tonight’s bill.

We are joined by her Prime Creative colleague Sarah and bloggers Sofia of Poppet’s Window and Ashley of I’m So Hungree.

So this an opportunity of a social and professional nature I am happy to grab, lessening somewhat the usual hand-wringing that accompanies acceptance of “freebie food”. Although you will find the mandatory “full disclosure” statement at the end of the story.

And as our food bill is already spoken for, I am omitting prices.

Although as you can see from the menu below, the pricing regime at B’stilla – especially given the location and the quality of the food – is actually very reasonable.

That is, about $6-$12 for starters, salads and sides, and in the mid-$20s range for the more substantial dishes.

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We gleefully eat a lot of food – perhaps, arguably, TOO much to sensibly assess – so I am not going to be forensic about discussing each and every thing we tried.

B’stilla seems quite a compact joint, with the indoor tables including a long, high communal table at which we set up camp and quite a few more outdoor seating options.

The kitchen seems positively tiny considering the high standard of what we eat.

As the five of us proceed with comparing notes about our blogs and our methods and get stuck right into some hilarious tales and gossip, the food starts rolling out …

Danielle has worked with all three of us bloggers on a regular basis, yet this is the first time she has witnessed any of us – or any bloggers at all, I suspect – “at work”.

As the dishes arrive, Ashley, Sofia and I simply click into quite a slick kind of choreography as we shuffle plates around the table and revolve them for the best range of shots before the demands of appetite kick in and food is actually eaten.

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“Grilled batbout flat bread, tomato lemon jam” makes a nice start. The bread is plain and soft, while the jam has lovely, lemony tang.

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“School prawns, whitebait, chermoula aioli” is beautifully fried and delicate.

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This is b’stilla, the dish after which the restaurant is named and which is described as “pigeon, duck, almond, cinnamon, saffron, egg”.

This is an unusual dish – for starters, it’s a savoury item that’s dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

The pastry is crunchy, almost crumbly, while the filling is of mild but delicious flavour.

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“Confit chicken wings, pistachio yoghurt, pomegranate” is another nice dish, but by this point I am starting to feel a little underwhelmed.

The food we are enjoying seems to largely lack robustness of flavours and seasoning. But, happily, things are about to take a huge leap upwards.

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“Lamb shoulder, ginger, cumquat, parsnip, sumac” – ah, this is more like it!

The lamb itself seems to be only very mildly seasoned, but it’s fall-apart tender, crisp on the exterior and there’s more of it than first appears to be the case – enough for all five of us to share handsomely.

The parsnip puree is decadently smooth and the cumquats supreme on the tang.

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“Smokey eggplant, crispy garlic, sesame, coriander” is, as expected, a rough-cut salad that is a close relative of babaghanoush – and just like only the very best eggplant dips, it really does pack a wonderful smokey punch.

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“Cauliflower, pine nut paste, ras el hanout, herb” is a more ritzy version of a humble side dish we regularly cook at home. It’s fine and proves that cauliflowers and ovens really do belong together. And I’m not talking about au gratin!

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“Freekah, apple, celeriac, chard, green chili, almond” is a killer salad – fresh, light, all the ingredients in harmony. And, a little surprisingly, it provides the night’s biggest chilli hit.

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We try two of the three tagines available.

The seafood component of our “mussels, cod, squid, fennel, spinach, saffron” is impeccable – just so beautifully cooked! This is excellent value at $26.

But even this wonderful dish is trumped by the “fig, goat’s cheese, chickpea, root vegetables” tagine (top photo). This for me is the night’s food highlight – it’s really rich and deep of flavour.

We finally try a range of desserts, but truth to tell while they all taste lovely, they all pass in a bit of blur, so wide-ranging and prolific has our meal been.

Though the “fig leaf ice cream” that arrives as part of our three-scoop ice cream selection is a clear winner among quite a few!

A word on the music – it’s been as good as the food and service. At various times during the night, I hear New Orleans classics by Lee Dorsey, Earl King, Professor Longhair and Aaron Neville among much other more diversely tuneful fare. Though the volume level has been a little overbearing.

Would I return to B’stilla under my own steam and paying my own way?

Yes, in a heartbeat.

Thanks to Danielle for the invite, B’stilla for looking after us and Ashley and Sofia – love swapping notes with you guys!

Check out the B’stilla website here.

Our meal at B’stilla was paid for GRAM Magazine/Prime Creative Media. Our menu selections were a mixture of choices by our party’s members and the management. Editorial control of this post resides solely with Consider The Sauce.

B'Stilla on Urbanspoon

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Seaside Flatbread Cafe

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Seaside Flatbread Cafe, 34 Borrack Square, Altona North. Phone: 9391 6655

Since first spying the soon-to-be-opened Lebanese food emporium in Borrack Square, I have driven by several times to check on progress.

And I have driven away hungry and looking elsewhere – until this Saturday lunch time.

Such is my excitement, Bennie suggests I keep my expectations in check.

Fair call that – but one that proves unnecessary.

We’re told the place has been open for three days and that it’s been a “madhouse”.

The word is obviously out.

Pizzas and pies are going into the oven and out the door at a hectic rate.

Multiple customers are coming and going. A few are hunkering down at the outdoor tables. But most are getting their pies and pizzas and heading for home.

We plan on inhaling something from that sector of what’s available, but we’re happily hungry and determined to see what else can be had as well. We grab one of the two indoor tables.

Such is our extravagant lunching enthusiasm, we keep only a partial check on pricing.

But a quick scan of your basic Lebanese bakery items fully indicates how things are here -  your basic oregano pizza costs $1.50, a cheese pie $2.50 and most of the rest of the pizzas $4, including our kafta number with “minced beef, tomato, onion, parsley and spices”.

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It’s a fantastic, delicate bargain – the meat and seasoning topping does indeed boast that distinctive kafta flavour.

Other pizza and pie varieties include spinach and cheese, vegetarian, soujuk, meat, shanklish and labne.

Our spread of other and more diverse Seaside treats is just as good.

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The fattoush and cabbage salad are unavailable at the time of our visit, but the tabouli makes a fine substitute – it’s wet and lemony, which is how we like it. Salads come in $3 and $4 sizes.

The stuffed vine leaves are advertised as costing $2 for three, but they’re quite small so we are given four. They, too, are exemplary, with the al dente rice tightly bound.

Our hummus and babaghanoush, mild and smooth, are fresh and delicious.

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Often the outer, bulghur-based shells of kebbeh can be old-boot tough.

Joyfully that is not the case with our two $2 delights – the shells are refined and a dark brown to match the scrumptious inner filling of lamb, seasonings and pine nuts.

Gosh, they’re good!

It seems inconceivable that Seaside Flatbread Cafe will not become a home away from home for us, just as there are already so many devoted customers.

Bennie is straining at the bit to get back there to try the nutella pizza ($3).

Me, I’ll be seeking an opportunity to ditch the at-home muesli routine to try the Traditional Lebanese Breakfast of “egg, soujuk, labneh, cucumber and served with fresh Lebanese bread” ($9).

Seaside Flatbread Cafe is open from 6.30am-5pm Monday to Friday and 6.30am-2pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Seaside Flatebread Cafe on Urbanspoon

OMG, OMG, OMG …

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It’s open – see review HERE.

We love the pies and pizzas we eat or buy at a couple of places in the west.

But we have long lamented the lack of a more broad and deep Middle Eastern food experience in the western suburbs.

In particular, we dream of the sort food provided by the likes of Al-alamy and Abbout Falafel House in Coburg – not full-service Lebanese restaurants complete with multiple kebab offerings, but instead offering an array of pies, pizzas AND divine dips served with pita bread, terrific salads and condiments such as salty, crunchy pickles and olives.

And all at super-cheap prices.

Well, now it seems as though those dreams are soon to come true.

Seaside Flatbread Cafe will be opening in “about two weeks” on Borrack Square, near the corner of Millers and  McArthurs roads, Altona, and tucked in behind Millers Inn.

That’s the word from a fellow named Sem, who I talk to as the fit-out work proceeds.

He seems a little bemused at the intensity of my curiosity, but when I gesture at the window art – containing images not just of pies and pizzas but the full ranges of dips, salads, falafels, pickles and more – and ask if that’s what his shop will deliver, he answers in the affirmative.

Yes!

There’s even pictures of the sort of gorgeous house-made flatbread served at Abbout that is served like a blown-up bladder, emitting steam as it is torn open.

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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.

Zaatar on Urbanspoon

Makhlama bil poteita (Iraqi omelette with potatoes and herbs)

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Yes, here’s another one from Delights From The Garden Of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah, although I’m guessing my version only approximated what the author was intending.

That’s because I made some changes.

Used five eggs instead of the full half dozen.

Had no dill or mint, so went gangbusters with the parsley.

Used two diced spuds instead of the slightly greater quantities of two cups of diced spuds.

And used most of a large green chilli.

So maybe my pan was too wide for the lesser amount of total ingredients.

Only about half of it lifted from the pan in the form of a coherent omelette; but that was OK, too.

It was a messy, delicious jumble – I ate it with pita bread, which I used like or injera, or the pita when eating scrambled eggs at Al-Alamy.

And the leftovers were cool eaten the same way cold the next day at work, and would be good in sandwiches, too.

INGREDIENTS

2 spuds

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 medium tomato, chopped

3/4 cup parsley, chopped

5 eggs

METHOD

1. Pre-heat oven to about 220C.

2. Chop spuds into small dice, place on a foil-lined tray, spray with oil and place in hot oven. Should take about 15-20 minutes to cook. Turn potato bits over halfway through cooking.

3. While they’re getting nice and brown, fry onion over medium heat with turmeric and curry powder.

4. After about seven minutes, add the potato, tomato, parsley, pepper and salt. Mix well and cook for a few minutes more.

5. Flatten vegetable mix with wooden spoon then create spaces four the eggs.

6. Lower heat to medium low.

7. Break eggs into the holes made for them. Fry gently until cooked as is, or run a knife through the eggs to disperse the yolks through the vegetables.

8. Serve with sides, condiments and accessories as you desire.

 

Zaalouk (mashed eggplant and tomato salad)

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This zingy salad from Morocco is, of course, a close relative of baba ghanouj.

Instead of tahini and/or yogurt, the recipe uses roughly cooked-to-a-pulp tomatoes.

This is a slightly tweaked version of the dish found in Claudia Roden’s Arabesque – I throttled back some on the cumin and garlic, didn’t feel like leaving the house just to get a bunch of coriander, and didn’t think a garnish of black olives sounded that hot.

And I never peel tomatoes.

INGREDIENTS

2 medium eggplants

juice 1/2 fleshy lemon

2 medium large tomatoes

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped.

extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon paprika

chilli powder to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 cup approximately chopped flat-leaf parsley

METHOD

1. Prick eggplants several times to stop ‘em exploding and place in a very hot (225C) pre-heated over for about 45 minutes until wrinkly all over.

3. When they’re done, let cool.

4. When cool enough to handle comfortably, scoop pulp into a bowl and discard skins.

5. Roughly chop the tomatoes and cook in olive oil with some salt until pulpy and not quite a sauce.

6. While the tomatoes are cooking, smash up the eggplant into a rough mash. Don’t get too carried away – a rough texture is what is desired for the finished salad.

7. Into the eggplant pulp put the cumin, paprika, chilli powder, garlic and parsley.

8. Into this mix add the tomatoes and some more lemon juice and a dash more olive oil.

9. Set salad aside for at least an hour or so before  eating.

Keeps well!

Good in sandwiches!

Shorbat adas

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Based on numerous comments on previous posts, I know there are pulse fans among the regular visitors to Consider The Sauce.

And among those, there are those who have their favourite uses for red lentils – be they dals or soups.

Well listen up – I hope you all try this killer recipe.

It may not supplant your favourite recipe(s), but it’ll impress everyone for sure.

Like everything I’m cooking at the moment, this recipe – slightly customised – comes from Nawal Nasrallah’s awesome Irqai cookbook, Delights From The Garden Of Eden.

She calls this lentil brew “the mother of all soups”, and it’s the bestest, tastiest lentil soup recipe I’ve ever cooked.

Funny thing – I used to be a bit sniffy about using curry powder. Too many lingering memories from childhood (sausages and sultanas), I suppose.

These days, I’m much more relaxed about using good-quality curry powders sourced from any of the many Indian grocers in our world.

In this case, the small amount of powder used means the soup does not taste of curry – or curry powder.

Rather, in combination with the other seasonings, it imparts a deep, rich and rather mysterious earthiness.

The addition of flour after frying the onions is the direct opposite of what I’m used to when cooking New Orleans or cajun dishes, in which a usually very dark roux is made and the vegetables then added.

No matter – the effect is similar, although that step could be omitted entirely as not a lot of flour is used.

INGREDIENTS

2 cups red lentils

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 noodle nests or equivalent amount of broken-up pasta

2 tablespoon olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 heaping teaspoon plain or wholemeal flour

1/4 cup lemon juice

chopped parsley

METHOD

1. Wash lentils and place in pot with 10 cups of water. Bring to boil and cook until done – about 30-45 minutes. Don’t worry, it’s pretty much impossible to overcook them – you’ll just end up with a different texture, that’s all.

2. When lentils are close to fully cooked, heat oil to low-medium and fry onions until a deep golden brown. This should take about 10-15 minutes. Stir frequently.

3. As onions are cooking, add to the lentils the pepper, salt, tomato paste, turmeric and curry powder. Keep on a very low heat and stir gently until the paste and seasonings are well integrated.

4. Also crunch/crumble noodle nests into the soup – doing this feels really cool!

5. Cook soup for about another 15 minutes or until noodles are soft.

6. About five minutes before noodles are soft, add flour to onions and continue to cook over a low-medium heat, stirring often. Cook for about five minutes or until flour is the same golden colour as the onions.

7. Slop a couple of ladles of soup mixture into onion pan, swirl around to loosen all the flour and return pan contents to soup.

8. Cook for another five minutes, stirring occasionally.

9. Add lemon juice, mix in.

10. Place soup in bowls, garnish with parsley.

11. Inhale.

Baba ghanouj

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For a year or more, Bennie has been getting cranky about the tiresome state of his school lunches and more particularly the regular inclusion of rolls of various kinds stuffed with all sorts.

Can’t say I blame him – I find them tiresome, too.

So for the best part of this year, I’ve been including dips and pita bread.

I fell out of the habit of making dips a long time ago, so we’ve been shamelessly buying them. That’s down to laziness mostly, but also we’re blenderless.

Our bought dips – hummus and baba ghanouj mainly – have ranged from good to barely passable to really nasty.

Interestingly, the quality of the dip seems to have had little to do with how much or how little we pay for them.

But this pre-bought dip routine is stopping – right here, right now.

It’s ridiculous.

Besides, you don’t need a blender – in fact, in the case of baba ghanouj, you really want that chunky, unblended texture.

And getting back in to the routine of dip-making fits right in with our current fascination with Middle Eastern food.

This recipe – with a few minor tweaks – is straight from the pages of Nawal Nasrallah’s fabulous Iraqi cookbook, Delights From The Garden Of Eden.

It’s easy and hassle-free!

INGREDIENTS

1 large eggplant

1/4 cup tahini

1/4 cup yogurt

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 medium garlic cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

METHOD

1. Pre-heat oven to a hot 225C.

2. Pre-heat skillet under low heat.

3. Puncture eggplant all over several times, so steam can escape and it doesn’t explode.

4. Place eggplant on a foil-lined oven tray and put in hot oven for about 45 minutes.

5. Gently roast cumin seeds in skillet until a deep tan, then grind to a fine powder in mortar and pestle.

6. When eggplant is done – it’ll be all wrinkly – turn off oven and let eggplant cool.

7. When cool enough to handle, discard skin and place pulp in a colander so it can drain.

8. Place eggplant pulp in a bowl and mash with a  fork.

9. Mix in tahini and yogurt.

10. Mix in salt and ground cumin.

11. Mix in lemon juice.

12. Finely grate garlic cloves and mix into baba ghanouj.

13. Store in fridge for at least an hour before using.

Al Sharouk Woodfired Oven

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Al Sharouk Woodfired Oven, 544-546 Mahoneys Rd, Campbellfield. Phone: 9359 5773

On a previous, mid-week visit to Al Sharouk with Bennie and Nat, we’d been greeted by a well-stuffed Middle East-style grocery but little by way of eat-in food – or, at least, none that tempted us sufficiently to linger.

Second time around, and flying solo, my desires are a little different.

Lunch, a meal, for sure – but I’m also seeking some specialised Middle East ingredients.

This is so I can roll up my sleeves and get cooking some of the marvellous recipes in Delights From The Garden Of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah, an epic Iraqi cookbook I received in the mail a few days earlier.

This tome – packed with recipes for mostly home-style Iraqi food, countless anecdotes and much food history going back several thousand years – has been secured on the no-doubt righteous recommendation by Annia Ciezadlo in her cool book Day Of Honey.

I feel sure Delights From The Garden Of Eden will be the cause of many, many future years of pleasurable reading and cooking.

But I feel nonplussed as I step through the door of Al Sharouk and discover … that it is now all restaurant and no grocery.

Oh well – I take an upbeat, half-full approach and thoroughly enjoy my lunch and talking with Al Sharouk proprietor Martin.

He’s an Iraqi Christian who moved to Australia more than three decades ago, although his Campbellfield eat shop has been open for just nine months.

It’s no surprise, then, he knows all about the ingredients I seek – baharat, a spice mix that is a sort-of Iraqi equivalent of garam masala; and noomi basrah, which are dried limes.

Martin reckons I should have little trouble securing them from the likes of Al-alamy in Coburg or International Foods in Altona.

As he’s expressed an interest in having a quick look at my new book, I scarper back to my car as he’s knocking my lunch together.

There’s a range of salads and dips on display. Pies and pizzas from the mighty wood-fired oven are available, too.

But I quickly zero in on the two stews available – one a pale number with lamb shanks, the other more of a tomato-based effort with lamb on the bone and chickpeas.

I go for the latter, which turns out to be a variation on Iraqi stews called tashreeb. These are traditionally served on a base of flat bread.

But I’m plenty happy to have mine with Martin’s rice, which he calls an Iraqi biryani.

It’s beaut and studded with peanuts, peas, currants and – most appropriately – the dried limes called noomi basrah, which impart of sublime tartness. Think of something along the lines of a mild Indian lime pickle.

This is very homely food much to my liking – the rice riches work well with the tashreeb chickpeas, and I even get a silky, tender whole onion.

But that’s not all – my single piece of lamb is superbly, predictably tender and toothsome.

Martin has two kinds of chooks getting the heat treatment from his spit pit – the first lot are whole stuffed birds referred to in Delights From The Garden Of Eden as Pregnant Chicken; the second are butterflied birds in lemon and garlic.

I buy a half animal of the latter to take home, but wish I’d gone with a whole of the former – they look so plump and sexy, and are likely a fine bargain at $12.

Other than that, I forget to check prices – suffice to say Al Sharouk is a genuine cheap eats haven, as my lamb rice lunch, a can of soft drink and half a chook to go come to $22.

It’s been cool meet Martin and enjoy some of the kind of food I soon hope to be cooking my own self.

Al Sharouk Woodfired Oven on Urbanspoon

Book review: Day of Honey

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Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo (Simon and Schuster)

A review copy of this book was handed my way by a mate at my previous place of employment.

He figured it would tick almost all my boxes.

And why wouldn’t he?

It’s about food, it’s about writing, it’s about – more precisely – Middle Eastern food.

And it’s about international and current affairs, and the turbulence and conflicts and joy that accompany them, something I find endlessly fascinating, although I have rarely let that interest intrude on Consider The Sauce.

Truth is that while I stay on top of such things, they often leave me feeling down.

So why did Day of Honey sit around the house unloved and gathering dust for several months?

Why did I pick it up, read a few pages then discard it several times?

Why did it take only the most desperate boredom with every other available reading resource at hand before this book got its hooks into me?

A couple of reasons at least, I think …

One was the simple fear of confronting the horrors of the Middle East in a too-real account.

Reading about the Middle East’s trial and tribulations in news stories in newspaper and magazines or online is one thing.

There’s a certain dryness there that insulates us from the realities, brutal or otherwise.

Reading on-the-ground accounts of happenings in Baghdad and Beirut written by a gifted and eloquent writer is quite another.

I wasn’t at all sure I was up for it.

Another reason, one that was completely irrational given the nature of the subject, was that I feared the book would have a foodie-light veneer, making it a sort of Under The Beirut Sky.

About that, I turned out to be very wrong.

Once I started reading in earnest, this turned into a joyous page-turner.

I knew the author had me when she writes:

“The Mesopotamians baked a lot of their bread in a tinuru, a cylindrical clay oven with an open top and diabolically hot radiant heat inside. They rolled the dough into little round pats and left them for the gluten to relax. Then they flattened them into pancakes and slapped them onto the oven’s scorching inside walls, where they bubbled into chewy flatbreads.”

Hey, that sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Ciezadlo continues:

“Thousands of years later, Iraqis still make bread exactly this way at neighborhood bakeries … The Akkadian tinuru lives on as the Arabic tanoor, the Iranian tanura and the South Asian tandoor. Next time you order chicken tandoori at an Indian restaurant, chew on this: you are speaking a word that human mouths have been pronouncing, in one form or another, for at least four thousand years.”

Day of Honey follows the journey of Ciezadlo and her Lebanese husband Mohamad as they ply their journalistic/media trade in Baghdad and Beirut in the early-to-late 2000s.

If I skip going into any detail about the exact locations and conflicts they are involved in, it is simply because in many ways they are the background detail of the book’s major themes.

For this is a book, primarily, about people. Or more exactly, about people and how they deal with war.

And as Ciezadlo reveals, they do this largely through food.

There is a good deal of violence in the book, particularly towards the end.

But the author covers it in quite a dispassionate way, and always in the context of the people she loves, friends and family.

She simply lays out the absurdly sectarian nature of so much of life and politics and conflict in the Middle East without ever losing track of her focus.

That leaves her – and us – to revel in the food, its rituals and fabulous cast of characters who are by turns droll, hilarious, romantic, inspirational and more.

Particularly beguiling is her ongoing portrait of her mother-in-law, Umm Hassane. I’m tempted to describe her incredible and maddening wiles as “adorable” or some such, but then I don’t have to put up with her!

Through Day of Honey, I have had some of my beliefs about the Middle East buttressed.

But in many ways, I have had others shaken.

Mainly to the extent that what we read and hear about the region in the media is appallingly superficial or little more than window dressing and spin of various kinds.

Mostly, though, the book has emphasised for me how fortunate I am to be living in a part of the world where I am so free to participate in and enjoy food, food rituals and traditions, and the people who keep them alive.

And in one vivid account of a meal, Ciezadlo makes me believe more than ever that in the likes of Abbout Falafel House, Al-Alamy and so many more we have a genuine, life-affirming way of being part of what really is the greatest story ever told.

There are very many lovely examples of food anecdotes, recipes, lore and history.

At its end, the book includes more than a dozen recipes of food featured in its pages.

A lot of them seem sufficiently complex to deter me from attempting them.

But happily, the one that most intrigues – a simple Lebanese dish of onions, potatoes and eggs called Batata wa Bayd Mfarakeh – is the subject of a short video on the author’s website.

Unsurprisingly, what she creates there looks not at all like I imagined it would!

Day of Honey is a terrific book and I look forward to reading future posts on the author’s Facebook page for revealing and uplifting insights on Middle Eastern food, culture, people and – yes – politics.

Oasis Bakery

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Oasis Bakery, 993 North Rd, Murrumbeena. Phone: 9570 1122

Stumbling across Oasis Bakery a few weeks before, while cruising around prior to meeting a pal for lunch nearby, had been a wonderful surprise.

Far less surprise had been subsequently discovering that while this place is new to me, it is very popular and has been documented rather widely.

I’m returning for several reasons – a Sunday drive, to have some lunch, to do some shopping.

Some of the online comments I have read conclude the place has lost some of its allure since a remake.

I have no knowledge of its previous look and/or configuration, so am happy with the now.

Oasis Bakery comes across as something of a Middle Eastern version of a combined Brunetti’s of Carlton and A.Bongiovanni & Son of Seddon.

There’s a cafe dining area at the front, but Sunday lunchtime seating is at a premium.

There are also quite a few long-legged tables, but these are without stools, as that particular seating apparently contravened regulations, so is gone for the meantime. I’m happy enough to eat my lunch while standing for 10 minutes, as a number of other “overflow customers” are doing.

Lunch first, shopping second.

Ordering is done at a fast food franchise-style counter, and customers are issued with one of those buzzer doodads that vibrate when your meal is ready.

I bypass the various wraps and lovely looking salads, the sizable range of pizzas, and all the hot dishes except one – the lamb okra.

This is the second time in a week I have ordered a dish with okra, and I do much better this time.

My lamb/okra stew is rather plain and mild in the seasoning department, but is delicious in its own way.

The lamb is tasty, but is in sliced rather than chunk form.

There’s tomato, onion, garlic (I think), while delightfully crunchy texture comes from pine nuts and (I later discover) slivered almonds.

Then there’s the plentiful okra.

I love okra.

So I love the unctuous nature of my stew … one man’s unctuous is another man’s slime.

It’s all served up in an earthenware plate on a solid bed of rice.

It’s a good-sized serve, a splendid lunch and worth every cent of the $13 I pay for it.

Immediate appetite satisfied, it’s on to some equally enjoyable shopping.

As far as I can tell, about half of the Oasis Bakery grocery section is stocked with lines that is some way, specific or more generally, could described as of a Middle eastern bent.

The rest, be they luxury lines or staples, are the sort of thing that could be found in any good-quality food hall/grocery.

There’s an entire of wall dried fruit and nuts.

Adjacent, there’s an eye-popping range of different grains and pulses.

Some things it gladdens my heart to see, even if I refrain from indulging this time out – such as this line of “traditional Russian pasta”.

But I hone right in on the Lebanese-style pies Bennie and I have already enjoyed.

These are a little pricier than we are used to paying, but they’re worth it – the fillings are more plentiful, for starters.

These spinach and walnut pies are a good buy, though – a bag of four for $12.

As well as delightful crunch from the walnuts, they’ve got a sublime flavour whack from lemon and mint.

Excellent!

The lamb and pine nut jobs are pricier at $10 for a two-pack, but the filling is magic and there’s quite a lot of it.

I’ve had little luck in buying a commercial brand of turshi to replicate at home the quality turnip pickles we routinely have in restaurants.

The Oasis Bakery house brand goes a long way towards delighting.

It’s not restaurant quality, but it’s pretty good – and not mushy.

The Oasis range of dips and salads looks outstanding, but Bennie and I found the hummus to be both bland and bitter, so this time I make do with a tub of spiced labneh.

It’s treat time!

This orange-flavvoured Turkish delight is all class – delicious, fresh, chewy.

It won’t last long!

And, of course, my Oasis shopping endeavours are not complete without topping up on that basic Middle Eastern staple – Spongebob bikkies!

Sad to say, Oasis will not become a regular for us – the drive is too far.

But on the other hand, a drive around the bay on a nice day is just the ticket – and those Lebanese pies are definitely worth the journey.

Oasis Bakery also runs cooking demonstrations – check out the website here.

Oasis Bakery on Urbanspoon

Danny’s @ 525

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Danny’s @ 52, 525 Glenhuntly Rd, Elsternwick. Phone: 9530 005

Before I meet our pal Nat at Danny’s, I have time to live.

About an hour and a half of it.

I spend it happily wandering … back along Warrigal Rd, along North Rd, zigging here, zagging there, along the Carnegie retail area and finally taking in the upper reaches of Glenhuntly Rd, which I have never before laid eyes on.

Even after parking, I have time so take in the sights of the Danny’s neighbourhood.

Of course, the whole way I am rubbernecking and on the lookout for foodiness.

There’s a lot of it about.

Naturally, all this browsing – and, in some cases, stopping, parking and getting out for a better look at some promising eats places – has sharpened up my appetite.

I’m hungry and ready for lunch.

Over lunch, I’m unsurprised to find that several of the food places I’ve spied on my journey have been covered by Nat at Urbanspoon. This is his stomping ground, after all.

We’ve arranged to meet at Danny’s for lunch as a natural extension of our mutual interest in Middle Eastern food, with CTS having this year gleefully travelling to Coburg and Brunswick, as well as various parts of the west, in a joyful search of discovery.

Here, then, is a grand chance to sample some Middle Eastern food from the “other” side of town.

Despite the area being known as a Jewish enclave, it’s not Jewish food I am expecting.

I’m expecting Middle Eastern food of the Israeli variety.

And so it proves to be.

We order the Mega Falafel Plate for $15.50.

We order, too, the Mixed Grill for $30.

This seems like over-ordering of the highest order, but we acquit ourselves well and do so without getting too full.

The falafel plate is a thing of deliciousness.

The falafel balls themselves – 14 of them – are small, fresh, grease-free and crispy on the outside. Inside they’re delicate, green and with great flavour.

They go great the hummus.

The salady bits make a perfect foil.

They include marinated cauliflower, pickled cucumbers and pickled onion, the pinkness of which makes it a sure thing it has been produced using the same method as turshi.

Also on board are coarsely chopped coleslaw and a happy jumble of tomato, cucumber, capsicum and the like called Israeli Salad.

The meat plate is good, too, but doesn’t quite hit the same high spots for me.

The meat is as juicy an tender as you’d expect, but some of the sauces are bit too heavy and sticky for my taste. For me, this is generally good-to-very-good rather than “wow!”

The exceptions are the two cigar-shaped kebab sausages, one lamb and one chicken, that have a lovely lightness of flavour and texture.

The chicken one, especially, is a winner, reminding of a weisswurst snag – except, of course, it’s not porky!

Danny’s is an ace place. The service, staff and their welcome are genuinely warm and friendly.

There’s lots more to explore – I’d love to get my choppers around something like the whole grilled snapper with the sort of sides and accompaniments available here.

Thanks to very much to Nat for the suggestion and the company!

Danny's @ 525 on Urbanspoon

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!”

Abbout Falafel House on Urbanspoon

Cafe Advieh

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Cafe Advieh, 71B Gamon St, Seddon. Phone: 0432 241 276

More often than not, Bennie gets over-ridden when it comes to choosing where we go to eat.

He’s a bit of a homebody at heart, so his dad’s wandering eye often has his eyes rolling.

He tolerates with good humour my restless adventuring.

But, really, instead of the long haul to Coburg or Deer Park – or even Sunshine or Moonee Ponds – he’d generally stay at home or within walking distance.

Today he gets his way – and we have a spectacularly fine lunch as a result.

We’d taken Cafe Advieh for a review outing early in its life, and have been back periodically – mostly ordering what we had the first time, the mixed grill plate.

Today we take a different tack.

Bennie’s small dips platter ($10.50) looks rather modest in size but does the job.

He likes the two stuffed vine leaves, preferring them unheated as they as they hold their form better.

He likes all the dips, but rates the eggplant number the highest.

I try it – and as on previous visits am knocked out.

This coarsely textured take on a classic is simply wonderful, with a robust smokiness.

The serving of toasted Turkish bread is in correct proportion to the amount of dipping fodder, and that’s even with dad filching some to have with his meal. He lets me eat most of the kalamata olives, too!

This puts to shame the lacklustre dips platters served at so many cafes.

My zucchini plate ($14.50) has more of the same very good hummus and yogurt, cucumber and dill.

The latter goes well with my zucchini fritter.

This, too, is unheated and all the better for it. It’s quite wide but rather thin, nicely salty, and its unheated stature gives it a nice leathery chewiness. Leathery in a totally good way!

My two salad choices are amazingly, lip-smackingly fine.

The coleslaw is not so much slaw in the common mayo meaning of the word but more a regularly dressed salad. Its mix of two types of cabbage, onion and carrot is homely, crunchy, heavy with lemon and utterly moreish.

So often I’ve been served – often, surprisingly, in kebab places that should know better and care more – tabbouleh that is an unappetising jumble of dry, undressed parsley and bulgar.

As far as I’m concerned – and based somewhat on repeated makings of the version found in Claudia Roden’s Arabesque – it should be damp almost to the point of dripping wet.

As it is here, with even more of a lemon accent than the coleslaw.

On the evidence of this lunch and others, Cafe Advieh has mastered the terrific trick turning out food that is refined but also has more than a few rough edges.

That is likewise reflected in a slice of tremendous house baklava ($4) with which I reward Bennie for making such a great lunch call. As on previous visits, it’s luscious and heavily scented with individually identifiable spices.

As a friend sitting at an adjacent table – Hi, Peter! – remarks, this is Middle Eastern food that seems less like restaurant fare and more like home cooking.

Advieh on Urbanspoon

VU Halal Kitchen

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"Baba-ghanouj" plate at VU Halal Kitchen.

"Baba-ghanouj" plate at VU Halal Kitchen.

VU Halal Kitchen, Building M, Level 0, Victoria University, Footscray. Phone: 9919 4300

Given the radiant brilliance of some of our Middle Eastern adventures lately – particularly at Coburg’s Abbout Falafel House and Al-Alamy – the surprise isn’t that the newish VU Halal Kitchen doesn’t quite match them but that it delivers a good and worthy shot at it with very similar prices.

I’d first stumbled across VU Halal Kitchen after trying out Cafe Noodle House, which is situated in a nearby campus building.

Subsequent attempts to try the campus Middle Eastern fare were thwarted by the festive season, catering commitments and the end of the academic year.

Now, in early March, Team Consider The Sauce is on the job and mighty hungry.

While we understand the business requirements that dictate the food cater to a broad base of students, you’ll be unsurprised to learn we ignore completely such fodder as the burgers, parmas, pastas and the like … although those seem to be the choices of the few other customers there are.

After being told several times the dips came with “Turkish bread” only, what turns up is a pleasant surprise.

"Hommus" plate at VU Halal Kitchen in Footscray.

"Hommus" plate at VU Halal Kitchen in Footscray.

The trimmings aren’t quite as substantial or sparkling as we get in Coburg, but they’re much appreciated anyway. Both kinds of pickles are commercial but lovely and crunchy.

The terrific bread is made on the premises.

I subsequently am told by VU Halal Kitchen proprietor George that it’s oil-free, which helps give it a nice chewiness when fresh and not unpalatable crunchiness when an ancient half-hour or so old.

The “baba-ghanouj” plate ($7) is the star of our lunch, the dip itself being redolent of smokiness, lemon and garlic in about equal measures. Very good!

The “hommus” plate, at the same price, is not as impressive, with the dip sporting a blandness  that makes it seem like a wallflower.

Spicy potato curry pie at VU Halal Kitchen.

Spicy potato curry pie at VU Halal Kitchen.

We order the spicy potato curry pie ($4) out of sheer curiosity and are a little disappointed. As you’d expect, it’s quite a lot like an elongated samosa – except that the curry potato stuffing is very much at the outer extremes of mildness. It’s OK.

Dressed zaatar pizza at VU Halal Kitchen.

Dressed zaatar pizza at VU Halal Kitchen.

The dressed zaatar pizza ($4.80), too, suffers by comparison with the superior equivalents available at our usual local haunts – but not by much.

After lamenting that our otherwise incredibly vibrant westie food situation lacks an Al-Alamy or an Abbout Falafel House, I am gratified to learn from George, who is of Egyptian background, that VU Halal Kitchen in fact boasts an Al-Alamy connection.

That operation’s Ahmed is overseeing the kitchen affairs here in a supervisory role, which hopefully augurs mightily well for the future.

Falafels are in the near future, as will be  – I fully expect – a degree of tweaking and improving.

A western suburbs place serving Middle Eastern food that goes beyond pizzas and kebabs needs to be encouraged.

George, by the way, highly recommends the awarma (minced meat cooked with scrambled eggs, $10) and shak-shooka (scrambled eggs mixed with tomato, onion and cheese, $10) – both served with aforementioned bread and pickles.

Two more points …

Given the possibility the bar set-up of which the kitchen is part may be otherwise needed for a function, we strongly suggest phoning an hour or so before your planned lunch … just to make sure.

And the drinks situation is far from ideal – extremely small bottles of soda pop and Mount Franklin water all clock in at $3. But then again, this is a bar – rather than a campus cafeteria.

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.

Abbout Falafel House on Urbanspoon

Layla’s Restaurant

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327 Barry Rd, Campbellfield. Phone: 9357 6666

Ever been to Campbellfield?

Nor I have I – until tonight.

It seemed so easy when I set out.

A quick look at the Melway told me Pascoe Vale Rd, keep on going and eventually I’ll reach Barry Rd and my dinner destiny.

It turns out to be a fair haul, and when I arrive the Melbourne CBD skyline is not where I expect it to be.

But it’s pure pleasure, as I have this very afternoon I have picked up a new car.

The difference between my old, reliable 2004 Getz manual and the new 2008 Corolla automatic is amazing.

I feel like I’m driving a Rolls Royce – much better suspension and seating, much, much quieter.

Oh my!

I’m on the hunt for a kebab joint about which I’ve heard good things.

But when I find the correct shopping strip, I discover that particular establishment is in the midst of frantic dinner rush hour business.

No problem!

For what I also find is some sort of Melbourne magic.

In a space of about 200 metres there are at least half a dozen places serving Middle Eastern food of various kinds.

Several of them are kebab places.

But there’s also a chicken shop that nevertheless has photos of falafels and kebabs in its windows.

And even the fish and chip shop and the noddle joint announce they use halal meat.

I settle on Layla’s Restaurant.

There are a handful of customers making use of the outside tables, but I am the only customer in the interior, which is welcoming and cool, and in which I feel immediately comfortable.

I sure am hungry so order the biggest, most expensive item on the menu – the mixed plate for $13.

As my food is prepared, I get talking to Layla, who is Assyrian.

Patiently working around the language barrier – and that even though we are both speaking English – I am reminded that there is a big difference between the Assyrian people and Syria, and that the Middle East is far more complex than as presented in glib newspaper headlines and TV grabs.

My meal is real nice.

Two lamb skewers and one of chicken taste fine, but are a little on the dry side – so I love dipping the meat in the little dish of Layla’s homemade sauce. The sauce is a little salty, watery and sort of like a Middle Eastern curry concoction. Tasty!

The falafels are a pale tan inside, very mildly seasoned but fresh and very good.

I love the three kinds of pickle – chilli, turnip and cucumber.

The “hommos” is good but also a little on the dry side.

A fine meal I have, but I suspect at Layla’s I may be better off with more homely fare such as foul or some of the fine-looking Lebanese-style pies and pizzas.

On Sundays, the place serves baqela bel-dhin, which is described as “Iraqi beans, eggs and onions”.

I take the Western Ring Road home, listening to Billy Jack Wills, Tiny Moore and the boys rocking the house the whole way.

(The menus presented below does not represent current prices.)

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!”

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