Cool joint does Indian brilliantly

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Curry Cafe Canteen, 332 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 0498 003 970

Curry Cafe Canteen is a new arrival that adds much colour and wonder to the already diverse offerings of one of our favourite food strips.

It’s an outpost of an already established Curry Cafe in Northcote, with the Flemington branch offering a bit more of an accent on Indian street food.

The place – done out in wood and stools, and very chic in a comfy way – has been open just a few days when we visit for a Sunday lunch, but has been doing Uber deliveries for a month or so on the back of the connection with the Northcote mothership.

 

 

And – as we discover to our ecstatic delight – it is raising the bar for all Indian food offerings in the western suburbs.

Seriously.

It’s not so much that the menu (see below) offers anything unusual, spectacular or innovative.

It’s just that everything we try has the stamp of Indian cooking expertise all over it.

Even better, there is a level of freshness and an exuberance of flavour that leaves most Indian places for dead – including many that are rather more expensive and famous.

And they do it all at prices that fit, with room to move, into the cheap eats category.

And there’s craft beer and organic wine on the way.

 

 

Take Bennie’s pav cholle ($8), for example.

All to often, when we order an Indian snack dish the involves a chick pea curry, the curry is dull and appears and tastes tired.

No such problem here – the chick pea brew is fresh and alive with vim.

The buttered brioche rolls and kachumba salad are similarly fine.

 

 

My thali ($12) comes with vibrant lamb madras that puts the meat curries served in most Indian places to shame.

On board, too, are the same salad, a pappadum and rice.

The pickles vividly illustrate, again, the freshness of the Curry Cafe Canteen food and the care put into it.

I love the sour flavour boost that pickles give to an Indian meal, and am quite happy to accept commercial pickles.

But so often those pickles involve a chunk of mango that is as tough as old boot.

Here the pickles are made in house using lemon, lime, pepper, mango, lotus stem and garlic – and they’re soft.

Another point of difference is the dal makhani.

In most Indian eateries, this dish overloaded with cream.

Not so here – it’s a way more austere and plain pulse offering, and all the better for it.

 

 

While we’re about our Sunday lunch, we get some extras from the lunch menu.

Garlic naan ($2.50) and roti ($2) are very good.

Onion bhajji ($3, top photo) are excellent Indian onion rings.

 

 

A serve of two smallish samosas ($3) again affirm the high quality of the food here.

These are a bit more delicate than we’re mostly familiar with, expertly fried, have peas on board, are wonderful and are served with more of that salad and a nice tamarind chutney.

I’m told that the pav dishes and the thali set-up is available for lunch only.

I reckon that’s shame as thalis are so very, very cool for those dining solo – as I often do.

But the place is finding its feet, so could be open to persuasion in these regards.

But even going a la carte with the evening menu will surely be a winner.

After all, all curries are in the $10 to $13 range and half a tandoori chook costs $10.

 

The west and its food don’t need your validation

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New westie food ventures of the ritzy nature always generate a great deal of speculation, excitement and curiosity – and that is certainly the case at present with regards to the revamp headed our way at Harts Hotel in Middle Foostcray and Harley & Rose, soon to be up and running at the former location of Ovest in West Footscray.

In both cases, CTS has decided not pursue these stories as both establishments have already generated coverage.

So I know what you know.

But that doesn’t stop me and my friends thinking about what is happening and the dynamics at play.

Sometimes that interest becomes amusement and bemusement.

Last week’s story in The Age, for example, started with the words “Footscray: it’s the suburb that just won’t quit its upward trajectory”, while that same opening paragraph concluded with “Now, serious food is coming in hot”.

The story finished with “Upwards the west”.

For goodness sakes, who or what defines, in this context, what “upward trajectory, “serious food” and “upwards the west” mean?

Is it solely down to celebrity foodie names like McConnell, Builders Arms and Cutler and Co?

That often seems to be the case when it comes coverage of westie food happenings in non-western Melbourne media of various levels and varieties.

Or is just about the sleek/chic/hipster/trendy/groovy look and feel of such places that drives such coverage and proclamations of progress? And even if the food is in no way adventurous or new?

A combination of both, I’m guessing.

And the very use of words and concepts such as upwards and trajectory in a food context themselves bespeak a mindset that is narrow and competitive.

I’d argue that, depending on rather different criteria, that there is serious food happening every day of the week in the west – and not just the inner west, either.

Even if it mostly falls outside your world view.

In regards to the same story, two pals have pointed out to me – without prompting – that phrases such as “panzanella with local vinegar” and “a coiffed traditional pub menu” read like hipster parody.

Though that may be attributable to The Age and its writer, rather than those behind these businesses.

As ever with such happenings, I am interested to discover whether these joints will be merely in the west – or OF the west.

Some launches from the recent and not-so-recent past illustrate how some folks have gone about getting the locals onside.

When The Plough was relaunched a few years back, the publicists and management ambled up and down Victoria and Charles streets, inviting the local Seddon businesses and their staff to the opening night party.

Likewise, when the Calombaris empire made its move into Williamstown at Hellenic Hotel, local traders and notables, western suburbs media  – and, yes, this blogger – were well represented at the launch festivities.

Just this week, a new Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant opened in Cairnlea.

Unfortunately, Bennie and I were unable to attend the opening night on Tuesday.

We would love to have been there.

Because the eatery concerned, Kim Huong, did it in style by throwing a full-on banquet involving the likes of roast pork, fish coleslaw, abalone, scallops and barramundi.

At no charge.

For whoever in the community was interested in attending.

Way to go – now THAT’S a good way to build engagement with the locals.

Let’s imagine, in a parallel universe, this scenario …

In which a flash new eatery in the western suburbs is opening, but with a buzz built solely around foodie star power and with publicists/marketing crew with few or no contacts in – or knowledge of – the west.

Opening night sees a parade of the habitual red carpet/bubbly hordes front up for one of their very rare visits to the western suburbs, which are usually only for just such events.

As a friend opined to me: “They’d have a great first week; I’d check to see where they’re at in six months.”

The simple truth is – as it currently stands – drawing people to the west across the Maribyrnong remains a very uphill battle.

So non-celeb, regulation westies will be your bread and butter – whether you like it or not.

And in the inner west, and in West Footscray in particular, that means lots and lots young families.

My guess – informed by speaking with countless people, food industry types in the west and sometimes idiotically forensic analysis of Facebook community pages – is that for many such folk, eating out is a once-a-month deal, and even that’s a stretch for some.

Winning regular, local clientele is a tricky business – but can be done.

Not for a minute am I advocating wall-to-wall karaoke and $15 parmas.

But what won’t wash, either, are high prices, beautiful plating and small serves that leave punters seriously out of pocket and looking for a kebab.

It’s also been put to me this week that apartment arisings in the inner west – including those of the multi-storey kind on the banks of the Maribyrnong, but also others of less magnitude – are creating an instant population with disposable income (some of the DINK variety) ready to burn on flash eating and perhaps even fine dining.

The inner west may get there some day – and maybe quite soon.

But not yet.

See you at Harley & Rose?

Could do!

But we’d need to see the menu – and prices – first.

Maximum yums

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Blackwood Ridge Cafe & Larder, 812 Greenhills Road, Blackwood. Phone: 5368 6707

There are many interesting eating experiences to be had in the more outlying and rural areas beyond Melbourne’s western suburbs, but CTS has only, over the years, fitfully explored them.

Honestly, most often the greater west seems quite vast enough for us.

But sometimes, things simply click.

In this case, a pal (Hi dale!) posts online some pics of her family’s up-country Saturday lunch – and we are intrigued and excited.

A quick check of the calendar, and we realise a Sunday adventure is definitely on.

We have a full tank of petrol and all current bills are paid – meaning there’s a little wriggle room for something a little more upmarket and extravagant than our regular cheap-eats routine.

So, next morning, off we go!

Along the West Gate, on to the ring road and up the Western Highway … past Bacchus Marsh and Myrniong, turn right.

Into the hills and eventually the depths of Lerderderg State Park.

The gravel-roaded approach to our eating destination is through dense forest, leading me to envisage our lunch may be of the log cabin variety.

But no … the trees eventually give way to a more trimmed and tidy rural scene, with Blackwood Ridge Cafe & Larder, and the associated nursery, tucked into what appears to be a small village.

 

 

The cafe itself is in a modern but cosy building off from the nursery, surrounded by lovely gardens and looking out on to a small lake or dam.

We’re hungry, so waste no time getting into the menu, despite being a bit early.

The menu, no surprise, is cafe-style tucker split into a range of small share plates, two larger share items and a handful of desserts.

 

 

Twice-cooked wedges of potato with herbed mayo ($10.50) are fine and very hot.

The serve eats bigger than it looks – a recurring theme.

 

 

A pet CTS dislike are those dodgy and dull Turkish rolls served in so many cafes.

So I am delighted to learn the Turkish bread listed online as accompanying the shared braised, spiced meatball dish ($29.50) has been replaced by couscous.

All is very good.

The half-dozen meatballs are chewy and fragrant, and – again – offer more substantial eating than appears may be the case.

The currant-studded couscous is marvelllous, as are the salad offerings and the rich, sticky tomato sauce.

 

 

I’m not sure, at all, how my son became such an ardent lover of vegetables and salads.

It’s unreal and wonderful – sometimes he gazes upon a serve of veg with something that appears to be akin to lust.

Such is the case with our blackened carrots  ($12.90), which are an undoubted highlight of our meal.

The baby carrots, in a variety of colours and textures, are served with nigella and sunflowers seeds, and topped with coriander and tahini labneh, all lubricated by honey.

 

 

By this time, we are feeling well fed and pampered indeed, and seriously throttling back our plans for dual desserts to a single.

But what the hey – it’ splash-out time, and it could be a long while until we’re back this way again.

So two it is.

And they’re both puds.

Parsnip pudding ($13.9) has real-deal parsnip flavour to go with its ginger, currants and spices.

It’s served with vanilla crème anglaise and “our own lemon thyme and creme fraiche ice-cream”.

This is the stuff of sweet dreams, the only slight drawback – and the only one of entire meal – being that the ice-cream is rock hard, requiring at first some rather robust chiselling.

 

 

Brioche bread and butter pudding ($14.50) is every bit as good, served with candied blood orange, manuka honey crunch, mandarin crisps and almond praline.

This pair of wonders, and a couple of good cafe lattes, cap off a superb meal in a wonderful setting.

A few months back, after a similarly ritzy meal, Bennie opined that not only did he not really rate “expensive food” but he also thought it money not well spent.

As we depart Blackwood Ridge Cafe & Larder, he’s having some serious second thoughts about that line of thinking.

(And not that this place is expensive, either!)

We recommend a road trip outing to Blackwood very, very highly.

Check out the Blackwood Ridge Cafe & Larder website, including menu, here.

 

Amazing vegan

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Jack B. Nimble, 132 Mitchell Street, Maribyrnong. Phone: 9317 9792

Here’s a new CTS hobby – finding flash food in cafes, especially when it’s way cheaper than in more formal settings, let alone a fine dining context.

It goes – sometimes, but not always – with chefs opting out of the rat race of high-falutin’ dining for a more manageable lifestyle.

Punters may have to sleuth among the eggs a gazillion ways and smashed avo, but the effort is often worth it.

We had some grand luck in this regard recently at Small Graces in Footscray.

Jack B. Nimble?

Well, truth be told it had somewhat moved out of our radar coverage since our initial review soon after its opening.

But in one of the wonderful ways in which social media – often maligned – can enhance our lives, I became a while back FB buddies with one of Jack B. Nimble crew.

Consequently, I was entranced by the photos she was posting of the dishes being created there.

“Hmmm,” thought I. “That looks fabulous.”

“Oh boy,” surmised I. “Time for a return visit!”

So Bennie and I did just that.

 

 

My choice (top photo) – and, yes, it was one of the photos I’d seen on FB as posted by Jack B. Nimble chef Deb – is a medley of mushrooms on cauliflower rice with grilled pepper romesco, sesame, spiced pepitas and soy bean crisp ($17).

Forget the vegan nature of the dish, the price tag and the cafe setting – this is amazing.

The cauliflower rice – made, I’m told, by simply whizzing some raw cauliflower and tempering it with some sugar and salt – is a fabulous bed for the various fungi.

And the mushies – including what look like discs of spud in the photo and on the plate – are superb, mostly still firm, lightly fried, full of flavour.

Deb tells me that “sesame oil makes anything taste good” – but I’m not buying it.

There’s some profound cooking smarts going on here.

Some fine greens and just the right amount of that romesco sauce complete the picture of fantastic dish.

 

 

Bennie’s pick – southern fried chicken burger ($17) – also hits the spot.

It’s served on non-brioche roll – I can hear the cheers about that from some quarters.

The chicken is well fried and accompanied by chipotle aioli, cheese, lettuce and tomato.

On the side is fine slaw – something we always appreciate.

Deb tells me the Jack B. Nimble menu is destined for a soon-come spring freshen-up.

But almost certainly the mushroom medley will remain – after all, it is her mum’s fave dish on the menu.

Thai street food excellence

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Dodee Paidang Thai Street Food, Bar And Cafe, Basement, 353 Little Collins St, Melbourne. Phone: 9602 4968

This place could hardly be any more Melbourne – down a CBD laneway AND in the basement.

It’s also destined to be a smash hit.

Nat and I have made it soon after opening hour on opening day and we’re joined by many similarly enthusiastic in-the-know food fans.

Dodee Paidang is a very welcome Melbourne outpost of a Sydney operation that already boasts three outlets – see website and menus here.

Here you’ll find all your usual Thai staples as found in eateries across Australia – pad thai, satays and so on.

But if that’s the sort of thing you want, you may as well stay closer to home.

 

 

Because the main action here not on the orthodox menu, but instead on the big street food menu.

One one side are a range of “soft-boiled rice with spicy soup” offerings.

Nat – far more of an expert on real-deal Thai food than I – tells me these are something like a cross between a regular rice dish and congee.

They sound intriguing!

They sound great!

But they’ll have to await another visit.

We both go for variations on the theme paraded on the other side of the street food menu – noodle soups.

There’s a choice of seven different types of noodles and many different options when it comes to other protagonists.

 

 

My own “Super MaMa” (jumbo, seen here, $16, regular $8.50) is a treasure festooned with crisp shards of wonton pastry.

Built on a base of squiggly wheat noodles, my super soup contains some good-quality seafood (calamari, prawns and a couple of fish pieces – I don’t inquire as to the species of the latter).

There’s some greenery, too.

But the main thing here is the broth.

Nat tells me our meals are pretty much exactly like what he’s enjoyed on – yes! – the streets of Thailand.

The broth is tom yum – but not as is served in most Thai restaurants in Australia.

This is less heavy on the lemongrass; it’s nicely sweet and has a citrus vibe going on.

And – this is the best bit – the flavours merge and improve and become more intense as I consume, so the last couple of mouthfuls are the highlight.

 

 

Nat goes for a meaty dish with rice noodles and is equally happy.

His regular Do Dee Variety – tom yum noodle with combination meat – costs a profoundly cheap $7.50.

In there are two kinds of balls, meat and seafood, as well as chicken and pork.

 

 

Just for variety’s sake, we get a couple of moo ping pork skewers ($3 each).

I reckon they’re ace; Nat’s verdict is that they lack the desired, smoke, chargrill flavour.

But … that’s a minor quibble.

We suggest you hustle down to Dodee Paidang with haste.

And before the hordes drawn by the inevitable coverage in the likes of Broadsheet descend.

 

Nat Stockley and CTS with Dodee Paidang boss Mon on opening day.

 

Knockout burgers

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Maple Leaf Meats, Yarraville Gardens

The initial buzz that attended the arrival of food trucks in the west has long since faded.

Trucks still park at Yarraville Gardens and elsewhere, but they have become for us – and no doubt others – just one of many eating scenarios.

For this Saturday lunch, our post-kung fu, food-seeking rambling finds us parking and intent on doing the “truck thing” for the first time in a long while.

We do really, really good.

 

 

After perusing the line-up of vehicular vittles on offer, we opt – for no great reason and with only modest expectations – for Maple Leaf Meats and their cool, old-school truck/caravan.

I say modest expectations because part of our general disinclination to have any truck with this style of food comes down to quite a few disappointments of the mediocre and over-priced food variety.

The Maple Leaf Meats crew goes a long way towards restoring our faith in food trucks and what they offer.

The menu (see below) runs to barbecue offerings such as ribs and wings, but we’re not up for that kind of full-on meatiness or expense (in the case of the ribs), so opt for the burger route.

 

 

My Maple Leaf Burger ($14) is a very fine production with its cheese, pickles, tomato, lettuce and chipotle mayo.

Had I been paying more attention, and not in such a hungry hurry, I may have noted the presence of caramelised onion and therefore opted for another burger selection, caramelised onions being another offering we often find very disappointing and dull.

Here, though, they’re fine – a plus on what is already a fine burger.

Best of all, the patty is of robust and delicious beefiness.

 

 

Bennie does even better with his Smoked Meat Burger ($15).

In addition to the routine fillings, including in this case mustard, this winner comes with “Montreal smoked meat”.

This turns out to be pastrami, which – we’re told – is a Montreal specialty.

But this is not just pastrami – it’s Really Good Pastrami and there’s heaps of it.

This is not merely a matter of the sort of flavour tingle that a rasher of bacon gives to a burger.

So profound is the smoked meat’s impact that it’s more about creating something wholly new and different.

Bennie loves it.

 

 

In tune with the rest of our meal, the small serve of chips ($5) is excellent – each and every one is hot and crisp.

The best part of an hour later, we’re pretty much in Werribee and getting on with our day.

After a longish period of silent grooving to the car music, out of nowhere Bennie emphatically opines:

“Man, that was a good burger!”

 

A Somalian wonder

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#Somali Eats, 333 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 9042 6682

The latest Somalian eatery to grace Racecourse Road is fabulous.

Husband-and-wife team Abdi Mohamed and Amran Sean have crafted a thoroughly gorgeous cafe-style restaurant, with heaps of lovely wood and exposed brick.

The welcome is just as cheerful and welcoming as the surrounds.

All of which would count, perhaps, for very little if the food didn’t delight as equally.

It does.

It’s fully soulful Somalian tucker, beautifully cooked and at very, very low prices.

 

The CTS lads are pumped for Somalian lunch.

 

Bennie, Nat and I revel in a superb Saturday lunch.

The #Somali Eats menu (see below) offers a lot more variety than most of its neighbours.

Gosh, there’s even a hamburger!

And there’s a handful of house-made desserts.

But I quickly ascertain that two key elements of Somalian food are on offer – the bananas served with main dishes and the soup.

They are.

Our excitement levels soar.

 

 

The soup is a very fine variation on a familiar theme – almost no vegetable matter of any kind here; just tangy, awesome broth.

(The fiery green chilli sauce is served at every stage of our meal, but we use it only on our rice.)

 

 

Despite the depth of the menu, the truth is – going by what we witness during our lunch visit – about 90 per cent of #Somali Eats’ customers order the same thing.

That being the standard meat ‘n’ rice plate.

It’s pretty much to Somalians what pho is to the Vietnamese.

So that’s what Nat and I do, too, choosing the lamb option.

It comes in $10 and $13 versions.

Ours, of the bigger kind, are perfect in every way.

Here be perfect, epic Somalian rice, seasoned with cumin, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, with currants and slices of fried onion, carrot and capsicum threaded through.

The plentiful meat, nicely browned, sums the art of Somalian cooking – the elevation of cheaper cuts into something akin to high art that is nevertheless earthy, simple and delicious.

Who needs lamb cutlets?

The salady bits are better – crunchier and fresher – than they appear to be at first glance.

 

 

Bennie opts for a $13 serving of basto, the pasta equivalent.

He digs it plenty and cleans his plate with gusto.

I note that the tomato sauce is a lot wetter than we’ve routinely had elsewhere in this neighbourhood.

 

 

We’d started with a serve of bajeyo (four for $3).

Described as falafel, these are very different from the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare of the same name.

Made from ground back-eyed peas, these – with their spongy texture – are more like the vadas of South India.

Still, deep-fried with skill, they a very nice.

We’ve arrived very much not in freeloading food blogger mode – not that we ever are.

So when Amran extends to us the previous day’s offer – “free lunch” to celebrate the joint’s opening day – it is unexpected.

We accept this gracious offer with thanks – but only with the understanding this non-payment will be the last of its kind.

At these prices, why wouldn’t we want to pay?

From the perspective of the usual CTS criteria, #Somali Eats could be described as the perfect restaurant.