Wow.

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Small Graces, 57 Byron Street, Footscray. Phone: 9912 6429

The burned-out shell of Little Saigon Market casts rather a glum metaphorical shadow across Footscray central, so we love it that Small Graces and some of its neighbours are mounting a fightback by bringing life and sunshine to Byron Street and surrounds.

We enjoyed our debut meal there last year and have returned several times since – mainly for salad hits.

So we definitely pay attention when informed a dinner service is being launched.

Not only that – we are invited to try it out (see full disclosure below).

Thus it is with keen anticipation and high expectations that Bennie and I front up for dinner.

Here is the brutal CTS call: Our expectations are not met.

Instead, they are exceeded in grand and delicious style.

Really.

Just about everything we try from a brilliantly chosen selection from the deep dinner menu (see below) is a righteous hit, with a few provisos noted below.

A salad of beets, grapefruit, radicchio, hazelnuts and goats cheese (top photo, $14) is enjoyed by us both, but especially by Salad Boy Bennie.

La Hoguera jamon serrano and garlic-fennel salami are wonderful and served with pickles.

They come with …

… luscious warmed olives and …

… inhalable chargrilled bread.

Carrots, salsa of carrot tops, pecorino pepato and seeds ($13) are a sublime veg offering.

Squid ink croquette with gralic aiolo and sorrel/pea croquette with preserved lemon aioli ($4 each) are, for us, duds.

We have no problem with their striking ugiless.

But they are too salty – even for us, two lads who had expressed to Small Graces’ Bec our fondness, upon arrival, for salty restaurant food!

Also somewhat visually unappealing is this dish of cauliflower, currants, fermented grapes and macadamia nuts ($15).

But in this case the result is an intriguing winner.

This pile of lentils photographs as dull.

It’s not.

It’s one of the night’s high sensations.

Lentils, quince and mints ($12) are moist, succulent, rather sweet and a tremendous pulse dish the likes of which we’ve never before encountered.

And we’ve eaten a LOT of pulses.

And the vegetables keep coming.

Brussel sprouts, jerusalem artichokes and Manjimup truffle ($15) are al dente and a big hit with Kenny; Bennie, no so much.

Our evening’s sole outright meat hit comes from hanger steak, burnt onions and bearnaise ($20).

We adore that juicy meat and its onion foil.

The sauce is good, too – but we consider its richness a bit jarring and unnecessary.

There’s a handy list of desserts on the go for dinner here – including fabulous-sounding ricotta gnocchi.

Sadly, they will have to wait another night as the Socceroos and their date with destiny await, so we head for the door.

The inner west is blessed to have Small Graces doing its dinner thing.

It joins the likes of Jack B. Nimble and Cheeky Chewies Cafe in serving up flash food without vertiginous price tags or stuffiness.

And there’s a heap of dinner-time scope in which vegetarians can frolic.

There’s booze on hand at Small Graces, which is now open for dinner Thursdays-Saturdays.

CTS thanks Bec, Diego and their crew for taking care of us.

(Consider The Sauce dined at Small Graces as guests of the management and we did not pay for our meals. We were served a broad range of dishes from the joint’s new dinner menu. Small Graces management neither sought nor was granted any input, oversight or pre-publication access to his story.)

Vegan cafe shines

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One For The Crow, 9 Commercial Street, Maidstone. Phone: 0420 275 747

One For The Crow is located in a rather sleepy strip of shops – other than a cafe, there’s dance and martial arts operations and a few others more anonymous.

Its neighbourhood – in and around Dobson reserve – is itself rather sleepy.

And certainly not known for commercial activity of any kind.

But the west – inner, outer, inbetweener – is all changing so fast, so why not residential Maidstone for a cafe?

One For The Crow is vegan – though we are very happy to see regular milk available for coffee purposes.

And it is very, very kid-friendly.

It’s a lovely place, with a modest plant nursery going at the front and a handful of outdoor tables.

For all its vegan-ness, our menu (see below) choices are the sort of thing found in cafes all over.

 

 

My friends chooses the Thai curry veg pie ($6).

It is, of course, a Ka Pie – and it goes down a treat.

She likes the pasta-pesto-spinach salad ($5), too.

Though she is firmly of the opinion a sprinkling of crumbled feta would make it even better.

 

 

My waffle dish ($16) is good.

It comes with house-made nutella, maple syrup, caramelised banana and soy ice-cream.

 

 

A most excellent soba noodle bowl ($16) – enjoyed on a previous, reconnaissance visit – rather more reflects One For The Crow’s vegan credentials.

It’s packed with marinated tofu, broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts, spinach, pickled daikon and kimchi, and dressed with a tahini-miso concoction.

Every mouthful is a delight.

 

 

Our coffees are fine, too.

One For The Crow appears to have quickly made itself an indispensable and treasured part of its community.

The locals have every reason to be stoked.

 

Sanger champs

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Butcher 128, 128 Roberts Street, Yarraville. Phone: 9318 0975

Yarraville is a big suburb.

For several reasons, much focus falls on the maze-like collection of streets in and around Anderson and Ballarat.

But Yarraville stretches a long way towards Geelong – well, to Cemetery Road anyway.

And certainly to Roberts Road, where Butcher 128 is located.

Perhaps its far-flung location is why it’s been off our radar for so long.

Even now, it’s pure happenstance that takes Bennie and I there for a quick Sunday meal.

Much of the previous tenant’s infrastructure has been kept in place – hence the name – and combined with contemporary cafe gear.

There’s a beaut covered outdoor area and play space down the back.

It’s busy in the brunch/lunch peak hour, but the staff are smiling and efficient.

One side of the menu (see below) is mostly dedicated to breakfast fare; we mine the other.

Bennie’s The Meat Hook ($15.50, top photo) is superb.

Right from the first bite, he’s nodding in enthusiastic acclamation of its braised pork belly, BBQ, Sriracha mayo and cabbage/herb slaw.

My The Baron ($14) is just as good.

The house-made salted beef, tender and thinly sliced, is about an inch thick.

It’s joined by cabbage slaw, Swiss cheese, pickle and house mustard sauce.

The bread is the just the right light, perfectly toasted, to house it all.

There surely can be no matter better argument for positing “mere” sandwiches as bona fide meals than our 10/10 pair.

So impressed by the sandwich department, I return a few days later for a bowl dish from the breakfast side of things.

XO crab ($18) has egg noodles, a fried egg, crispy shallots, house XO sauce and a soft shell crab.

It’s a modest serve and a light meal.

And it’s very dry, though the sauce flavour is happily present.

Best of all is the soft shell crab – easily the best I have had.

Well, in Melbourne anyway.

It’s crisp and sweet, and thus a far cry from the drab specimens that have helped make us un-enamoured of this particular specialty.

Our coffees, over both visits, are crazy good.

Korean fried chicken and a whole lot more

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Be.K, 3/21 Edgewater Boulevard, Maribyrnong. Phone: 8596 4292

Be.K looks like the kind of cafe where you’ll get a good coffee and a decent breakfast.

Those are available, but as we discover – on a Saturday lunch visit for Bennie’s birthday – there’s much more going on here.

A glossy colour photo menu runs from ritzy breakfast dishes through to sangers, Korean fried chicken and on to luscious Asian desserts.

A simpler printed list has more breakfast items, a couple of burgers, ribs and tempura prawns.

 

 

The place is done out in simple cafe style and business is quite brisk – especially on the outside tables.

Notably, Be.K’s advertised opening hours are seven days a week – until 11.30pm.

 

 

Papaya salad with prawns is pricey at $20.90, but the quality is there.

The veg components are fresh and crunchy, the dressing tangy and the head-on prawns are a fresh-grilled delight.

 

 

Bennie enjoys his pulled pork burger, with chips and costing $17.90.

Served in a beetroot brioche bun, it’s generously stuffed with meat, slaw and pickled cucumber.

I’m surprised to hear him adjudge it a rather modest good, as – going by my taste – it’s definitely among the better versions we’ve had.

The chips are fine, but the chicken salt-style seasoning they’ve been daubed with is way too sweet for me.

 

 

Deb’s sanger is described as “Philly cheese steak sandwich” ($13.90) – fans of that American classic would no doubt be bemused.

But it work on its own terms, the thin-cut meat making it easy to eat and the onions and other veg, cut wok-style, are fine.

 

 

Of the four varieties of Korean fried chicken listed, we opt for the original.

We get five pieces in our half-chook serve ($16.50).

Oh boy, this is great stuff – simply terrific fried chicken, unoily, hot, perfectly cooked and moan-out-loud delicious.

Just as good are the accompanying house-made pickles of onion, celery and more.

A little sweet, not too sour and a whole heap of crunchy – excellent!

 

 

The birthday boy goes for it by ordering bingsu of the nutella banana variety.

His is the $10.90 small rendition; there are medium and large versions available.

Blimey!

He loves the refreshing base of shaved milk ice.

But, yes, he pours the side serve of condensed milk right over the top right from the get-go.

 

 

His dessert is the very epitome of richness restraint when compared with the Vietnamese coffee tiramisu ($8.90).

With its dark chocolate and crunchy granola (at first I thought it was pecans), this would puzzle tiramisu purists.

But we reckon it is sinfully, explosively awesome.

We’ve had a fine time that has been in no way diminished by a certain degree of distraction in the service department.

But we are a little bemused …

No fault in two of our initial choices being unavailable. If anything, that’s a good sign indicating brisk turnover – and it meant we end up ordering the fried chicken, and that turned out to be a very fine thing.

But my coffee is brought to a table covered – really covered – with chicken bones, empty receptacles and soiled serviettes.

My sincere question about the precise nature of the vegetables used in the wonderful pickles is met with stony-faced recalcitrance.

More broadly, despite there being what appears to be half a soccer team of staff scurrying around the place, we do find it difficult a few times to make eye contact or attract attention, even resorting to raised hands and waving arms before approaching the counter.

Yarraville cafe tastes fine

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Mantra Studio Kitchen and Bar, 10A Campbell Street, Yarraville. Phone: 0419 329 936

The location and setting of Mantra is both a surprise and just right: In a light industrial enclave way over in the Yarraville back waters near Francis and Hyde.

Inside, the warehouse has undergone a gorgeous cafe transformation.

There’s lots of space, high ceilings and plenty of room to grow.

Which makes me think that Mantra will continue evolving to become something of a multi-faceted community asset.

In the meantime, there is food.

Very lovely food.

The menu (see below) runs to breakfast items such as sweet corn fritters, breakfast ramen and jasmine rice pudding.

Lunch choices range from a falafel burger to what sounds like a delectable salad of heirloom carrots, beetroot hummus, dukkah and sweet potato.

CTS visits twice within a couple of days and has a swell time lunching.

The service is cheerful and efficient and the wait times good.

 

 

Visiting on my own for reconnaissance purposes, I go with the wagyu burger with chilli relish, cos lettuce, tomato, baco and fries ($24).

Now, $24 is quite a lot to pay for a cafe burger in these parts.

On the other hand, this is a terrific specimen of the burger art.

Simplicity is a virtue here.

It’s a two-fisted joy, juicy and redolent somehow of Middle Eastern seasoning.

The chips are good, though those on the outer reaches of the mound are barely luke warm and the rest could be hotter, too.

 

 

For a return visit of the family Sunday lunch kind, Deb gets the same burger with an equally agreeable outcome.

Here, though, she substitutes the regular fries with crumbed eggplant chips.

They are superb.

And hot.

 

 

I’ve already seen enough – and eaten enough – to rather wish the “poke bowl” fad fades away with some haste, seeing as it widely seems to be an excuse for slopping mediocre ingredients in a bowl and charging richly for it.

The Mantra Bowl ($18), by contrast, shows how it should be done and how good such an offering can be.

The ingredients are top-shelf in every way and – just as importantly for this kind of meal – they are beautifully arranged in the bowl with skill and talent.

Rice ‘n’ black beans, heaps of robustly crunchy pickled cabbage, several kinds of mushroom, bean sprouts, tender asparagus – and even a trans-national touch through brown baba ganoush and flatbread: All wonderful, alone and/or together.

 

 

Bennie muchly enjoys his BBQ duck waffle with mango chutney, lychee gel and grilled asparagus ($23).

The meat is juicy yet nicely chewy, though it seems to me his meal would benefit from a greater sauce/liquid component.

He disagrees.

Apart from the  breakfast and lunch routines, Mantra is already happily experimenting with Friday evening events of the “beer and dumpling” and “beer and sliders” variety.

There is some parking available right outside the cafe, while the surrounding streets are subject to time limits.

Be careful!

Check out the Mantra website here.

 

Small cafe, big (happy) surprise

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Small Graces, 57 Byron Street, Footscray. Phone: 9912 6429

Sometimes a stroll around the vicinity of the sadly burnt-out Little Saigon Market can present a rather glum prospect.

On a grey, chilly mid-week noon hour, for instance.

My understanding is that the post-fire wheels of bureaucracy are grinding ever so slowly towards a resolution.

But in Footscray, there is always life – and always new life.

The new carparking building has arisen and on its ground floor are several businesses already – a chemist; a hairdresser and (supposedly) a Huxtaburger outlet to come; in an adjacent edifice, a cult tea shop outside which I have already twice seen queues.

And there is Small Graces, a lovely cafe that IS small but BIG on heart.

In the normal turn of events, this place would register on CTS as a place for coffee and perhaps coverage in a westie eats goss story, but probably not much more.

But an approach by Small Graces proprietors Rebecca and Diego changes all that.

Yes, we’d like to take your place for a spin (see full disclosure below).

So it is that sometime CTS correspondent Erika, her son Hugh (both very near neighbours of the joint) and I arrive for a mid-week lunch.

We are knocked out.

 

 

Small Graces is a cosy place and the staff are smilingly friendly and obliging.

The compact menu ranges through the usual eggy outings, soup and blackboard salads through to display sangers and gorgeous-looking house-made sweets.

But our eyes are immediately drawn to the “sides” section of the food list.

Here there be treasure.

We are permitted, nay encouraged, to treat these as a sort of tapas/antipasto option – so we do!

 

 

How good is this?

Clockwise from top (all items clocking in at about $5):

Smashed avo with almond feta and dukkah.

Halloumi, baharat, honey and walnuts.

Chicken, adobo, chicken salt.

Two kinds of pickle – red cabbage and a kimchi-like mix involving carrot.

Slow-cooked pork neck with crackling crumbs.

The first two items here listed are these days, of course, standard cafe fare, but they are rarely presented with this sort of finesse.

The chicken thigh pieces and the sliced pork are miracles of deft seasoning and juiciness.

At first I had thought this light yet fabulously yum spread would need some bread or the like, but …

 

 

… these seriously sexy spuds with garlic and rosemary with lemon mayo on the side ($6) add just the right degree of heft to our meal.

 

 

Meanwhile, a salad of caramelised beetroot with black lentils, almond feta and dill ($8) continues the flow of fresh flavours.

 

 

Young Hugh enjoys his toast with what appears to be a very fine strawberry jam ($6).

 

 

With our fine coffees, Erika and I enjoy this mega-rich caramel slice ($5) – in this case, a smallish portion is a blessing.

More and bigger would be TOO much.

 

 

Then there’s this equally accomplished lemon curd cheesecake ($6.50) of the non-baked variety.

Our very vocal enthusiasm for the “sides” transformed into a main attraction pecking plate could, I suspect, see these items (there are several more we didn’t try) elevated in status beyond mere add-ons.

The food has been outstanding – more like your top-notch casual dining standard.

But even if that doesn’t transpire, we recommend them heartily.

As we do Small Graces in general.

(Consider The Sauce dined at Small Graces as guests of management. No money changed hands. Our food was chosen by CTS. Small Graces management did not seek any editorial input into this story.)

 

Fig & Walnut – winter menu

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Fig & Walnut, 11-13 Bellairs Avenue, Seddon. Phone: 0433 574 194

Since its early days, covered by us here, one of the loveliest things to observe about Fig & Walnut in Seddon is what a relaxed and lovely retreat it has become.

It all fits with relaxing ease – including the superb garden area outside.

Fig & Walnut has become one of our regulars, for coffee mostly and sweet treats, with the occasional more hefty meal included.

So we’re only too happy to accept Vera’s invitation (see full disclosure below) to take her new menu for a spin.

 

 

New menu?

Perversely, I ignore it and go for one of the revolving specials – Brazilian seafood soup ($17, top photo).

With its sprigs of coriander, I firstly think this going to be a dish with an Asian bent.

But, no, this seems firmly in the Mediterranean mold despite its South American attribution.

The sensational foundation is a tomato-based broth that is extremely deep in flavour – it’s simply brilliant.

In it are blobs of fresh tomato and red capsicum.

In it, too, is generous bounty of seafood – medium-size prawns of superb, large-size flavour; pipis and mussels; and several nice chunks of barramdundi.

This is high-quality seafood cooking, especially given the price.

 

 

Danya’s vegan bowl ($19) is a bit of an odd choice for us, but we like it a lot anyway.

Somehow, the apparently disparate ingredients come together to create a satisfying whole.

At its base are a heap of cold noodle and a fine house-made satay sauce, abetted by bok choy and eggplant.

Even the pumpkin, normally a no-go area for us, plays a handy role by being so tender that it seems to become part of an extended dressing/sauce, with chilli shavings adding just the right amount of zing.

 

 

Rob is plenty happy with his crushed avo with Meredith goat’s cheese, pomegranate syrup, toasted seeds and two perfectly cooked poached eggs ($19).

It’s a fine variation on a theme that shows no signs whatsoever of fading from the cafe scene.

 

 

Fig & Walnut is a sweet treat haven, though it takes a different tack to most places by putting the accent on an oft-changing range of smaller offerings instead of a line-up of regular cakes.

For example, these almond crescents.

We’ve all had them before – but rarely are they of such crumbly freshness and lemon-scented joy.

(Consider The Sauce dined at Fig & Walnut as guests of management. No money changed hands. Our food was a mix of items chosen by management and mains chosen by CTS and guests. Fig & Walnut management did not seek any editorial input into this story.)