God, what a cool cafe

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Apollo Cafe, 109-111 Hawke Street, West Melbourne. Phone: 9329 0990

What an intriguing neighbourhood is West Melbourne – with its haphazard mix of small worker cottages, more stately two-storey homes, old warehouses and, inevitably, some new apartment action going on.

For all that it is tucked away, if you live here … the inaccurately named North Melbourne station is your rail stop and, with a bit of a walk, Vic Market is your local shopping.

And, of course, CTS is happy to bestow upon West Melbourne honourary western suburbs status.

You know it makes sense – just look at a map!

Melburnbians of all stripes and locations should be grateful that West Melbourne has pottered along at its own pace while other locales that rub shoulders with the CBD – Fitzroy and Carlton in particular – have changed so much.

But the modern world is catching up with this backwater – at that means, among other things, more places are opening that seek to fulfill the eat-drink needs of locals.

Among them is Apollo Cafe.

It’s housed an ancient, gorgeous old building that’s been owned and operated by the same family for more than a century.

The most famous of its residents was the Mighty Young Apollo, Paul Anderson, whose name adorns the building to this day.

The cafe is run by wife-and-husband team Cassie and Russ, formerly of Carter Smith Devlin and Co in Williamstown.

Their punt to stay open all Easter appears to have paid off, as on the sunny, lovely Monday we visit, the joint is jumping.

Earlier in the day, I had spotted the day’s special on Facebook – lamb shoulder with mashed potato, roasted carrots and snow peas ($23) – and dutifully issued a mental memo to myself: “Mmmmm – that’ll do me!”

And so it does – it’s all excellent.

About 80 per cent or more of the lamb CTS eats these days comes from Somalian eateries, the rest from various Mid-East places.

So the Apollo lamb is, by contrast, austere in terms of seasoning.

But that lets the flavour of the wonderfully tender meat fully star.

Mashed potato at our place means rough-chopped spuds – real rough, more like what is called potato salad in some parts of the US.

Seasoning? Just salt, pepper and a dollop or two of olive oil while the potato is still steaming, blistering hot.

So the mashed potato that accompanies my lamb shoulder is another contrast – an enjoyable one, though not something I’d want to do too often.

This is smooth, rich mashed spud that is enlivened texture-wise by a scattered handful of roasted hazelnuts.

Is the $20 cafe burger a “thing”?

Yeah, we reckon so.

And the Apollo Cafe version is sooper dooper exemplar of its type, so much so that Bennie – whose burger it is – and his father happily concede that the above photo simply does not do it justice.

Its simplicity – beef, cheese, a couple of onion rings, bacon, lettuce – lets the sublime, high-quality flavours flow.

It’s a lot heftier than the above picture suggests and the chips are excellent.

During an earlier visit, as guests of management (see full disclosure below), Bennie revels in the beef meatballs on creamy truffle polenta with tomato-basil sauce, and shaved parmesan ($19).

It’s both sophisticated and rustic – and Bennie wipes the bowl whitely clean.

Not being so hungry, I order the poached chicken sandwich with truffle duxelle, which is normally served with eggs benedict and vintage cheddar for $18.

It’s all fine and fresh, though in hindsight I overtly envy my son’s meatballs!

On both our visits, our coffees have been perfect, hot and strong.

Check out the Apollo Cafe website here.

(For the first of two visits, Consider The Sauce dined at Apollo Cafe as guests of the management and we did not pay for our meals. We ordered whatever we wanted. Apollo Cafe management neither sought nor was granted any input, oversight or pre-publication access to his story.)

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.

Right on time @ Braybrook

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Braybrook Stn, Shop 23, 65-67 Ashley Street, Braybrook. Phone: 9005 1977

Central West shopping centre, perched on Ashley Street, has long seemed to struggle to build a character of its own.

Along with a couple of supermarkets, it has a variety of servicable traders.

But there often seems to be a revolving cast of empty shops, both in the centre proper and in the surrounding hub.

So even as the parking lot invariably seems quite full, there never seems to anything particularly memorable about the whole place.

And – until now – that has been true, too, for the food situation there.

But this fine new cafe is most worthy of being a food destination.

 

 

Apparently run by the same folks who operate a similarly titled establishment in Northcote, Braybrook Stn is offering casual cafe dining that is classy and affordable.

The menu (see below) runs through breakfast and lunch, with some dishes easily capable of doing duty as both.

Wasabi milk chicken soba noodles ($18, top photograph) are rather spectacular and delicious in every way.

If the “soba” nomenclature and pickle signal Japanese origins, the dish also sports something of a green curry vibe suggesting another Asian country.

There’s plentiful amounts of tender sliced chicken and broccolini in there, along with green onion, ginger and turmeric.

My suspicions about the wisdom of adding of poached egg to such a bowl are wiped out in dramatic fashion by the perfect “poachie”.

It all works and has nice-and-mild spice kick!

 

 

Orecchiette ($17) works just fine as a warm salad kind of dish.

The asparagus and broad beans are wonderful, with cherry toms providing random blasts of sweetness and contrast, with mint and chilli assisting.

It’s a very dry dish – with nary a trace of the menu-listed salsa verde – that is nonetheless a light delight.

My cafe latte is on the strong side and of the top grade.

According the joint’s Facebook page, Braybrook Stn is open on Thursday and Friday nights; it is also on Uber Eats.

 

Nice to meet CTS reader Viv and her pals, looking oh-so-chic despite lunching straight after their Sunday run.

 

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.

 

Pub ribs rock

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Commercial Hotel, 111 Watton Street, Werribee. Phone: 9741 2322

Tootling down Watton Street looking for a carpark, I am bemused.

But not nearly as bemused as Bennie and Deb, his mum.

At issue is the nature of our destination – seemingly the sort of pub that would normally struggle, and fail, to gain the attention of CTS.

A confession: I have been seduced by the nice Facebook pictures of the Commercial Hotel’s food, these featuring occasionally in my feed because of the joint’s links with the Werribee Bears rugby league outfit.

I’m not diehard fan of the club, but did venture down there for a couple of games last season.

Even if the pub at hand would normally fall out side CTS paramters, we are – as ever – upbeat and hopeful.

Truth is, had I twigged the Commercial is a pokies venue, this adventure almost certainly would have been stillborn.

Happily, the pokies are well away from the dining room – out of sight, out of earshot and out of mind.

That leaves us to happily enjoy the old-school ambiance.

The Commercial’s dining room feels – from the carpet up – just like a country pub.

As we expect, the menu (see below) is studded with the sorts of dishes routinely found in such places.

But there’s a few nice wrinkles in there, too.

 

 

Deb goes the roast pork dinner ($13).

It’s a beauty, with a heap of good vegetables and more than enough highly porky and nicely cooked meat.

She loves it; the plate is clean when she’s done.

Not just a fine roast dinner, but a bargain as well.

 

 

For Bennie, it’s the pulled pork burger ($20), which tastes a lot better than it photographs.

Oddly (perhaps even weirdly), the pulled meat appears to have been formed into a pattie.

It tastes good to me and he enjoys it.

But it’s fair to say Bennie has just about had it with pulled meat of any kind in burgers; me, I’ve had it with pulled pork period.

So often so mediocre!

 

 

It’s a subjective judgment, but for me the stars of our collective choosing are my BBQ baby back ribs ($33).

There’s two good-size rack pieces in there.

The meat is tasty and tender, and comes from the bones with ease.

I know there’s people out there, for whom gnaw is the desired and happy norm, who will think that no recommendation at all.

Still, for me this is a fine BBQ meal, the pricing of which can put some of the specialist BBQ joints in the shade.

The ribs are handily abetted by a fine slaw.

Really, the only disappointment of our Commercial outing is the chips Bennie and I are provided.

They’re OK – but also under-done and under-salted.

Check out the Commercial Hotel website here.

 

Joyfully juicy

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Bird & Burger, 9 Napier Street, Essendon. Phone: 9090 7265

Bird & Burger lives in a premises long previously occupied by a similar operation with different management.

But this new lot are doing more than maintaining the location’s chicken shop tradition – they’re doing so splendidly.

Here be fast food that really is fresh and delicious.

 

 

The interior is mostly black and white, with eat-in seating options down to stools and a bench on one wall and a handful of snazzy ottomans facing the front window and another bench.

There are, however, tall tables and more stools outside.

 

My heart sinks a little when I see the plastic cutlery atop one of counters, fearing these useless tool may be served with my chicken.

But no!

Not only am I supplied with metal cutlery, my meal is presented on a black platter, with chips and coleslaw in similarly angular bowls.

It all looks marvellous.

Tastes that way, too.

The chips ($3.95) are hot, liberally salted and fine.

The admission price of $6.50 for my coleslaw seems, at first blush, a little steep for what I’m thinking is just a side dish to a chicken meal.

But here’s the thing – it is worth every cent.

In fact, I’ll call it right here and now – this is quite possibly the best coleslaw I’ve ever had in a chook shop.

Made mostly of red cabbage, and boasting subtle whiffs of tarragon and dill, it is well dressed without being sopping, has crunch yet is pliable – and is 100 per cent wonderful.

My chicken falls into the “Yes, It Can Be Done” category.

That’s right – even the very heart of the breast meat is as juicy as the rest of it.

My half bird ($10.50) is marinated in the mild chilli sauce that is chosen from a list that also includes lemon and herbs, crunchy creamed peanut and outback BBQ.

All is beaut and succulent.

 

 

The classic beef burger ($12.50) comes from a menu that includes two other beef burgers, five chicken burgers and a lamb edition.

Our burger’s lettuce, tomato, red onion, tomato relish and herb aioli are joined – upon request – by excellent bacon for which no charge is levied.

The beef patty is nicely charry and superbly seasoned with – I’m guessing here, as the staff mumble something about “top secret” when quizzed – oregano and other goodies.

Every aspect of this burger is an outright winner.

If CTS used points, I’d deduct one for the fact that this burger is such a gloriously messy handful that I resort, in the end, to eating it with a knife and fork.

But in this case, I care not because everything is just so damn tasty.

Bird & Burger is a fine establishment.

CTS metaphorically clicks its heels as it saunters back to the car.

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!”