Lebanese heaven aboard the Starship Riviera

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Riviera Cafe & Restaurant, 55 Cumberland Drive, Maribyrnong. Phone: 9317 5534

The beautifully located, enormous restaurant room at Edgewater’s Lakehouse had been empty and unloved for so long that we’d pretty much lost interest in checking up on the place to see if there’d been any activity.

But then, after a hamburger meal further up the hill, I recently swung by once more – and got quite a surprise.

Wow – the place looked like it was all set up and ready to roll.

After parking, in I went – with more surprises awaiting.

The place looks a million bucks!

But it was deserted at a Sunday lunch hour, save for a couple of nattily-dressed waiters.

A greater surprise came upon perusal of the menu (see below).

For Riviera is serving traditional Lebanese food – and not just your dips and kebabs, either, but rather the entire restaurant routine.

Still, I found it easy to restrain my excitement.

I mean, how good could it be?

Full-on Lebanese food in a space that has often seemed like a combo of white elephant and black hole in the western suburbs food scene?

Best, thought I, to return that night by myself to check the food out first-hand before I started getting a group CTS hardliners together for a visit.

 

 

So return I did – and got the biggest surprise of all!

Early on a Sunday evening, Riviera was about half full – and in a room this big, that’s a handy number of people.

There were kids everywhere and going in all directions.

Also in evidence were a heap of hijabs, and there were even hookahs going at some tables.

So while Riviera, which has been going several months, may have – until now – flown under the radar of western suburbs food nuts, it seems the word is well and truly out among Melbourne’s Lebanese community.

And I took that as the best evidence possible – short of eating the food myself – that what is being served here is most excellent.

So it proved to be – my meal was very, very good within the limits of what a single soul can tackle.

On returning home, I hastily organised a CTS get-together and was happy that a bunch of enthusiasts were up for joining Bennie and I the following Sunday.

So thanks to Chris, Catherine, Nat, Justin and Will for doing CTS duty!

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This time around, we find the room rather sparsely populated – there’s a nifty video on the Riviera Facebook page of the place rocking a pretty much full house.

But the welcome and service are fine.

Even better, the food arrives with such speed that it may have startled us had we all not been in such a lather of happy anticipation to try it all.

For simplicity’s sake, we quickly come to a collective decision to go with banquet option No.1 at a cost of $35 a head for the six adults in our group.

It turns out to be a most memorable Lebanese feast.

It is all good, very good or outstanding.

Here’s what we had/inhaled:

(And please keep in mind that the dishes pictured here represent just half of what is brought to our table – except where noted, two of each dish are provided to us.)

 

 

Crisp, moreish pita chips.

 

 

Also wonderfully crisp – the commercial but delightful pickled cucumbers and turshi.

 

 

Excellent dips – hummus, labneh, baba ghannouj.

 

 

Fattoush.

 

 

Glorious chicken wings – perhaps THE hit of the night.

 

 

Chips – perfectly acceptable, but a little shy of the perfection I expect in such a setting.

 

 

Makanek – Lebanese-style lamb sausages.

Others enjoy these more than I – for me they’re a little too sweet and rich.

And with their dark red colouring, they remind me – somewhat bizarrely – of black pudding!

 

 

Kibbaybat – deep-fried pastries with a filling of lamb and pine kernels.

These, too, are sweetish – and also juicy and very good.

 

 

Excellent meat on sticks – shish tawouk and shish kafta as advertised on the menu, and shish kebab as a surprise.

 

 

A single, big serve of this simple dish of lamb chops on rice is an unannounced addition to our banquet line-up – and is the same dish I tried on my solo exploration the previous weekend.

At first, I suspect this is going to be largely ignored by our lot in favour of the more glam kebab meats at our table.

But, no, in the end we all give this more humble dish a pretty good crack as well.

With its fragrant rice studded with currants, peas, cashews and more serving as a bed for beautifully cooked meat, this reminds me very much of the sort of Somalian meat ‘n’ rice dishes found at places such as this.

But I suspect variations on this theme can be found right across North Africa and the Middle East.

 

 

Finally, our fabulous meal winds down with super slices of chilled watermelon.

Just right!

That Riviera is serving top-notch Lebanese food – at Edgewater’s Lakehouse, of all places – fills me with profound happiness.

There is nothing cutting-edge, hipster or fusionesque about the fare here – and nor would I want there to be.

We all vow to return – and soonish.

It’s an interesting indication of how a place like Riviera can exist and prosper on its own terms and within its own community, yet fly entirely under the radar in the wider world – it has no Zomato listing!

 

Vegan feast

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Mankoushe, 323 Lygon Street, Brunswick East. Phone: 9078 9223

It was only after the relatively recent discovery that Mankoushe had long since evolved from a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese-style pizza/pie shop to become a real, live bona fide restaurant that I ensured I was within their social media loop.

And it is only by doing that I find out they’ve been running semi-regular vegan feasts – and that another is scheduled very soon.

We – as in three members of Team CTS – are in!

 

 

A wild vegan spread of food under a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern spell sounds grand to us, especially at what sounds like a bargain price of $25 per person.

On the drive there from the west, we speculate about what a Middle Eastern vegan line-up may look like.

 

 

I have long believed that were I to move to a meat-free diet, then going largely or even wholly going the Middle Eastern route would be an obvious direction in which to move.

Such wonderful food!

 

 

But vegan?

That does make it a little trickier – no yogurt or cheese, just for starters.

 

 

So … lots of nuts, seeds and grains, we surmise.

Lots of “meaty” vegetables such as eggplant, cauliflower, beetroot and potato.

And that’s how it is – with a few twists along the way.

Including a wonderful and chewy kibbeh made of various nuts.

 

 

The food is not served to us in the multi-course fashion we may have been wishing and (secretly) hoping for.

Instead, two sharing platters are brought to our table laden with goodies laid out buffet-style at the back of the dining room.

When we’re done with them, another is brought – this time with our top picks from the previous serves and with a few things we missed out on first time round.

 

 

And we could’ve gone on from there, had we had any more room to fill.

The food is as we have been expecting – both in quantity and quality.

It is very, very good.

 

 

And if it’s been buffet-style rather than the out-and-out banquet the phrase “vegan feast” tends to suggest, $25 is still a bargain.

I’d be happy to do this again anytime.

 

Lebanese wow

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Teta Mona, 100A Lygon Street, Brunswick East. Phone: 9380 6680

We’ve successfully completed book shopping happiness in Carlton central.

But the parking restrictions and general madness drive us away in terms of lunching.

We’re thinking some of our fave haunts in upper Lygon – or even further afield in Pentridge Coburg – when inspiration strikes.

As Lygon bottlenecks at Weston Street, I recall pal Marcos recommending a Lebanese place situated pretty much right here.

He called it Lebanese Soul Food – or something like that.

We park and explore – and discover he’d got it mostly right.

The Place is called Teta Mona and “Lebanese Soul Food” is its sub-title.

 

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The business is set is a lovely, rambling old house with mighty pressed steel ceilings out front, a back room with photographs and a back garden.

 

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It’s out the back that I find Almaza, who is preparing chicken for that night’s tawook servings and from whom I get the lowdown on Teta Mona.

 

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The restaurant is named after her mum and run by her offspring, twins Beshara and Antoine and daughter Teresa. Her hubby, Gibran, figures in there somewhere, too!

Oh, yes, this is the sort of family business – with smiles and a genuine welcome in profound evidence – for which CTS lives!

 

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It’s been here a while, escaping our notice in an area we actively adore, but we’re very much in luck – lunch service started just a few days before our visit.

The lunch list is simple and very affordable.

Naturally, we go plates rather than wraps – and are delighted with what we are served.

This is the sort of top-notch Lebanese food that we leave the west searching for.

Much is familiar, all is very good or robustly excellent.

Just like the very similar fare we love getting at nearby Mankoushe and Moroccan Deli-cacy.

 

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Arnabeet ($16) is a dream of fried cauliflower with dukka, tomato, pickles, thyme potato and the pepper relish known as ajvar.

It’s all superb, but the big hit truly comes from the gorgeous slow-cooked potato.

 

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Lahem ($18) is slow-cooked lamb, chick peas topped with buttered almonds, tomato, cabbage and yogurt.

It, too, is very fine – but also has our one, single, minor quibble.

The lamb is so cooked down that it basically becomes a sauce for the chick peas – and thus is quite like the chick pea concoctions we get at various Indian establishments with cholle bhature, though with very different seasonings.

 

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Superb salads served with our dishes, and included in the pricing, are tabbouleh and …

 

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… fattoush.

 

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Upon inspecting the menu, we knew straight away this is a dessert-mandatory place – so on we forge!

Choco prince ($7) is a house-made cocoa and honey biscuit with wonderful cream, crushed pistachios and a fresh strawberry.

Very nice, it is.

 

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Rose crumble ($7) is equally delicious and simple – a rose water ice-cream topped with a semolina walnut cookie, another strawberry on the side.

CTS can get a bit sniffy about ice-cream not made on the premises.

But here, it’s as good as – made by a friendly wholesaler according to the family recipe.

A special word for our accompanying strawberries.

These are both so fruity, luscious, full of flavour and amazing, I’m simply not interested in eating a regular strawberry ever again.

How good is this place?

I even come away with a couple of CDs – one of Lebanese folk dancing music, the other of Lebanese classic pop hits from long ago.

 

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Home-style Lebanese – brilliant

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Mankoushe, 323 Lygon Street, Brunswick East. Phone: 9078 9223

Back in the early days of Consider The Sauce, we frequented on several occasions  a wonderful hole-in-the-wall cafe/bakery in Brunswick East that did a red-hot line Lebanese pizzas and pies.

In the several years since then, we have moved on to other things and places.

Since then, too, much has changed with Mankoushe.

A year or so after our story, a Mankoushe restaurant proper was opened right next door; and then about six months ago, the bakery was closed – though the restaurant still does those great pizzas ‘n’ pies, with the lunch menu dedicated to them.

You can check out the lunch and dinner menus at the Mankoushe website.

So it’s a mighty hoot to try the extended Mankoushe restaurant with CTS pal Marco.

 

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The verdict?

No kidding, this is brilliant Lebanese food at ridiculously affordable prices – a match and more for any of our favourite Coburg haunts and even fancy places such as Ablas.

Even better, the accent is very firmly on home-style cooking.

There’s just a single dish on the Mankoushe dinner menu that mentions the word “kebab” – and that’s an entree.

And there’s not a dip to be seen.

Mankoushe is an outright champion  for vegetarians, too – we almost go meatless ourselves, but are seduced by the meatiest of the three main courses.

It’s a busy Sunday night and we haven’t booked, so end up perched at the window bench right next to the door – but the food is so amazing, we care not.

Our various choices arrive with admirable promptness and the service of fine and friendly.

 

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House-made pickles ($5) are crunchy, of mild sourness and very good – jars of the various veg are on sale to take home.

 

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Stuffed vine leaves ($12) are warmed though, heavy on the lemon (yay!) and with just a touch of dill and chilli.

It’s a very generous serve for the price.

 

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Roasted cauliflower salad with minted yoghurt and sultanas ($10), one of three salad offerings, is another generous serve – so much so, we do not finish it off.

It’s gorgeous – and manages that neat trick, one we always admire, of being both a little crunchy and very pliable.

 

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One of our two mains (top photo) is purple turnip stuffed with, green peas, basmati rice and fresh herbs and topped with walnut tarator.

It appears to be of modest proportions for the $21 asking price – but as is so often the case, eats bigger than it looks.

The turnip lends a slightly bitter tang to proceedings, but there’s no doubting the quality and yumminess of the filling.

The walnut sauce is nice but is swamped by the tomato sauce in which our turnips reside.

 

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OMG, OMG, OMG – how good is this?

Wood-fired short lamb leg with chickpea dressing ($28) is another ripsnorting bargain – we’d expect pay an extra $10, $15, $20 or more for this in a flash eating house or pub.

And paying the equivalent of $14 each, we two eat till we metaphorically drop.

It really is amazing, the meat every bit of fall-apart tender and juicy as we could ever expect.

Dessert?

Two are listed – coffee and cardamom poached dates with labne ($8), and milk pudding with Iranian wild figs and sugar syrup ($11).

Based on our meal, I’m sure they’re awesome – but we have eaten so well and so much, they’ll have to wait for another visit.

Mankoushe is a Melbourne star, its prices and unassuming comfiness a stark and wonderful contrast to the excellence of the food.

Mankoushe is a cash-only establishment.

Flaming Tarneit

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Flames Charcoal Chicken, 14 Lavinia Drive, Tarneit. Phone: 8360 3029

Hoppers Crossing guitar lesson done, we’re headed up Morris Road to Tarneit – in a sufficiently reckless mood that a regulation, delicious but naughty feed from a chook shop will go down nicely.

But we’re quietly hoping for something better – something even more tasty and perhaps even a more healthy.

A touch of the Middle East perhaps?

Flames Charcoal Chicken looks out upon on Wyndham Village Shopping Centre, home to a recently arrived Dosa Hut outlet, and is right next door to the recently reviewed Somalian joint, Ya Salam.

Turns out this Flames shop is one of four – there’s two others in the west and one in Bundoora.

I’m told the others run are more your typical charcoal chicken shop routines.

 

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But the Tarneit establishment – oh happy day! – does indeed sport a heavy Middle Eastern influence.

There’s wraps and rolls in the mix – but there’s also good salads, pickles and meat on sticks waiting to be grilled.

What we have is fine – significantly better than average fast food and but not quite up to the standards of a full-on Lebanese place.

The prices, though, are very low.

It’s set out rather nicely as a restaurant proper, our meals are served on wooden platters and we use real cutlery.

 

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Bennie chooses the “chicken with the lot deal” ($16.90).

There’s three kinds of grilled chicken on hand – regular, chilli and (Bennie’s selection) lemon and garlic.

His chook is fine, though not displaying much by way of the two listed seasonings.

All the rest – yogurt dip, pickles, chips and very though very tasty tabouleh – is good.

 

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My shawarma meal ($12.90, top photograph) comes with the same accompaniments, save for chips.

I wish there was more lamb off the spit – and would happily pay for it.

Because this lamb is wonderful – tender, profoundly tasty and skillfully seasoned.

Locals will surely love having Flames around.

It delivers a tasty, above average fast-food hit at good prices.

 

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Looks like Maccas, does real deal Lebanese

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Sheesh Grill, 255 Mickleham Road, Tullamarine/Westmeadows. Phone: 9330 3050

When I first visited Sheesh Grill a few weeks back, my heart sank at the very appearance of the place – it looks like any old franchise fast-food hole.

My heart sank and so, too, did my expectations of a fine feed.

So I was surprised and delighted to enjoy a lovely platter of Lebanese food that defied the setting by being very good.

This was genuine Lebanese food – fresh, tasty and excellent value.

Even better, all the baked goods are, I was told, baked on the premises.

I was keen to return with more eager hands and mouths around which to base an official CTS post.

Sheesh Grill does do hamburgers, and I reckon there’s enough going on in the menu to please just about anyone.

And I also reckon the fast-food ambiance could win over youngsters who otherwise might have nothing but contempt for the more wholesome and tasty goodies at hand.

 

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There’s starters such as filo pastries, kibbeh, stuffed vine leaves and falafels.

There’s dips and salads.

And there’s a heap of meat – shawarma and on skewers.

All of the above are available in a wide variety of configurations.

The member of our trio who orders the above-pictured Sheesh Feast ($18.95) does so on the basis of being “very hungry”.

But it beats her, with Bennie and I happy to help out as she winds down.

The platter has a skewer each of chicken and kafta, a sambouusek (sort of like a curry puff), a kibbeh, falafels, stuffed vine leaves, chips, rice (real Middle Eastern rice), tabouli, pickles and hummus.

I know on the basis of my inaugural visit how good are the stuffed vine leaves and tabouli.

The is a great value meal and would actually do two reasonably hungry people quite easily.

 

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I’ve been happy for Bennie to order a burger just to see how this place goes with that.

But I feel sorry for him when his meal arrives.

He reports that his Ultimate Burger ($10.95) is OK but nothing special. He gets a small chips and a soft drink as add-ons for $2 each.

I hope for a certain level of excellence in chips served at Middle Eastern eateries. These don’t quite qualify; the ones I had on my initial visit did.

It’s not that Bennie’s burger is any way bad or sub-standard – it’s just that the regular Lebanese fare aces it.

The lesson is simple – this place may actually do burgers but the more traditional Lebanese food is where it’s at.

 

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My “regular” sheesh lamb plate ($13.95) is excellent. The larger plates of lamb, chicken or kafta cost $17.95.

All is good or better – a tangy eggplant dip, fattoush, pickles, the same chips and rice as above, and two skewers of succulent lamb insterspersed with onion and capsicum.

Sheesh Grill is well worth a short jaunt up the Ring Road.

 

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Saj revisited

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Saj Mediterranean Grill, Shop 27 320-380 Epsom Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9078 2633

After a happy first-up visit to Saj, I was always keen for a prompt return.

Mostly to see if I could talk the staff into serving their marinated, skewered meats on a plate with accessories – my preferred option and delight.

Perusal of their menu – which can be seen in the story of that debut visit here – seemed to have the meats only available in wrap form.

As luck would have it, a return visit comes to be much more quickly than I had foreseen – five minutes after Nat Stockley and I arrange a quickie impromptu dinner, I’m in the car and headed for Ascot Vale.

And as it turns out, Nat’s eyes prove a lot sharper than mine – what I want is right there on the menu, he points out, under the heading of “Eat in deals”.

Oh happy day!

This is the sort of Lebanese platter I have been yearning for, and wanting in the west, for years.

We both order identical $14.50 plates with one skewer each of lamb, chicken and kofta.

The hommus and baba ghannouj are as on that first visit – excellent.

So is the tabouli, our plates graced with quite large serves of it in cabbage leave cups.

A special word of praise for this Saj salad effort – not only is it sublimely moist and lemony, it also includes the all-important fresh mint, something often omitted from eatery versions.

The meats are fine, especially the nicely seasoned kofta.

We both reckon, though, the meats have all spent about a couple of minutes too long on the grill, the lamb cubes in particular being overcooked – not to the point of being unenjoyable, mind you.

We mention this to the staff as we are paying and leaving, and are told of one customer earlier in the day who expressed distaste for having her lamb pieces “pink in the middle”.

So CTS advises open and frank meat discourse with the Saj folks!