Colombian food? Dive right in!

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El Toucan Cafe, Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre, 1 Aquatic Drive, Maribyrnong. Phone: 0400 924 608

You won’t want to go swimming for a few hours after eating bandeja paisa at El Toucan Cafe.

But should you so desire, the facilities couldn’t be closer at hand – El Toucan is located right in Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre, its seating gazing out upon the various swimming pools.

Yes, really.

I could opine that this is western weirdness personified, but really how unusual is it when CTS and its friends not only keep an open mind about where we may find great food, but also do so regularly in quirky locations?

But this is most definitely the kind of adventure that sets the hearts of myself and CTS pal Nat Stockley into a cheerful gallop.

 

 

El Toucan boss Frank Torres keeps the likes of chicken nuggets and burgers on his menu.

As he says, this IS a swimming pool operation and he DOES want to stay in business.

But he’s very proud to be offering a range of true-blue Colombian dishes.

It’s to these we are drawn, as are the tables surrounding us inhabited by Colombian families.

Frank is a Melbourne eatery veteran, having in years past run the likes of El Dorado Grill in the CBD.

Bandeja paisa is something of an informal Colombia national dish.

Frank tells us its roots lie in its evolution as a hearty lunch for early-starting, hard-working coffee growers – which makes it the equivalent of your typical, full-bore Aussie/Kiwi shearers’ spread.

 

 

Nat goes the full bandeja paisa – a huge meal and something of a bargain at $20.

 

 

I opt for the half serve – it’s not listed anywhere, but is available on request.

Even it is a substantial meal and also a bargain at $12.

Everything about this is mighty …

Avocado and chubby tortilla.

Expertly fried egg and rice.

Superbly creamy beans and fried ripe plantain.

And meat – pork belly, chorizo and pulled beef that would match it with any barbecue joint.

The pork belly, as we’ve come to know of South American food, is well cooked, but as delicious as everything else on our plates.

 

 

Empanadas con yuca ($9) are also outstanding.

The three empanadas are made with corn meal, the casings stuffed with beef mince and deep fried.

They are joined by cassava chips that are fluffy and lovely.

On the side is a bowl of aji – a salsa-like dipping concoction.

This dish could constitute a cool and very cheap light meal for those not up to El Toucan’s more full-on offerings.

 

 

On an earlier, reconnaissance visit, I enjoyed sobrebarriga ($22) of slow-cooked beef skirt served with rice, avocado, cassava and sofrito.

This, too, is a hefty and excellent meal.

Though, in contrast to our other selections, in this case the meat is very tender and the cassava – playing the roast potato role – dryish and a little too starchy for my tastes.

El Toucan has specials …

On the day we visit there’s a liver dish on, while a few folks around us are enjoying what look like very good pork ribs – even if, as Frank maintains, they are less specifically Colombian than the likes of bandeja paisa.

Other dishes mentioned on the cafe’s Facebook page include patacón con carne o pollo (fried plantain fritter with shredded chicken), fried snapper, lamb skewers with kale slaw and pulled beef quesadilla.

Important note: For those wanting to try the El Toucan cooking without making use of the centre’s other facilities, there is no admission charge.

Winter hours for El Toucan Cafe are Monday-Friday 9am-8.30pm and Saturday-Sunday 9am-6pm.

Thanks to Nat “Punster” Stockley for the intro!

 

Fine pizza @ Edgewater

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Terminal 45 Woodfire Pizzeria, 41-45 Edgewater Boulevard, Maribyrnong. Phone: 9317 0123

The western suburbs are quite well endowed with classy pizza places.

One that appears to have flown under the pizza pie radar is Terminal 45 Woodfire Pizzeria, which is located down the hill from the Edgewater shops and pretty much right next door to St Burgs.

Last time Bennie and I spied this joint, it was a sunny summer Sunday early evening and it was packed and firing.

This time – urged on by a successful home pizza delivery and a friend’s hearty recommendation – we are back early in the week on a cold night and the scene is quite different.

We are the only customers, though deliveries continue apace.

Terminal 45 lists almost a couple of dozen pizzas, with what seems less on the menu by way of pasta and starters than most such places.

No matter – we are here for pizza.

And they’re excellent.

Caprese ($16) is like a salad on a pizza base, and thus an instant hit with my salad-loving son.

It’s simple, tasty and rather magnificent – just uncooked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, basil, olive oil.

Piccante $16) has hot salami, roasted red capsicum, mozzarella and fresh chilli.

It, too, hits our pizza spots right nicely.

And not only do our pizzas please us, we note happily that the prices are a good dollar or two less than we regularly pay elsewhere.

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.

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.

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!

****

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!

 

Malaysian gem

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Sambal Kampung, 38-46 Edgewater Boulevard, Maribyrnong. Phone: 9317 7171

Words and photographs: ERIKA JONSSON

I fell in love with Malaysia during my first trip to Kuala Lumpur in 2009.

Being able to choose between great Indian, Chinese or Nyonya cuisine meant loads of variety – classic dishes tasted different but awesome no matter where we went.

Three years later we returned with our first son (then aged two) and found even more to love in Penang, where the laksa was fishy and bitter and the spices were fresh and local.

Since then we’ve struggled to find Malaysian food in the west that lives up to those glorious memories of eating chicken skewers by the side of a road drinking a cold teh tarik.

When we find ourselves in Maribyrnong around lunchtime on a rare lovely day, I remember a tip from a friend to try Sambal Kampung, her preferred Malay restaurant. The other half doesn’t take much convincing.

We are warmly welcomed and grab a high chair for our little guy.

Our waitress brings him over a plastic bowl, cup, fork and spoon – a welcome surprise that no doubt benefits all parties concerned.

The little guy tucks in quickly to some roti canai. The rich, delicious curry sauce is just a bit spicy for him, but we are happy to ensure it isn’t wasted.

 

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The other half orders the chicken laksa with hokkien and vermicelli noodles ($11).

Laksa often takes a little while to fully appreciate – the first mouthful of broth doesn’t always reveal the full richness of flavour that builds as you get further in.

This is certainly the case here. There is a stronger fishiness than most places dare to serve, and the other half is thrilled.

 

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I go for the kung pao chicken with rice from the list of specials ($9).

The sauce is slightly sweeter than I’m used to – it’s a winner in my book.

Roasted cashews add crunch and the dish isn’t overly spicy (until I eat up the whole chillies for some welcome heat).

The other half has to fight with our offspring for the cold teh tarik, which is strong and nicely sweet, while I just grab a soft drink. All up our bill comes to $32 and we can barely finish the roti.

Sambal Kampung is a family gem – like so many Asian restaurants it welcomes kids without needing to cater specifically for them.

The food arrives quickly and the prices are terrific.

We will be back with our older son very soon.

Meal of the week No.28: Shinmai Tasty

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Returning to Shinmai Tasty (44 Edgewater Boulevard, Maribyrnong, phone 9317 3830) for the first time since hitting the place with a gaggle of pals, I am intent on nothing more than quiet, solo lunch away from the cold.

Most of all, I am intent on having – again – the place’s fabulous soy udon soup chicken.

Instead, I am seduced by the menu’s other wok noodle dish – garlic and ginger prawn yaki udon ($18.50).

Topped with bonito flakes, it tastes every bit as delicious as it looks pretty – though in truth, I detect little by way of the advertised ginger or garlic.

It matters not!

The tips-on prawn tails number five – they are fat, fabulous and of great flavour; they have that terrific prawn poppy thing going on in spades.

The udon noodles, joined by spring onion, capsicum pieces and onion slivers, are covered in a sticky and quite oily sauce.

It’s an excellent lunch in an excellent place.

Once again, I marvel at how a newish establishment – with its cosy decor and magnificent artwork – has created such an attractive and welcoming western suburbs hidey hole.