19 February, 2008


452 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9384 6200

The former site of the Organic Wholesalers (now across the road and up a few shops) has been transformed into Vege2Go, a fresh and exciting new cafe and takeaway that is offering something truly innovative. The kitout is very impressive: the new owners have created a bright and welcoming space, proudly themed on the Italian tricolour. Eyecatching canvas prints of the Tuscan countryside and the quinoa plant adorn one wall.

The premise of the cafe is fresh, vegetarian Italian food. The menu is designed with complements: there are mains as well as sides and snacks, encouraging provision of a full meal. The shop is open til 9pm (Mon-Sat), succeeding in that rare venture of providing healthy, inviting and affordable take-home food, at the time when you most want it. Not only is their food accessible, it's also very strong on quality and flavour. The absence of meat is relevant, but no impediment. Instead, a plethora of plant foods are given centre stage: zucchini, eggplant, beetroot, mushrooms, cannellini beans, asparagus, to name just a handful.

The savoury side of the menu is divided into Mains, Sides and Snacks, plus Soups and Desserts. Meal Savers encourage customers to mix and match. Of the mains, the three mushroom frittata is extraordinary, with mousse-like eggs enveloping a trio of earthy mushroom flavours. The asparagus and tomato risotto sings with sweet tomato tang. Jumbo-sized mushrooms are filled with pesto and topped with torn bocconcino and a basil leaf. It's incredibly simple but even a meatlover wouldn't be left wanting for protein or 'fillingness'. Aromatic vegie lasagne and parmiggiana are also on offer.

It's worth getting a Meal Saver to ensure you sample at least one of the sides. These daily-prepared salads all punch a big flavour hit. The rocket explosion (above) - featuring the holy combination of rocket, pumpkin, pinenuts and feta - is superb. The pumpkin is perfectly cooked and deliciously seasoned. I could happily sit down to a whole tray of grilled peppers (below), doused simply with olive oil, sea salt, garlic and parsley. Other sides include broccoli tossed with garlic and the Mediterranean rice salad, which flies the flag of all that is wonderful about the region, with a mix of antipasto, artichokes, olives, capsicum and brown rice.

Desserts on offer include a ricotta tart and vegan chocolate cake. The coffee, from Jasper and hence Fairtrade and organic, is excellently made. Soy, rice and lactose-free milk are all available. Juices, smoothies and Phoenix drinks are also stocked.

There are two aspects of this venture that are worth highlighting. One is the quality of produce. This is well-made food, prepared fresh and with love. Secondly, while it is a vegetarian cafe, and that is a strong philosophy amongst its proprietors, nothing is lost in terms of flavour, nourishment nor satisfaction.


Mains: $7.95; Sides: $3.25; Snacks (inc. calzone and pita pizza): $6.95

Zonzo at Train Trak

957 Healesville-Yarra Glen Rd, Yarra Glen; 03 9730 2500

When the sun shines bright blue above the green of the vines and hills of the Yarra Valley, and you have a designated driver or seat on a coach sorted, plus you're sporting a wristband worth $40 of entitlements, Grape Grazing is a wondrous festival. Held over 10 days in mid-February, and featuring the majority of vineyards in the area, it culminates on one weekend with a dozen or so wineries putting on food and entertainment.

We were just in Yarra Glen to visit family, however, and thought initially that, since we weren't officially taking part in the festival fun we might miss a chance to try out one of the region's newcomers. I had been keen for some months to try Zonzo Pizzeria at Train Trak vineyard, but the restaurant itself was closed over the weekend. Luckily, they were selling a selection of pizzas as part of the festival and, since we got there late in the afternoon, they didn't need us to be paid-up festival goers to gain entry to the party.

The vineyard is worth visiting for its situation and view. The outlook, over the vines in one direction and the valley and hills beyond in the other, is a wonderful contrast of deep blues and greens.

When the restaurant is running at full swing it offers a range of almost 20 pizzas, all priced at $16.90. Pancetta, proscuitto and gorgonzola feature strongly. For festival day they had four pizzas available and I didn't need to read any further than the Pizza alla salsiccia: pomodoro, taleggio cheese, Italian pork sausage, Spanish onion and rosemary.

The pork sausage lay on the sweet, chewy dough base in chunks, with visible studs of fennel in the sausage meat. The rosemary, though dried, was a strong presence. Happily the taleggio didn't fight against the meat and herbs for flavour dominance and instead met its purpose in holding the pizza together. This single example off their menu hit the spot and left me very keen for our next trip to the valley and opportunity to sample more.


La Dolce Vita

181 Nelson Place, Williamstown; 03 9397 1800

After a lulling boat ride from Southbank to Gem Pier, and an architecturally inspiring walk around Williamstown's foreshore, it was time to top off a fine morning with a fitting lunch. When we'd first disembarked, a bakery had caught my eye and pies were on my mind, but the hour's walk in the sun meant something more summery was in order. La Dolce Vita, with its shaded rear courtyard, tempting cake display in the window, and a promising Italian-inspired menu, looked like it fit the bill nicely.

Should have gone the pie, frankly! I settled fairly easily on a roast chicken panini with rocket and tomato chutney. My dining partner had been lured by the promise of quiche and salad: it still met the bakery cravings, but was also appropriate to the heat. But alas, no more quiche was available (it was about 1pm on a Monday). Multiple specials boards were dotted about the restaurant and while the one in the window proclaimed a primavera style as the risotto of the day, our at-table insert offered only seafood, not what we were after at all. Rightio then, perhaps another of the chicken paninis, but could this one be without tomato chutney? Astonishingly, no, the paninis come pre-prepared. Now even my easily-met order didn't seem such a good choice. What on earth is a cafe doing, charging $11.50 for a panini they haven't made themselves? Unfortunately we had a boat to catch, and didn't want to use more time choosing another venue, so my dining partner went for Choice #4, lasagne. That they could do.

The food came in good time, but wasn't overly impressive. The ciabatta (above) was OK, though very floury and the chicken was too dry. The tomato chutney was a nice addition, however, and the accompanying salad had a light but flavoursome dressing. The lasagne looked very appetising and proved to be filling without being too heavy on the mince. The flavours, however, were also a little subdued.

The cafe stocks a large range of bottled drinks at around $3.50 each, including various carbonated drinks from Phoenix.

It was all a bit surprising really: on spec the restaurant had appealed on all the right levels and certainly it kept its atmosphere while we there. Unfortunately, however, the food didn't live up to expectation.

18 February, 2008

Filou's Artisan Patissier

Cnr Lygon and Fenwick Sts, Carlton North; 03 9347 4029

Filou's has the look of comfortable suburban cafe, somewhere that, should you live nearby, would mean you had no need to keep fresh bread or coffee in the house. The homey feel comes from the hand-painted signage and residential locale; it stays in vogue with its sassy burnt-orange concrete and aqua wrought iron paint job.

Filou's does a fine line in artisan breads, particularly sourdoughs. The baking smells that have wafted over to me on a late-night ride home have kept me eager to try it in the daytime. On weekdays they serve filled baguettes, which was actually exactly what I felt like on this sunny Saturday. However, weekends are for decadence, a time to throw aside the lettuce and tomato extras and embrace flaky pastry!

To that end, I plumped for the savoury baguette, avec jambon and fromage. They had cheekily sneaked in some veg within the darkened, buttery folds of pastry: tomato and leafy greens no less! The ham had kept its flavour and the cheese wasn't so stringy that it took over from the pastry as the dominant texture. Paris is, alas, many moons behind me, but I was satisfied with this Melburnian version of the ubiquitous Gallic baked good.

The beef and guinness pie was a little less exciting. Perhaps it was more in the French style; I can't profess to sampling them there. Then again, one does expect 'beef and guinness' to come in the style of a particular country. Vegies had again been snuck in amongst the sauce, and it was the sauce where care had been taken with flavour, more so than with the meat. Which, particulary for brunch, may be for some more acceptable.

There's much more to be had from their bakers' oven: quiche, eclairs, muffins, tarts. Save time next time you're riding to a friend's and stop to fill your basket with some tres French goodies.

15 February, 2008


150 Alexandra Ave, South Yarra; 03 9827 0488

Where the Yarra weaves around the south side of Herring Island, Kanteen sits atop the bank, making the best possible use out of a former toilet block. Perched above the Capital City Trail bike path it is popular with bi-pedalers for breakfast; on this windy Tuesday afternoon, however, a near-full house showed its appeal goes beyond eager weekend exercisers.
The breakfast menu, strong on eggs, runs until 3pm. In addition, from 11am, there is a tempting selection of pides, a pair of salads and a daily special (in this case a ravishing-sounding Thai pumpkin soup with crusty bread). We went with one dish from each section. From the breakfast menu, a humble melt showcased how quality ingredients can lift something straightforward to something wonderful. The fresh rye bread sponged up the flavours it supported; namely finely-sliced, smoky ham, juicy red tomato and a light melted cheese. The dish was small in size but strong on quality, with the sum of its parts adding up to a satisfying whole.

The mediterranean pide had a list of fillings I couldn't go past: I was already sold by the time I'd read pesto and artichoke, but it went on further to note both sweet potato and pumpkin, roast capsicum, spinach leaves and cheese.The dish didn't disappoint, though nor did it break any new ground. With the duo of roasted orange veg, the filling was pliant to say the least, and would perhaps have been bettered served with rocket or similarly crunchy greenery. The artichokes really came through though, lifting the flavour milieu with their nutty saltiness.

Kanteen is also known for good coffee. The menu states pointedly that they serve their coffee tepid, as this is best for preserving the creaminess of the milk. My latte was certainly made with care, with a good consistency crema. I admit to being a fan of my coffee hot, rather than tepid (and one can ask for them to 'burn the milk' for a hot coffee) but the temperature of this one as it was served was quite adequate. Tea was a user-friendly affair: a tray of implements to let the fussiest of drinkers control their tanniny tipple, made all the more enjoyable by some very ergonomic Japanese tea cups.

Toilet blocks are not, as a rule, known for being landscape-dominating buildings. With this refit, Kanteen's owners have retained subtlety and, particularly sitting outside, the feel is almost of a picnic ground, as the tables space themselves around gum trees. Both our meals were served on attractive olive green plates that were an exceptional complement to the surroundings.Kanteen is also significant as one of the few venues able to nudge the Citylink out of the way and establish comfortable riverside eating.



"It was easy to be irritated about everything that was of no consequence, yet care about nothing that mattered"

Richard Flanagan, 'The Unknown Terrorist'

11 February, 2008

'Saving Francesca' - Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta is the author of one of the best-received Young Adult novels by an Australian writer, Looking for Alibrandi. Her second novel, Saving Francesca, published 11 years after that debut, draws on many of the earlier novel's fundamentals. The title character, at 16 a year younger than Marchetta's first heroine, is an Italian-Australian school student attending a strictly religious high school in inner-city Sydney. She has family issues, complex and sometimes conflicting friendships and, although she starts out with no such intention, strong feelings for a brooding member of the opposite sex.

Both books centre around identity. In the earlier text this search was strongly rooted in culture, in the sub-groups that make up the Australian milieu. The identity issues in Saving Francesca are less concrete. Francesca is a teenager brought up in a modern household, with a (sometimes embarassingly) emancipated mother and an unfailingly optimistic father. She dearly loves her younger brother. In the year on which the novel focusses however, she has been taken from the girls' school and group of friends to which she was acclimatised, to start Year 11 at a boys' school as part of its first intake of girls.

The friendships at the two schools polarise Francesca's identity crisis. She is a strong, dramatic and articulate young lady, but for the sake of acceptance had made herself into something else at her former school. Yet within that pretence she had certainty and a group in which she felt placed. Now, starting again, she remakes herself, this time into a more introverted form.

It is a canny way of highlighting the despair and discomfort of adolescence. It also runs well alongside Francesca's mother's depression, as an adult also struggles to meet the peg-and-hole expectations of her community.

The themes are strong, but on occasion the language is clunky, too obscure to make a powerful emotional statement. It can sound somewhat like teenage poetry: full of powerful words and analogies but somehow the adjectives and nouns don't quite gel so the precise intent is lost to the reader. It is also a victim of the curse for writing for youth: anyone who has been young knows how awkward most conversations are, yet the writer has time to craft, hone and select the exact way to evoke that hit-and-miss. The inevitable juxtaposition was better handled in Looking for Alibrandi.

However, like Richard Flanagan, this book is proud of its birthplace. It's from Sydney, and more specifically the Inner West: Annandale, Leichhardt, Broadway Shopping Centre. That's important because right there is a reality in which any reader, teenager or not, can find some identity. The teenagers in this book are entrusted with mature topices: they talk about history, politics and women's rights. That respect may just help a teenage reader feel more confident in who they are.

10 February, 2008


695 High St, Thornbury; 03 9480 6222

Something of a Thornbury institution, Tasos is a great place to head to for breakfast or morning tea after grocery shopping at Psarakos across the road. Their breakfast menu is straightforwad: there's toast with spreads (including marscapone and jam), pancakes with or without bacon, and eggs how you like with the extras you like.

More impressive is their array of cakes and delicacies: caramel tarts, mud cake, cheese cake, baclava, canoli...it's extensive. Their website features some very impressive photography work that only slightly exaggerates the effect of looking at their front window display! Customers coming in to collect enormous special occasion cakes is a regular event.

We go for the pancakes:At $6, they don't get in the way of the grocery budget! The best thing is they're deftly-made: light and fluffy. It was these I was thinking of when I was chewing through the stodgier fare at Twist in Newcastle. As long as you pay a little bit of attention you can control the maple syrup to pancake distribution. And starting the day with strawberries and ice cream is always a good option!

08 February, 2008

'Ireland' - Frank Delaney

Historical fiction comes in various guises. At times the balance between the two elements - history and a story - is uneven, resulting in a novel overly-concerned with dates and analysis; or, in the opposite case fact is so far removed from the story that the only relevance of 'history' is that the book is set in the past.

When I saw this book in the country of its title, I expected the balance to sit on the side of history. Something along the lines of a Robert Hughes epic, perhaps. The reality was quite different, however. Delaney hits upon an engaging and enticing way of entwining fiction and factual details of Ireland's past. His cause is helped by the Irish culture itself, as it is one of storytelling, the crux of this novel.

Ronan O'Mara is nine years old the first time he sees the Storyteller. Tall, in cap and boots, this man wanders 1950s Ireland receiving board and food from villagers in exchange for his entrancing stories about Ireland's history. The visit changes Ronan's life, which from then on is dedicated to two pursuits: finding the Storyteller again and his own study of history, which takes him to Trinity College in Dublin. Alongside this runs the emerging story of Ronan's own family history, which harbours secrets he never suspected.

The Storyteller keeps in touch with Ronan through occasional visits and, more frequently, through letters or stories told by other people who have known and heard him. Ronan's eccentric history lecturer also fills in part of the story with passionately delivered lectures. The stories flow through the historical record from the majesty of the Architect of Newgrange, to the coming of Strongbow, the battles of Brian of Boru, the famine and the climax of Connolly, Pearce and their followers' bravery and sacrifice for Irish indepedence in the Easter 1916 uprising.

Delaney makes effective use of the Storyteller's tool - language - to subtly distinguish between the exposition and the tales, and also on occasion to differentiate style when someone is recounting a story they have heard. Notably, the stories, no matter how apocryphal or mythologised, contain fact: normally the year, date and sometimes even day of the week or time that a centuries-old event took place. Within the modern day elements of the novel, the timeframe can shift, for example jumping forward to explain a consequence, then back into the chronology of Ronan's life. This effect is a necessity when one recounts a history, whether of a man or a country: events and consequences do not always step along a perfectly linear path.

Delaney mentions several times that the art of storytelling is a native trait of the Irish. Whether their skill comes from the depth of material available in their past, or if this historical richness is a result of it being kept alive through verbal tradition is hard to know. Delaney certainly possesses great skill in his country's national artform and in this novel does a great service to any reader wishing to be truly entertained and informed.

07 February, 2008

Dry humour

"She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party - with a chance of government perhaps - but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try to pass legislation, but would fail."

From The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

06 February, 2008

Percys Bar (Astor Hotel)

418 Lygon St (cnr Elgin St), Carlton; 03 9347 1715

The notion of a Carlton pub would probably make most think of a designer interior, a too-cool-for-school drinks list and clientele to match. The Astor Hotel could hardly be more central to Carlton - tram passengers certainly get ample time to look at it during the interminable wait to woggle around to/from Melbourne Uni - but it certainly doesn't fit the Carlton mould.

Inside, it's a country pub, a place where locals sit at the bar and use everyone's names as they chat to each other and the staff. (Sitting at the bar does in fact take some getting used to, since the bar stools are incredibly high). The drinks list comes in a plastic sleeve and makes no pretensions to be anything other than serviceable.

Counter meals are available, in addition to a bistro-restaurant at the back of the pub offering a commendable array of dishes in the $15-20 range. On Tuesdays the bar menu is unmissable: $10 steak and pot or, even more affordable, $6.50 for a Percy Burger.

It's great value. The pattie is solid and genuinely mincey. The tomato is fresh and holds its form. The cheese clearly comes from a cow, not a plastics factory and the bread is toasted on the inside, soft on the outside, as it should be on a burger. It's definitely a pub burger, but it's not overly-salty nor too heavy.

In the background of the shot is the answer form for Percys Trivia: if you don't have occasion to exercise your body after polishing off the chips at least give your mind a workout and take it to the Melbourne Uni academics who come as regulars!

03 February, 2008

'Making Laws for Clouds' - Nick Earls

Nick Earls writes about Australian males. More specifically, Australian males who live in Queensland, face relationship insecurities, are blessed with wit and humour, and who meet captivating women with whom to share their riposte.

It's a good formula and one that, since the publication of Zigzag Street in 1996, has made good on Who Weekly's claim to 'Buy a Nick Earls novel and never be sad again'. The one non-constant in his universal male protagonist is age: in Earls' adult fiction his characters may be going through crises in their mid-twenties or early thirties. In his young adult fiction they deal with late teenage angst.

Making Laws for Clouds fits into the latter group. Kane is 18 and working for Caloundra Council to help support his family: his mother has turned to rum and television since his father left and his fourteen-year-old brother has a sensitive stomach and a fairly simplistic outlook. Kane meets Tanika on the bus that takes both their families to church each Sunday, which is the focus of their social activities. Their relationship teeters between teenage lust and adult responsibility.

As always, there is plenty of dialogue. Earls' characters tend to be fairly verbose; not always in a lengthy way, more that he employs poetic licence to allow his characters to frequently bounce the kind of quips and retorts off one another that one would associate with a rare, hilarious night out. Since they invariably find themselves in the early stages of a relationship, there is also a lot of rambling to cover awkward moments, eyebrow-raising from the females, and valiant attempts to 'dig oneself out of a hole'. It's all part of what makes Earls' novels so genuinely funny.
Philosophising is saved for the exposition. When musing to themselves, Earls' characters reveal a penchant for metaphysics, such as the discussion that explains the novel's title, and the author himself a flair for poetic description. As Kane and Tanika sit on the beach they listen to waves "Breaking up and piling up and thinning out and running to nothing, up the sand and shells, ending in a rush, disappearing in that last noise, like a long breath out".

Earls shares more than a first name with English author Nick Hornby. Both (though Hornby has diversified more in his later works) focus on flawed men, but embed the exploration in very everyday situations. They rarely come to a perfect resolution at the end of the novel: they do normally end in a relationship, but the male protagonist retains his flaws and uncertainties. Therein lies the novels' cohesiveness - our lives don't nestle into 300 pages either - and their worth, as they can teach us where to look for humour and positivity and that perfection is not the only recipe for happiness.

01 February, 2008


This pizza was not the product of original thought. Instead it was born of the desire to eat what I'd had at Pizza Farro weeks before.
I was semi-thwarted in my aim since the Mediterannean Wholesalers were out of black olive tapenade. Green tapenade was an option, but instead I went with a jar of sliced black olives. In the absence of this preferred base I instead doused the pocket bread with olive oil, just enough so it glistened. Sliced garlic was smoothed into the oil. On top of this went the sliced olives, pine nuts, artichokes (also from Med W'salers) and a load of crumbled ricotta (who would have known such a versatile and delicious ingredient would be so affordable? It's something like $6 a kilo, cut fresh, from the Food-Rite in Thornbury). Spinach leaves finished off the toppings.

It certainly smelled and looked the part. The lack of that moist, olive base did let the pizza down, but all the right flavour combinations were there. I didn't have the spelt base that Pizza Farro does so well, but the pocket bread base does a similar job in keeping the carb factor down to a minimum and letting the toppings sing out for themselves.

All in all, a successful rendition of a restaurant-inspired dish, which doesn't even require a lot of washing up!


Level 2, QV Square (cnr Swanston and Lonsdale Sts); 03 9650 2325

It’s not breaking any new ground to eat at, or indeed review, a Wagamama restaurant. I did find our recent dining experience there interesting, however, for what it demonstrated about the food journey both the restaurant and I have travelled since we first became acquainted.

The first Wagamama I came across was in Covent Garden, London, and from that first encounter something in their cheeky menu and underground, brightly-lit space had big appeal. I ate there several times in London and Guildford. A few years ago Wagamama were ostensibly too mass-consumerist for my taste, with new restaurants popping up with the regularity of big-chain coffee houses. But their food was innovative, fresh and well-priced, commodities that are exceedingly hard to come by in England.

I’ve eaten there a couple of times in Australia and the biggest difference I’d noted was the absence of my favourite dish, the chicken chilli men: soft Hokkein noodles interlaced with diced chicken and crisp vegetables such as snow peas and capsicum, heightened by a good breath of chilli.

Before ordering on our most recent visit, SG did question whether I’d be alright, ‘eating at a franchise’. I assured him I’d be fine: I’d eaten here loads of time, always enjoyed it and had made my way through most of the menu, from ramen to yaki soba to the katsu curry, both vegetarian and meat.

First to the table was a tray of five duck gyoza, with a very thick, sticky soy sauce.
The filling was lovely: lightly steamed meat and some spring onion crunch. The pastry, however, was very poor: more like a biscuit, crunchy and noticeably browned.

SG stuck with his staple, the chicken ramen.
A relatively clear broth, plenty of sliced chicken, stocky noodles and some green for roughage. It's a heartening dish, but...I'll come back to that.

I went with a new dish, the spicy chicken itame, with mint, basil, coriander and garlic.The chicken had wallowed in ginger and the red onion lent a caramelised flavour to the rice. It looked a treat in the bowl, with chunky zucchini and broccoli pieces crowning the rice. (And it was hot, more than could be said for our green tea). The chicken, however, was far too dry. The dish was seriously spicy; probably not too hot for a real chilli lover, but significantly spicier than anything I’d experienced at Wagamamas before. Although the vegetables had looked impressive and abundant, there were serious filling-to-rice ratio issues: the former ran out long before the latter.

While Wagamama may not quite be soul food, they have always preached a vibrant and positive food philosophy. These dishes didn't give me a good food buzz though, nor did the service. After eating I felt uncomfortably full, overly salted and like I’d eaten…well, franchise food. The ramen was perfectly adequate, but I don't necessarily want a dish I haven't tried for a couple of years to taste exactly like it did last time I had it, especially when that last time was in a different country!

I don’t know if it’s just that my tastes have changed and refined, or if in keeping Wagamama afloat they’ve started to cut a lot more corners in the kitchen. Certainly the company had to close down its St Kilda store last year, not that long after opening in Melbourne Central. Their expansion into Australia has never been as rampant as it was in Europe. When you’ve got Don Don across the road doing wok-to-bowl food for $6, and Cookie down the street serving up very credible curry, you need more than cute branding to keep it pumping.