Eat here: The Gem Bar & Dining, Melbourne (BBQ)

The Gem Bar & Dining
289 Wellington St, Collingwood, Melbourne
http://www.thegembar.com.au/

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I thought I knew my shit pretty well when it came to BBQ. I thought I knew all the big players on the Melbourne scene. I thought I was relatively up to speed. Then I found The Gem.

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Husband and I both had a craving for BBQ a couple of weekends ago. I was coming down with a cold, neither of us could be bothered cooking (or dealing with dishes), we just wanted some soft, fatty, melty brisket and pulled pork. I’m really growing to love the Zomato app (except for the fact that I still can’t get to an eatery’s direct website through it yet… come on guys!), particularly the map functionality – basically, you can pull up a map on it, draw a circle around the area you want to eat in and it lists everything in the area. LOVE IT! Anyway, I drew a circle around the general Collingwood area that’s not too far from home, filtered to BBQ, and The Gem came up as an option (and a highly recommended one, at that). 20 minutes later, we were changed from trackies to socially acceptable clothing and pottering around the front door counting down the minutes to the 1pm opening.

Seated with menus in hand, we decided to just get a bit of everything, because why not? You can see the ridiculously sized spread we ended up with for just over $50 above, but let me give you a bit of a breakdown…

 

Firstly, meat.

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Pulled pork ($15.00) and beef brisket ($18.00) to be exact. They were deceptively big servings for the cost, and oh so good… The pulled pork was absolutely phenomenal, slow cooked to perfection and falling apart with ease; I’d have to honestly say that I found it better than Le Bon Ton’s, personally, because it wasn’t drenched in the syrupy sweet BBQ sauce that so often accompanies American BBQ. Instead, the bottle of BBQ sauce was brought to our table to add as we pleased. When the pork is cooked that well, I don’t want it drenched in BBQ sauce, I want to actually taste the meat! Bonus points for the pile of house pickles that came with the pork – they were fantastic. The brisket was a tough call – I think Le Bon Ton’s had the edge here, but it was a catch 22; husband and I both LOVE the burnt ends of the brisket, and being some of the first customers through the door on this particular day, we managed to scored those first few cuts of beef that held all the burnt goodness. However, that meant that the meat was a little more dry than the inner bits. That said, a jug of gravy was served with the brisket, and once poured over the top, it was juicy and moist once more, with the added hit of the most amazing gravy I can remember having in recent times. And those crispy burnt bits…. damn..

 

Sides involved ranch style beans with brisket ends ($4.00) which I wouldn’t bother ordering again – there really weren’t any burnt ends in there, and that was the main reason we ordered them. A small serve of hand cut chips ($5.00) with chipotle aioli ($1.00) was a snap decision at the last minute, and the best decision of the day. Best chips I’ve ever had the pleasure of demolishing. There was no fighting over the crispy ones, because they were all crispy. Don’t even consider not ordering these, you need them.

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And last, but most certainly not least, we grabbed a few little brioche rolls (3 for $5.00) to stuff some of the meat into (DIY sliders is fun), and the mac & cheese with bacon crumb ($4.00), because how can you possible NOT order that?! The rolls were actually a great decision, not only to make sliders out of, but also to mop up the greasy meat juices at the end. We’re filthy animals, we make no apologies. The mac & cheese was magnificent – that bacon crumb… oh my God it was SO good! And again, deceptively decent serving size for $4!

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We ate like two crazed vulture/hyena hybrids, grinning manically the whole time while we alternatively stuffed food down our throats and recounted all the great BBQ we ate in America like Southern Hospitality in New York and The Joint in New Orleans. Must have been the pig that got us all philosophical; we were talking about how insanely powerful food can be in bringing you back to a certain memory, and how important a role it’s played for us. Some days I’ll find myself thinking of a certain place and wishing I was back there, and the closest I can get is re-creating the food that I ate there, in Egypt or Vietnam or Spain (**side note – currently working on a project that’ll be centered around that theme…), and those smells and flavours bring back a rush of memories in a way that simply looking back over photos can’t. Anyway, we’d just been talking about that when one of The Gem’s lovely ladies came to clear our table and ask how it all was. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it was amazing, and she wasn’t surprised. The big surprise though came when I asked how long they’d been BBQing for – “since 2012!” What??! How, HOW could I possibly have not known about this?!? Turns out they’d only been doing BBQ on weekends, and when they realized that BBQ was in fact their biggest money maker, they decided late last year to have it on the menu all week instead. Since October, they’ve made the transition to every day BBQ, slowly shifting the focus of the menu more towards classic Texas style BBQ, and it’s been an absolutely brilliant shift.

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Once again, Melbourne with it’s hidden gems (hahaha just realised as I was typing what an absolutely horrendous pun that was… but I like it so it’s staying!) surprising and delighting the taste buds… It’s a gorgeous little space, the old wooden fit out and creaking floorboards are perfect, warm and homely. It’s small enough to feel like you’re almost visiting a friend’s family in Texas for lunch or dinner, but big enough to cater for a crowd (they’ve actually also got a small dining room for bigger groups out the back). Pretty sure you’re now understanding my craving for BBQ last weekend. You should probably get out of your trackies and head over to The Gem this weekend, too…

 

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Eat here: C-Culture, Melbourne (Chinese)

C-Culture – Seafood & BBQ Chinese Restaurant
Shop 1, 437 High St, Preston
https://www.facebook.com/pages/C-CULTURE/342458736114

It was one of those nights on Friday night. It had been a really long, really shitty week. I was freezing cold and starving hungry, and I was craving some sort of comfort food. Something rich and filling and warming and substantial.

Walking down High Street in Preston is a good position to be in when you’re feeling like that, because everything is there. Italian, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, I mean, pick a cuisine and chances are you’ll find it. The original plan was Noodle Kingdom – their Shanghai fried noodles are comfort food perfection. But, on the walk, the C-Culture sign caught me eye, like it has almost every other time I’ve been past it. Friday night, I just felt like I needed to get in there and try it out; I suddenly realised I was craving duck. I don’t know why, I just was. One glance through the front window to see a whole lot of golden roast duck as well as a crazy busy restaurant service in full swing, and husband agreed to go with my hunch that the food would be good.

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Nothing special outside or in – it’s like the dozen other Asian eateries on the street. We were immediately seated at basically the last empty table in the place, and handed menus written half in English, half in Chinese. After a quick scan of the menu, husband left the meat ordering to me, and he picked out a noodle dish to go with it…

The noodles we got were the fried egg noodles with BBQ pork; they were nice, but not amazing. That’s probably because we were both comparing them to those Noodle Kingdom noodles that we both love so much. These were still really nice though – crispy fried noodles which softened in the delicious oyster sauce, with a good amount of pork and veggies. A good size dish to share if you’re getting some other dishes too, which I’d highly recommend.

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Next up, to satisfy my duck craving, we got a serve of Peking duck pancakes. Amazing. The duck was delicious, with lashings of hoi sin sauce and super soft pancakes. They were more like thinner tortillas almost than other pancakes I’ve had with Peking duck before, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, they were delicious!

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Finally, the pièce de résistance. Crispy skin pork belly. Would you believe this was apparently the entree serving, which cost all of $9.00?! It was a mountain of pork, and it was perfect. Holy wow. We both agreed that we’d go back JUST for the pork, it was THAT good! Super soft and tender meat, beautifully rendered fat, golden crispy tops. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. I can’t overstate the deliciousness of this pork enough.

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This is the biggest blessing of living in such a multicultural area; the food is amazing. So much of it is family run business, and the fact that so many places on High Street have been around for SO long says a lot about the quality of the food. If you’re lucky enough to be like us and live close to Preston, venture out from your usual same old spot tonight and give C-Culture a try. And if you don’t live in the area, make the effort to visit; I promise you won’t be disappointed!

 

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Disneyland’s World of Color + dining package at Ariel’s Grotto

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So yesterday’s post got me thinking more about my upcoming trip to Tokyo…  I don’t know when this happened, but it’s only 106 more sleeps until I’m off to Japan! Yay! And one of the things I’m a little excited about doing there is Disneyland – I can’t believe that its the third Disneyland I’ll get to tick off the list since 2013, that’s crazy!

One of the things I was most excited about doing in California’s Disneyland last December was the World of Color light and sound show, something I’ve wanted to see for as long as I can remember. The World of Color show is a half hour spectacular held in the Disney California Adventure Park, where clips of Disney’s favourites are projected onto an absolutely mammoth water “screen,” complete with music and light/water effects; we were in for a double treat, visiting a week and a half before Christmas! They use somewhere around 1,200 fountains to shoot water up to 200 feet into the air, to create an almost 20, 000 square-foot projection screen – only at Disneyland, hey? I’d also heard that viewing the show could be difficult, and had recommended the Dining Package; basically, you’re paying for dinner and priority viewing area, which we figured was worthwhile seeing as we had to eat anyway.

Three options are available, restaurant-wise – the Italian Wine Country Trattoria, the fancy Carthay Circle Restaurant, and the only option I was ever going to choose being a lifelong Little Mermaid fan: Ariel’s Grotto. I grinned like an idiotic, sugar-hyped child on my way down the spiral staircase to the dining room, and happily took my seat in a very “under the sea” themed restaurant. The service was, as one expects in Disneyland, second to none. We were seated with a smile, the fanciest complimentary bread basket I’ve ever seen (below, top right), and a patient explanation of how the dining package menu worked. For USD$45.35 each, we were entitled to three courses, our choice of entrée and main, as well as a dessert platter each. After dinner, we would be directed to the priority viewing area.

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The food, like the service, was amazing. I went with:
– Entrée: salad with apple, walnut and blue cheese (above, top right)
– Main: grilled lobster tail and red oak-smoked tri-tip with mashed potato and vegetables (above, bottom left)
– Dessert: platter of crème brulee, chocolate s’more slice and chocolate dipped strawberry (above, bottom right)

The grilled lobster tail and tri-tip were such a big highlight for me, they were cooked perfectly, both tender and soft, and the smokiness of the tri-tip was fantastic! I’d highly recommend the dining package, particularly to first time visitors like us; it makes a fun night a bit more special, and it’s nice to know that you don’t have to rush or get involved in the push and shove of finding a spot.  And our priority viewing was quite literally front and centre, we couldn’t have possible asked for a better vantage point! The show itself was fantastic, Christmas themed with all the Disney favourites both old and new, and some Christmas carols led by Frozen’s Olaf. Beware, though; these amazing viewing spots should come with a warning – you will get a little wet, because that’s how close you are to the action!

Eat here: Chumanchu, Melbourne (Vietnamese) V.2

Chumanchu
4 Gilbert Rd, Preston, Melbourne
http://www.chumanchu.com/

Allow me to start this post in complete honesty; this post was meant to be about a different restaurant.

Ok, so now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me talk briefly about my relationship with Indian food. I’ve eaten at an Indian restaurant once, and once only. A fancy place in Sydney. I must have been allergic to one of the deliciously exotic spices used in Indian cuisine, because I was violently ill and curled up in the fetal position for hours that night with the worst stomach cramps, and what we’ll call gastro-like symptoms for the next 24 hours. That was something like 6 years ago. Which sucks for my husband, because he loves Indian food.

He’s been a bloody trooper for the last few months in particular, helping and supporting me when I’ve needed it more than ever before. I thought it might be nice to take him out for Indian for dinner to say thank you! Well, that was shot to shit pretty quickly… We turned up to Labbaik in Preston, which I’d heard was pretty good. The food may be good there, but after seating ourselves, fetching our own menus, and sitting there for 5 minutes with absolutely no service, we got up and left.

I turned to my Zomato app for advice, and came up with Lovely Indians Restaurant, a few kilometres away. With a 4.0 out of 5 rating, I figured it should be pretty decent. Over we drove, and walked in, and hovered around the front door for 30 seconds before being seated. Then, the lady who seated us went out the back, and never returned. We waited another 5 minutes, having been seated and then ignored, no menu, no water, nothing. So we got up and left again. That kind of (lack of) service on a Friday night is not acceptable. I tried, I really did, but hangriness was developing by that point, so after a few choice words, I directed husband to Chumanchu. I was in absolutely no mood for another disappointment – I’d been there before and knew the food was great, so figured that’d be a safe bet. It had also been a while between visited so I was hoping the food lived up to my good memories of it!

You can check out my last visit here (I didn’t bother taking any photos of the restaurant because the interior hasn’t changed at all since my last visit), and despite having been around for a while now, the place was still packed. Tables were reserved all over the place, and we were seated on the big  communal table in the centre of the restaurant because it was so busy, which is always a good sign. There are heaps of delicious options on the menu, and it’s hard tp narrow your order down to only a few, but here’s what we ate…

We got a serve of the pork banh cuon (2 pieces for $11.00) which were as delicious as I remembered them being last time, and every bit as good as the ones I ate in Vietnam. Delicate steamed rice “crepes” nestled on a bed of bean sprouts, filled with tasty pork, and covered in deep fried shallots. Order these, they’re great.

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Next up were the prawn spring rolls (6 pieces for $13.00). They were really good, heaps of prawn meat and a great nuoc cham dipping sauce with lots of crushed peanuts.

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The main courses here are absolutely enormous, so one is more than enough to share after a few entrees! We went with one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes, banh xeo ($19.00) – a pancake of sorts filled with pork and prawn, bean shoots and mung beans, covered in fresh herbs, and golden fried to perfection. I ate a ton of these all over Vietnam, and this is the best one I’ve found back here in Melbourne. It is honestly the biggest serving I’ve ever seen and we were both stuffed after polishing it off. Last time I visited I said I’d come back just for this, and I’ll say it again (husband agreed).

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After a shitty false start (followed by a second failure), I was stoked that we ended up at Chumanchu – I’d been wanting to go back for ages, and after the initial disappointments, it tasted even better. If you’re needing something to look forward to at the end of our last long weekend/public holiday until November (blehhh), consider Chumanchu to break up the week! And if anyone has any recommendations for good Indian restaurants that will actually provide some service to their guests, I’d love to know about them!!

 

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Eat here: Coop’s Place, New Orleans (regional cuisine)

Coop’s Place
1109 Decatur St, New Orleans
http://www.coopsplace.net/

You know how some places are just referred to as a city institution? This is one of them. We asked a few locals where they’d recommend for a good feed on our way to a gig on Frenchman Street, and every response was “COOP’S PLACE! YOU GOTTA EAT THERE!” OK!

So we roll up to this dicey, dive bar looking place on Decatur St. It’s early (around 5:30pm) and already completely packed to the rafters and noisy as hell. There’s nanna sitting in the corner with her cocktail, and a dude in bike leathers on the next table. This is obviously the place to be; remember, first glances can be deceiving!

We settled into a corner table, placed a drink order with the no-nonsense guy who gave us menus in return, and got studying. We decided to go with the classics:

– fried crawfish (top left)
– gumbo (bottom)
– fried chicken (top right)
–  rabbit jambalaya (bottom of the big white plate)
– and slaw

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Holy wow.. Coop’s Place doles out some SERIOUSLY good food, and it’s absolutely no wonder every man and his dog pointed us in that direction!! The gumbo was magic, such intense flavours that were all perfect in that little bowl. The crawfish were amazing, despite not quite being in season yet – buttery, white meat with the perfect coating; the exact same can be said for the chicken, actually. Tender meat, perfectly seasoned and golden crunchy coating. The rabbit jambalaya was a little on the dry side for me, but mixed in with a little slaw, and it was gold again.

On a night where I was feeling a bit flat and unwell, this was THE perfect table full of comfort food. Not only that, Coop’s Place itself was like walking into a crazy family dinner; a lot of people, obviously locals, knew each other and were having a great time. Even we couldn’t help being drawn into it, laughing along when the table next to us erupted at God only knows what, singing along with another table when song we knew started to play over the speakers. I tell you, if a night at Coop’s Place doesn’t get you in a great mood, not much else will! So when you go to New Orleans and people tell you to eat at Coop’s Place, don’t be put off by your first look at it – walk right on it without hesitation, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy some gumbo and crawfish!!

 

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Eat here: Rosa’s Canteen, Melbourne (Italian)

Rosa’s Canteen
500 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
http://rosas-kitchen.com/

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So, I’m an Italian girl who writes about food most days, who also rarely eats at Italian restaurants. Kinda weird, I know, but as I’ve mentioned before, I find it hard to actually get really good Italian food, so I’d rather just go to a different type of restaurant and not be disappointed. But Rosa Mitchell is also a good Italian girl who knows good Italian food, so I was actually really excited to try her Canteen. I went in with my best friend earlier this week, hoping for the best but trying not to get too prematurely excited, just in case. Turns out my fears were utterly and completely unfounded.

The gorgeous little 62 seat eatery sits up in Melbourne’s legal district, overlooking the dome of the Supreme Court, nails that most perfect and difficult to reach mix of fine dining crossed with a seat in a good Italian kitchen; the silverware and glasses are sparkling, the service on point. But there was also the big bowl of home grown tomatoes of all shapes and colours, and a bowl similarly filled with apples next to it on the front counter. Those touches really made it feel like home for this Italian girl. The menu is beautifully simple, a few entrees, a few mains, a few pastas, a few sides, a few desserts. We started with the beef carpaccio ($20), which we both really enjoyed – buttery soft and thin slices of beef with capers and cheese, perfect way to start a meal!

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For mains, I had a bit of a nostalgic moment when I saw the parmigana di melanzane ($25), the eggplant parmigiana, and I had to have it. It was admittedly a little smaller than I’d have expected for the price, but it was perfect. It tasted just like Nonna’s cooking – soft, tasty eggplant in a way I can never get mine to be, that rich, sweet tomato sauce with the bits of fresh basil through it, and a sprinkle of parmesan on top. It tasted like happy childhood memories, Italian to perfection!

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Bestie got the other dish I had considered – the cassarecci pasta with lamb ragout and peas ($20). The lamb was unbelievably tender, and we were both stoked to taste the pasta – cooked properly, al dente. How very refreshing to get a bowl of pasta cooked the way it’s meant to be cooked, and not to soggy mush! That’s how it’s meant to be done, and that’s a bowl of pasta I’d go back for.

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We also grabbed Rosa’s iceberg salad ($8.50), which, again, tasted happily familiar. Nonna has always, and still does, serve up her bowls of pasta and/or mains with a big bowl of salad.

IMG_8052Finally, it wouldn’t be a proper Italian meal without dessert ($12); lemon mascarpone tart? Why yes, thank you! It was the absolutely perfect way to end the meal. Golden, buttery crust with a silky smooth filling, not too sweet, not too tart. Would love some more of that, too!

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I’m not sure what I was expecting; I’ve eaten at the Journal Canteen before, one of Rosa’s past food babies, and thoroughly enjoyed the pasta there. I’ve never heard a bad word about her food. And yet, having grown up around this kind of food, pasta made from scratch by my Nonna’s own hands with sugo made from vegetables grown in the backyard, it’s hard to live up to those expectations. Well, expectations met and exceeded, thank you Rosa for a beautiful dinner, and I look forward to coming back for more soon  : )

 

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Eat here: Leyalina, Melbourne (Egyptian)

Leyalina
191 Lygon St, Carlton, Melbourne
https://www.facebook.com/leyalina.melbourne

It’s hard to believe it was just two years ago we were in Egypt; it almost feels like a dream, now. I’d been wanting to visit Egypt my whole life, but was a little hesitant about the food. I wasn’t too familiar with Egyptian food, and wasn’t sure I’d really like it. What if it was too spicy? Too strange? Ingredients I didn’t understand or like? But we don’t travel to be comfortable, so instead of taking the easy way out and ordering burgers and chips everywhere, I threw myself headfirst into it and ordered falafel and grilled meat of every variety, dips and flat breads, and whatever else people wanted to recommend. And I loved it, all of it! Even the stuff I didn’t recognise, like most of the stuff in the photo below that we ate in the Nubian village we visited – I know there was molasses and some sort of sugar paste something-or-other… I didn’t care, it was all so good!

But strangely enough, back in Melbourne (one of the world’s greatest cultural mixing pots), there really aren’t many/any options for good Egyptian restaurants, so it’s been a little difficult for me to sate my appetite and relive the good memories from that trip. Until now: enter Leyalina. This Egyptian eatery opened on Lygon Street only 7 weeks ago, and is already earning itself quite a reputation. Visiting on Saturday night, we couldn’t help notice that the two story restaurant was packed out for pretty much the entire duration of our visit, a solid two hours. A pretty impressive feat for a 7 week old restaurant.

The lovely Marco greeted us and continued to check on us throughout the night, making sure our food was coming out to us in a timely fashion (which it did, despite how busy they were) and that we were happy with everything, which we very much were. I’ll come back to that later, though. First, the food.

We got started with the house made hummus ($9.50) and lemonade with mint ($6.00). The lemonade was a little overpriced, but the hummus was fantastic! Super smooth and perfectly balanced, with the sprinkle of paprika and parsley, and drizzle of olive oil – no overpowering garlic or tahini or anything like that. Great way to start a meal.

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Next up was the mixed grill plate ($27.00) – three skewers, one each of chicken, lamb shish kebab and lamb kofta on a spiced rice with raisins. The rice was delicious, again balanced just right, nothing too overpowering or too subtle. The skewers were amazing – the chicken and lamb were both really tender meat, and the kofta was perfectly seasoned. There was also a small side salad on the plate, which made it a pretty good main meal for one.

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The falafel. Very, very good. Deep fried little balls of goodness, smothered in sesame seeds and partnered with some spicy picked vegetables and a little cup of baba ghanoush, if I’m not mistaken. They were a little different to the ones I remember eating in Egypt; a lot smoother and less chunky, and we both really enjoyed them.

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The next dish we had was the foul mendammas, something I really wanted to try in Egypt but never had the opportunity to. It’s a traditional dish of cooked and mashed fava beans with vegetable oil and cumin, and occasionally garlic, lemon juice, onion, parsley – different areas will have different variations, like pastas in Italy and bun cha in Vietnam. I loved this one, so did husband; it’s amazing how much flavour you can get into a dish this simple when you know what you’re doing with it! It was thick, rich, so full of flavour, real comfort food. Huge tick for this one!

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And, because no great meal is complete without dessert, Marco kindly recommended the Om Ali tagine – nuts, sultanas and pastry layers baked tagine-style with milk. It came out looking less than appetising. It was destroyed in a matter of minutes. Don’t be deceived by looks, this is the darling of the dessert menu for good reason! The crunchy little hazelnuts and juicy raisins were strangely perfect with the milk-softened pastry. I’m glad I got this instead of my usual baklava order; it’s something I’d have never ordered unprompted or expected to like. This is why you need to trust the guys working behind the scenes in restaurants! Thanks Marco!

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