Level 1, 301 Swanston Street, Melbourne

03 9663 8477

My former work colleagues invited me to dinner the other night. I was so excited I turned up half an hour early.

Sahara is up a creaky flight of stairs off Swanston Street, a bejeweled, dark wood oasis with a rooftop bar to top it off. Inexplicably, on a cold August night, the over-sized restaurant door was propped open and no radiant heater could counter the cold current of air permeating the space. The server told me that they intended to leave the door open all evening, and they did. It beggars belief that so many Melbourne eateries defiantly ignore the winter months, leaving so many of their diners eating indoors in their overcoats.

Sahara’s rich Moroccan ambience turned out to be a good indicator of the richness of the food, but it ocurred to me that the seating was not designed to encourage a relaxed dining pace: most of the seats were either high bar stools or hard wooden benches with no backs and cushions that slid away from you. Between that and the Arctic breeze blowing through the room, I was often more aware of my physical discomfort than the quality or otherwise of the food.

Sahara 1

Despite the chill in the air, the food was enjoyable: bread, dips and bruschetta to start, with most people choosing a tagine of sorts for main course. The chicken salad sounded like a tame choice by one of my fellow diners, but the dish was plentiful, delicious and full of flavour. The lamb and beef tagines were rich in colour and aroma. My Moroccan fish masala tagine was reminiscent of a good fish korma, all creaminess and almonds. Just divine.

Sahara are happy to cater for gluten-free types, and the servers are by and large a friendly bunch – up to a point. At just past 9pm on a Wednesday we were the last people in the place, and (perhaps  because our BYO wine was not making any money for them) we were given ten minutes to finish and go.

I wouldn’t mind heading back to Sahara another time, but it wouldn’t my first choice. The food is decent but the physical environment just takes the edge off it for me. Maybe I’m just getting old.


Sahara 2


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>Cafe Lalibela

>We promised each other we were going to eat locally. Footscray is full of Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Indian and now African restaurants and canteens. Almost two years in, we have our favourite Chinese (Ha Long), Vietnamese, (Thien An), Thai (Thai Angels), and Indian (Aangan), but we have not savoured any of the African delights on offer within a few minutes of or house.

So this evening we chose Cafe Lalibela, a small local Ethiopian restaurant beloved of the “new white intelligentsia” as one newspaper called them. The two doyens of restaurant culture, The Age’s Epicure and Mietta’s, herald this little canteen as one of the best in the inner west.

So we presented on a balmy spring Sunday evening, bottle of red wine in hand, ready to be impressed. Most of the tables were taken in the ten-table room, and as far as we could see there was one cook and one server. Unluckily our bottle was a screw-cap, so we waited almost twenty minutes with the wine ready to be poured, but because they hadn’t needed to uncork the bottle we were unhappily without glasses.

We ordered quickly, a special chicken “wat” or stew, and a dry-fried beef dish. Both would be accompanied by plain rice as our server advised us they had run out of injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread used to mop up the wat sauces. No problem, we thought. We like rice. There was no choice of starter.

An hour passed. We sat chatting. They seemed to be cooking each table’s order as it presented, and there were three tables ahead of us. People came, sat at tables, and left without ordering. Some people came in, sat at tables, went into the kitchen (were they friends of the owner?) and left without ordering. The wine bottle’s contents slowly decreased. My hunger increased.

Finally two bowls of plain white rice came out, with two dishes. One was filled with small cubes of the most over-cooked fried beef I have ever seen, garnished with a few strands of blackened fried onion. The other held a very dark brown sauce – this was supposed to be the chicken dish. I rummaged and found a hard-boiled egg and single scrawny chicken drumstick with no more than a mouthful of flesh on it. The rest, as far as my taste buds could tell, was finely chopped onion in a thin gravy.

We ate a few mouthfuls of each, then decided to combine both dishes to extract the best from each. After an hour’s wait we cleared our plates, but it was more out of hunger than enjoyment. Fifteen minutes after the food was presented, we were paying and leaving the restaurant.

My challenge will be to present, “Ready, Steady, Cook”-like, a list of ingredients, to see if anybody can come up with anything more palatable than our Sunday evening meal:

  • one scrawny chicken drumstick
  • a large quantity of onion
  • about 400 grams of stewing beef
  • however much white rice you need
  • whatever spices you want

I reckon anybody could some up with a meal more exciting than what we were served at Cafe Lalibela, even for $26. You have been challenged.

Cafe Lalibela, 91 Irving Street, Footscray