sahara

Level 1, 301 Swanston Street, Melbourne

03 9663 8477

www.saharamelbourne.com.au

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

 

Sahara on Urbanspoon

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washington dc for dummies

Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.

I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.

The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.

Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.

The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.

Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.

Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.

Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.

It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.

Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?

emilio’s pizza pasta

Emilio Pizza Pasta
58 Mitchell Street, Darwin
www.pizzapasta.com.au
 

Takeaway pizza in Darwin: a five-minute survey of colleagues pointed me to Emilio’s, opposite Shennanigan’s pub on the main drag. I was tired and just wanted simple takeaway pizza to eat curled up on my hotel bed, watching Big Bang Theory re-runs.

Emilio’s is just five minutes away so I ordered on the phone. “What size are your pizzas? What size is medium?” A laugh. “Well, it’s hard to describe really. A medium would easily be enough for two people.” OK. I ordered a medium Mexican and wandered down in fifteen minutes.

$21 for a medium pizza is steep, and this didn’t feel like a generous helping as I walked back to my hotel. In the lift I came across a Dad with his young daughter with what looked like the extra-large option. “Seems like we had the same idea”, I remarked. “Hope it’s worth it”, the Dad said. “Thirty bucks is an awful lot for a pizza.”

So: how was it? I asked for well-cooked and I’m not sure I got that. The pepperoni was sparse, the vegetables plentiful and the centre of the pizza limp. Even though I had turned up a little early for my pizza it was already cooling down when I picked it up, so the last slice was pretty cold. It was tasty enough I suppose, but value for money at $21? I think not.

Maybe it would be better eating in, but I would not be sure. I could not give anything more than mediocre for this place.

feeding the five thousand

… well, the hungry team of five, anyway. We have our team meeting on Tuesday at a secret (and cheap) beachside venue. I have volunteered to feed us and our esteemed guests for lunch. We are the Red Cross, and voluntary service is fundamental to us. Plus: I get to choose what we eat.

With two coeliacs and one vegie amongst us, I am challenged to make a single meal to suit all. India comes to the rescue, as always.

A huge pot of brown and red lentils simmer away whilst I make up a very large quantity of tempering for my dhal and chole. I fry some black mustard seed in a generous lug of olive oil until they pop, add chopped tiny green chillies and cook until they smoke (they’re hotter that way), then in goes the holy trinity of cardamom, cloves and star anise. Last, a generous helping of garam masala, garlic and turmeric.

A pile of chopped onion gets fried quickly in a hot pan. The trick is to fry the onion well before you add anything to it.

I fry a mound of chopped mushrooms, small quantities at a time so they get nice and crisp rather than soggy. I add them to my onions. In goes chopped Roma tomatoes to sweeten the mixture.

Half of the tempering and the onion/mushroom/tomato mixture goes to make the basis of Charmaine’s dhal, and half to my chole. Not traditional, but I am a fan of the incidental consumption of vegetables. I add more chole masala to my pot of chickpeas: I can’t figure out what other spices are in this masala but somehow it makes the difference.

When both are cooked and simmered and well settled, I decant into containers and stir some fresh spinach leaves into both. I shall serve sprinkled with kasoori mehti, accompanied by plenty of Afghan bread, gluten-free wraps for the Gluten Girlies, lime pickle and yoghurt. And of course, a plate of freshly-grilled jerk chicken breasts for the non-veg people amongst us.

Home-cooked goodness, healthy, low-fat food, cheap as chips, idiot-proof recipes. Perfect.

>pee wee’s at the point

>

Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point Reserve, Darwin
http://www.peewees.com.au/

After a full day out exploring the beautiful Litchfield National Park near Darwin, my plans to experience a spectacular sunset over the ocean were scuttled when I had a blow-out on my 4WD in the middle of nowhere. Luckily I still had a faint signal on one mobile phone (how I wished I’d borrowed a satphone from work though) and RAC were soon on their way to help.

Hurtling back to Darwin I could see the sun disappearing fast and I knew my dreams of sipping a glass of wine whilst enjoying the sun melt into the water were gone. Nonetheless, hungry and worried that all the restaurants would be shut by the time I got back to the hotel for a shower, I headed for my original destination, Pee Wee’s at the Point.

The sky was almost dark by the time I got there and I could see the lights of Darwin lighting up across the bay. I could imagine how beautiful it would have been an hour earlier. Friendly wait staff showed me to a table with the best night-time view and I settled back with a glass of Henry’s 7 shiraz viognier from SA. The wine list was pretty good with lots to choose from by the glass including sparkling shiraz (must remember this for Orlando).

My starter was a single bug tail raviolo with lemon thyme and a tomato confit. It looked innocuous enough but it was divine: I was almost full afterwards.


Having been recommended to eat all the barramundi I could in NT, I chose a pan roasted crispy skin barramundi fillet, marinated in green spice paste, with coral Enoki mushrooms, asparagus, a crispy mudcrab potato cake and sea urchin butter. Couldn’t actually tell there was real sea urchin in the butter, but nonetheless the whole dish was fabulous – well balanced, beautifully presented and the fish was falling apart with freshness. The tiny rectangular potato cakes looked innocuous enough: delicious and full of flavour, but very heavy. Despite myself I could not finish them. I am not sure they “went” with the rest of the dish – maybe more of a dumpling idea would have been preferable.
Sitting back with a pot of peppermint tea I could imagine why this is one of the favourite dining spots of Darwin. I will certainly make plans to get here in time for sunset next time I am in town.

>darwin trailer boat club

>Atkins Drive, Fannie Bay, Darwin
www.dtbc.com.au

It’s not the most sophisticated dining destination in Darwin, but by god it must have one of the best locations. The Darwin Trailer Boat Club is just a local boating club, with a simple bistro menu at excellent prices. You place your order with the lovely Dan at the cash register in the corner, wait until your number is called then go up and collect your dinner and fill up on salad and vegetables at the self-service counter. Nothing complicated, just good home-cooked food.

We got there in plenty of time for the sunset and sat outside at a trestle table in awe of the spectacular view across Fannie Bay. We could see already that it was going to be an amazing sunset. We bought a bottle of red (served chilled in true NT style), ordered our food and sat back to watch the show.

As the colours changed and the sun hung low in the sky on one of the most perfect St. Patrick’s Days I have ever had, we sipped our chilled shiraz and counted our blessings on having been sent here to work.

We were called for our dinner and I filled my plate with extra vegetables. It wasn’t gourmet food but with those views it was a perfect end to a perfect evening. Not even the Crocodile Warning on the steps down to the beach could dim my mood.