Friday, 8 June 2007

Thursday a Go Go (Part I) - La Contadina, Cafe Zum Zum

Thursday's an odd day of the week in my opinion. Most of us would have just barely struggled over the summit of yet another hectic week, and now hoping to ease off the pedals to coast down towards the weekend. For KB and I it's usually when we start getting a bit lazy in our daily routine, including the process of pondering and preparing our nightly meal. Despite this, we rarely dine out in the middle of a working week...(though we do succumb to that 'home-late-from-work' take-out more often than we care to admit). However on occasions where for one reason or another we'd visited a restaurant mid-week, it would more often than not happen on a Thursday. After all the vegie crisper would be looking a bit barren by then and the thought of re-heating the remnants of that curry that was eagerly enjoyed on Monday and again on Tuesday, would now be decidedly unappealing to say the least. The big plus of Thursday dining is that pre-planning is hardly ever required. We seldom have problems getting ourselves a table despite having not made a booking. The following set of posts reflects on our experiences at three different local restaurants that we'd chanced upon during lazy Thursdays in the past couple of months or so. It so happened that somehow they were all located on the same street, which was also quite odd...

There are no lack of eateries scattered along Rathdowne Street as it stretches through the suburb of Carlton, although it does lack the dense concentration of places and late evening buzz of neighbouring Lygon Street...kind of like the latter's more introverted cousin. Anyway one of the places we walked by and decided to stop in for a meal was the La Contadina Italian restaurant. The feel of La Contadina is every bit the typical Italian trattoria, with rustic exposed bricks breaking up timber panelling that is everywhere else. Counters and walls were cluttered with Italian-feel memorabilia ranging from statuettes and vases, to Renaissance prints and photos. More than one section of wall catered to the Head-of-House's (one Giovanni Mico) narcissistic tendency for pining up trophy photos of himself with a parade of local and international personalities but despite that, the overall atmosphere was warm and homey. The restaurant is fully licensed and allows BYO wine but we did not choose to imbibe that night. We were however persuaded to start with the usual serve of garlic bread, which was fine if a little heavy on butter. KB not unusually, had a hankering for seafood so she ordered the Risotto with Lobster, Local Prawns and Moreton Bay Bug in Chilli Garlic Sauce, while I was craving something heartier and chose the blackboard special of Osso Bucco with Grilled Polenta. Both mains had substantial servings but both also turned out to be a bit of a let down, mine much more so. KB's risotto was a little too overdone for her liking and somehow lacked the richness one would expect if made with a crustacean rich stock base. The prawns may have been 'local' and were okay but the grilled lobster was anything but, with its flesh having that bland and mushy consistency of having been frozen (probably because it was imported). The amount of seafood was generous though. My veal shank was an imposing meaty chunk and tasted suitably rich as I started on it but working inwards, a disconcerting feeling crept in that the meat was getting colder. Then I had a taste of meat next to the bone and it immediately killed my was cold, not in the way of talking too much and eating too slowly cold, but more like just taken out of the fridge cold. So much for looking forwards to sucking out the marrow...yes I do that, but doesn't everyone? I did let the waitress know about it and although I thought she could've been more apologetic, she did offer to get what was left re-heated for me. Bleah! I politely declined mainly because I've had enough Osso Bucco for the night and secondly, if I'd wanted to dine on microwaved left-overs I would've stayed at home in my PJs. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for pre-cooking a decent casserole and re-heating it the next day with the knowledge that flavours would even have improved. But I think that the initial half-hearted attempt at re-heating a dish for serving in a restaurant smacks of a definite level of jadedness in the kitchen in question and a lack of respect for paying customers, considering it wasn't even busy on the night. It definitely did not leave a good impression but we put it down to hopefully, an isolated oversight. We even stayed for after-dinner coffees and shared a Tira Misu, which must have been alright but not that memorable, because I don't remember it.

Food: 3 spots - Difficult to score because of my cold shank treatment, and so decided to be on the generous side.
Service: 3.5 spots - Our waitress was efficient and friendly enough without being warm.
Value: 3 spots - Prices were okay (Mains under $30) but again, value affected by food on the night.
Returnability(R) Factor: 2.5 spots - In an area renowned for its multitude of Italian bistros, not likely.
Spot Score: 12/20

La Contadina Ristorante Italiano
168-170 Rathdowne Street, Carlton, VIC.

I'm usually no fan of that occasional Thursday evening wander at the local suburban shopping complex. That's because it inevitably interferes with dinner time and sheer hunger usually coerces us into doling out not insubstantial sums of cash on the generally God-awful fare that lurks within foodcourt bains-marie. But on this particular occasion I was happy because I'd walked away from the Sales with a sparkling new Espresso machine, relatively content that I'd managed a great deal. Well that may or may not be so as I'm usually quite the skeptic of so called bargains at departmental 'Sales'. Anyone else notice that retailers seem to be having 'Sales of a Lifetime' just about every other week these days? As for our new coffee machine, it's great! The only drawback is that I haven't managed very much sleep since, as I stare wide-eyed at the bedroom ceiling fully buzzed from umpteenth shots of perfectly textured crema. But back to the night of its purchase, the need to mark the occasion with a proper meal helped us resist the lure of the foodcourt. Instead we decided it was as good a time as any to give Cafe Zum Zum in North Carlton a try.

This small quaintly named Lebanese & Middle Eastern orientated cafe/restaurant is located amidst residental suburbia at the the opposite end of Rathdowne Street to La Contadina. Although it was nearly 9 pm by the time we walked in seeking a feed, the place was lively with diners and we were lucky to be offered the only empty table left. The atmosphere was casual and friendly and a quick survey of occupants at the other tables hinted that this was a popular meeting place for locals in the know, regardless of which day of the week (we did find out the hard way on a previous unresearched and subsequently fruitless visit, that Zum Zum is closed on Mondays). The place was decorated with Middle Eastern and Asiatic trinklets and although small, tables were thoughtfully well spaced. There were also several tables located on the footpath outside the shopfront but even a month ago, al fresco dining appealed to no one. The two of us were hungry and quickly perused the relatively focused Menu to order Falafel Balls drizzled with yoghurt to start, and shared main plates of Harissa Spiced Chicken with Chickpeas and Grilled Snapper Fillet on Almond Rice. A surprisingly diverse drinks selection offering wines by bottle or glass and even boutique beers, rates a mention. We were impressed with the quality of the food. The falafels were flavourful well-spiced balls of crispy and crumbly goodness. The chicken dish was tasty especially the chickpeas, although the harissa lacked adequate kick and we would have preferred portions of chicken cooked on the bone, as I'm sure the spirit of the dish was meant to be. What's the deal with this pervading modern western preference for skinless and boneless but comparatively bland chicken breasts! The fish was a simply but superbly grilled fillet with skin on (yay!), which rested over a bed of almond rice consisting of steamed long grains infused with warm spices and toasted whole-almonds. At last a kitchen that knew how to handle fish with respect, no hint of overcooking or heavy-handed seasoning but instead letting the freshness of the moist white flesh shine through with just a tinge of lemony zing. The aromatic crispy edges of grilled skin accentuated the effect. Needless to say, we sparred forks over the last flakes! Overall, the food at Zum Zum was reminiscent of careful understated home-style cooking highlighted by its ethnic influences. It was invigorating to know of a place where we can go for simple tasty food prepared by folks who obviously care about what they offer from their kitchen! Alas my thoughts about their coffee and sweet offerings are a little more restrained. I thought I'll try the Arabic coffee since I witnessed them being served in intriguing individual-sized (they also have larger ones for more people to share) rakweh, long-handled metal pots in which Lebanese coffee is meant to be brewed. However while I was expecting a strongish caffeine hit with maybe hints of spice, the coffee was rather weak, nothing special and tasted slightly burnt to boot. In fact I doubt it was actually brewed over a stove in the rakweh since I could actually witness my order being prepared behind a large commercial espresso machine located at the bar! Anyway, I was convinced that I could've produced a much more satisfying cup at home, especially with our then new counter-top gadget waiting in the boot of the car! We also shared a bite each of a delightful enough cube of Turkish Delight...we had to woefully share one because at $4 a piece, it was already a rather cheeky ask. But don't let this minor whinging influence you. We recommend giving Cafe Zum Zum a try!

Food: 4 spots - Do yourselves a favour, gather a group, and share some great food!
Service: 3.5 spots - Friendly despite being busy.
Value: 3.5 spots - Can't argue with Mains round about $20.
Returnability(R) Factor: 4 spots - We're not local but we'll be back.
Spot Score: 15/20 - Recommended.

Cafe Zum Zum
645 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, VIC.

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