So one morning I navigated hesitantly under the West Gate and down Blackshaws Road until I came across this little oasis in the backstreets, a hub of the Lebanese community and a treasure trove of good food.
Starting at one end, Al Ameena butcher for lamb cutlets (the nice rack-of-lamb sort) for $20/kg. Other butchers, TAKE NOTE! It is bloody outrageous the $50/kg I have seen charged elsewhere. Kenny also gives Al Ameena's halal hot dogs a big thumbs up.
International Foods is a simply fantastic Lebanese and continental supermarket. One half of the shop is fruit and veg, the other is a very well-stocked and well-organised dry goods section, complete with aisles.
I could quite happily spend a good hour in here. Tahini in all grades and sizes, kitsch Eastern European chocolates, obscure Polish jams. I even used to buy bargain pomegranate juice here from Azerbaijan.
Love this - just as "regular" supermarkets have a choice between Tip Top, Sunblest, Helga's etc, here you can choose your favourite Lebanese bread. I personally like Kadamani or A1.
The chiller cabinets have all sorts of Middle Eastern cheeses including shanklish, a kind of aged feta rolled in herbs, haloumi and bargain yoghurt. Behind the counter the pine nuts are great value (or as good value as pine nuts can be). Recently International Foods have started selling pastries from the venerable Balha's of Sydney Road but the day I went they looked a bit tired. Stay tuned for a great local baklava shop.
Yes yes yes, the Holy Grail, the Lebanese pizza shop! I actually haven't been back to this one that much after discovering Amanie's in St Albans and they have evidently undergone some changes. There used to be a fish and chips/hamburger station in here too but that has been removed.
I have to say, I prefer it gone. Who needs a floppy hamburger when you have all this goodness to choose from? A good Lebanese pizza shop should have a small range of its offerings out, which are pies or flat "pizzas" folded into various shapes. These are then tossed into the long, flat oven which is absolutely searing in temperature, as evidenced by the mere 60 seconds it takes to have your choice heated up.
I highly recommend the kaak here, which is an almost bagel-like, sesame-seed encrusted roll filled with grated haloumi (you can see them in the picture above, at the front, in a little stack). A no less tasty but much less decadent option is the plain spinach, which this bakery do a great version of. The spinach is fresh and cooked with onion, allspice and perhaps sumac to make a fabulously tangy and healthy snack.
Last stop is Fruit Fiesta for gorgeous fruit and veg and a range of continental dry goods. There's a little cafe in the strip too called "Inner Circle" which I think is cute. It's the kind of place where everyone knows everybody and you feel compelled to take your empty cup back to the counter, just as everyone else does.
The coffee is unspectacular - get one from Spotswood on the way home, but first pull into Victoria Sweets which is just on Blackshaws Road.
When the Lebanese do something, they do it 110%. More glitz! More tulle! I love it - it's so OTT. Balha's in Sydney Road is the same, all glinty gold and the sweets displayed on enormous pedastals.
Everything is sold by weight, so start by asking for the type of container you wish to fill, whether a small box or a huge circular plastic plate to keep. Finding which type of baklava you like is trial and error. Greek baklava is very syrupy and almost soggy, whereas Lebanese can veer towards being too dry depending on the shop and the variety.
Phwoar, check out the chocolate baklava on the right side of the photo! One of my favourite Lebanese sweets is znoud. They are fat spring rolls filled with clotted cream, deep fried, soaked in sugar syrup and dolloped with more cream. Holy heart attack!
Here we have my favourite variety of baklava - triangular in shape and filled with a pine nut/cashew mixture (not sure but that is what it tastes like). On the left is harisa which is a dense cake of semolina. These were not up to Victoria Sweets' normal standards - the syrup had far too much rosewater for my taste.
Top marks though to this freebie shortbread I scored, stuffed with date paste. It had that perfect shortbready moist/dry thing going on with sweet, thick date paste in the middle. Does anyone (yasmeen?) know if this is maamoul or not? If so, I might be a convert as I normally dislike the more traditional date-stuffed pastries that I associate with this name.
I hope you enjoy exploring The Circle. Rayna recently lamented the lack of independent shops in the newer outer suburbs. I agree; nothing depresses me more than row after row of franchises. I love these unique shopping strips which have developed autonomously over time. Most of the shoppers here are older people - I hope that the young people in the area continue to keep The Circle alive.
Find a map to The Circle here.