Justine de Jonge is a Melbourne freelance travel writer and blogger who loves travelling the vegan road. She also loves blogging about her vegan travels at www.fireandtea.com .
Published September 20th 2012
A fusion of Spanish and Moroccan cooking
If you take a walk along Sydney Road, you're bound to stumble over a melting pot of cuisine that represents Melbourne's vibrant multi-cultural personality. While choices on offer are plentiful, it's La Paella that shines as a unique eating destination.
La Paella brings to its guests an enticing fusion of Spanish and Moroccan cooking, all in a modest, casual location in Brunswick. La Paella, also a halal establishment, is proud to cook for its guests simple, home-style dishes that utilise traditional ingredients and it's the restaurant's ambience that accentuates a signature homely style.
As we walk through the door, we're immediately welcomed by warm, generous smiles from our hosts and an eagerness for us to sit and get comfortable. A rich coloured rug drapes one wall and framed photos of Moroccan life grin down upon us. Elaborate leadlight chandeliers drop from the ceiling. Tables are topped by mosaic tiles, illuminating the colours typical of a Moroccan market scene – blue, yellow and red. Towards the back of the sitting area a shelf stands tall, selling handmade ceramics and pottery, cooking tagines and tea pots – all sourced from the famous souks, or markets, of Marrakesh. Long benches line two walls and guests are cushioned by paisley pillows. All of these furnishings disguise the otherwise drab appearance of this converted shop-front.
Within minutes, our cheerful hostess brings us our menus. Shortly after, our mint tea in a sturdy, bright yellow teapot arrives. Our tea glasses are filled to the brim and the refreshing smell of mint fills the air. Traditionally, this tea is served with copious amounts of sugar (Moroccans have a penchant for sweetness), though we decline in advance. The mint tea proves to be sweet enough.
While we navigate the menu, dishes from previous visits permeate from the page – bastella (chicken and almond pie served in flaky pastry and doused in icing sugar and cinnamon), tender lamb shanks with mashed potatoes and a vegetable paella for sharing between two. Such an assuming collision in food is the height of La Paella's careful ability – to combine two Mediterranean cuisines seamlessly.
What arrives in ample time are plump, steaming mushrooms stuffed with garlic and herbs, a tagine base encasing a warmed dip mix featuring zaalouk (eggplant and tomato blend), bessara (dried green peas and spices) and laadissa (lentils and herbs), plus toasty bread to dip. Ordering single serves for individual guests is not a wise game-plan here. Meals at La Paella are best enjoyed communally and our eating progresses as such. Dishes are placed in the middle of our table; the sharing and conversation begin.
Dishes are cleared by our host and he's eager to know how we faired. We nod in appreciation and beam genuine smiles of satisfaction. It's here that La Paella transcends its "home-style" ethos. We feel as though we are dining in our hosts' own home. They aim to please and their standards are high. A vegetable couscous appears not long after and tops up our bellies.
When our hostess clears our plates, we ask if dessert is on offer. On prior occasions, we've learnt that sweets are sometimes served at La Paella if there's a demand. Our hostess reveals that she's been teaching her chef all day and her cooking time has been limited. Also, the demand for sweets has plummeted since the ending of Ramadan. While tonight we miss out, we know that there is a chance in the future for perhaps sweet baklava cigars blanketed in cinnamon and honey. This is a perfect excuse to revisit.