Category Archives: Maha

Eating Melbourne in three days – Maha Bar and Grill Review

By | Maha, Melbourne, Reviews | 3 Comments

This blog entry is part of a series. Read Part 1 here.

Now I am not an expert on the subject of Melbournian chefs, but if there is a subject I AM an expert on, it would have to be Middle-Eastern food, with a particular focus on Lebanese. After all, I am from there (not that that gives me any qualifications)! This means that I am constantly on the look for talent in that space. If a chef has published a book, or achieved some form of accolade, my interest is roused, but until I try the food, I attempt to go forward with an open mind. Maha Bar and Grill is for sure, a place that caught my attention. Given a chef’s hat by The Age, Maha is run by Shane Delia, a Maltese chef with a Lebanese wife and backed by George Calombaris from The Press Club, and now judging Australian Masterchef. Lebanese, Maltese? Same! (in joke, and I’ll get Ludwig to tell you about Charlie later).

Finding your way on the backstreet does not prepare you to what you will experience. Maha is a super cool venue with a partially open kitchen, professional staff, a well formulated menu using high quality, fresh produce, and producing a set of sexy looking dishes, that deviate only slightly from the Middle Eastern originals.

So, off the back street, and down the stairs to an underground space, to be greeted by a well dressed, well spoken maitre d’. Elaine and I are not looking the part as our comfortable travel attire and bright green Crumpler backpack clashes with the background, and the SLR digital camera hanging around my neck is loudly screaming “TOURISTS!!!”. I sense a slight hesitation on behalf of the maitre d’, but we are taken to our tables, and neatly tucked away in the corner, away from the dimly dressed Melbournian business people, happily eating their way through the financial crisis. The spot is nice however, as it gives me a good view of the room. The room itself has a dim, underground feel to it, exaggerated by the dark wooden tables, but I mean that in a good way. I will not harp on about the space, as it is more than comfortable and elegant, but I’m there for the food. We are explained that apart from the a la carte, there is a set menu, here called Soufra which roughly translates to banquet, or food table. You can go with the 2, 3 or 4 course Soufra. The 2 course is for a quick lunch, the 3 is the popular one, with mezze, mains (Sahn Kbeer, meaning large plate) and desserts. The 4 course menu adds an additional course of oven baked items. Each course, the waiter explained, is expressed by a sharing platter. The chef chooses what to include, and ensures it’s enough to make you full. After making sure we do not have any dietary requirements, and confirming that we are going for the 3 course menu, the waiter takes our orders, and pours some sparkling mineral water, informing me that the cost for that is fixed, so no big bills for sparkling.

The first course comes, the Mezze.

the mezze course. anti-clockwise top right, marinated olives, muhammara, stuffed pimento, marinated eggplant, Turksih yoghurt with carrots and marinated beetroot (center).

This course is a basic one, albeit quite pretty. The olives nice and plump, the muhammara (red pepper, bread, pomegranate mollases, walnuts, garlic) tasty, but a bit watery. My preference is for a more dense, spicier version with more walnuts. The pimentos are stuffed with kafta, and topped with yoghurt, which was interesting, but not mind blowing. The rest was ok, nicely flavoured dishes, but a bit too boring and traditional. And did I mention it was all cold. I like my kafta hot.

Next, came the mains, or big plate as they put it here.

anti-clockwise from top right, baba ghannouj, Iranian couscous, lamb skewers, fattouch, butterfish

This was certainly more substantial, and much more interesting. The presentation was fantastic and I hope the picture gives it justice. The baba ghannouj was smoky and creamy, and the Iranian couscous were simply breathtaking, buttery and creamy, with a playful texture, contrasted with pinenuts, and the richness offset by sweet dried currants. A winner for sure. The lamb skewers were beautifully and strongly spiced, tender, but bold with heady flavours. A good fattouch with very fresh produce ate well, and healthy chunks of fresh butter fish were generously seasoned with salt and fried in butter, topped with pinenuts and grapes. Very very nice. Good portions that left room for dessert.

anti-clockwise from top right, oowamat (Lebanese donuts), chocolate panacotta, laban semifreddo and raspberry sorbet

How nice does that look! Perfect balls of oowamat, a traditional Lebanese dessert made on Ghtas, the feast of Baptism (not sure what it is called in English). Basically, these are balls of dough, deepfried and doused with sugar syrup. This version is not very far off. The balls are rounder, filled with Turkish Delight, and much less sugar is used, and the lot is topped off with a pinenut praline, which sticks to your teeth like crazy. This is a fun dessert, but is quite stodgy. The marsala strawberries on top of the chocolate pannacotta was better, and to me, macerated strawberries are the only way to eat strawberries with chocolate, otherwise, the juiciness makes the chocolate chalky. The laban (yoghurt) semifreddo tasted of fresh sweet yoghurt and I loved it. The raspberry sorbet, I’m happy with or without.

I hope I do not sound overly critical. It’s just that I know very well what it takes to get a chef’s hat. I do believe Maha deserves a chef’s hat from the Age. The food is not greatly better than Sydney’s Middle Eastern scene, but I think Maha would have scored points for the ambience and service. Overall, a 15/20 for me.

Eating Melbourne in three days – Introduction

By | Books for Cooks, Fitzroy, Gertrude Street Enoteca, Greg Malouf, Maha, Melbourne, MoMo, MoVida Next Door | 3 Comments

Since I’ve arrived to Australia in 2001, I’ve had the chance to see the food scene in Sydney blossom and grow in inverse proportion to the size of foam bubbles in cappuccinos. Getting a good feed around here is getting easier by the day, what with all the fantastic chefs we have opening new restaurants and seducing us with thoughtful, concentrated and enticing menus. However, if you follow this blog, you would agree if I said that it is not my habit to review restaurants (not online anyway). So in the coming few entries, you will see this change somewhat. My trip to Melbourne has injected me with tonnes of excitement, and my camera is packed with some delicious photos. But let me step back first, and make it clear that my intention is not review Melbourne’s restaurants, but rather share an amazing weekend away. The restaurants I’ll be discussing are integral to my experience, as they were the focal point, and if it the place was not worth it, I am not going to include it.
April 26th 2008: Lainy and I have just tied the knot, and are in the hotel waiting to catch a cab to the airport, for a 4 week culinary journey to Japan and France. All cashed up with the generosity of friends and family and about to have the best month of our lives.
April 24th 2009: One year later and Lainy has not left me yet! Hurrah! This year, the trip will be domestic, and Melbourne is the destination. Sydney’s top foodie (and I mean that honestly, but no name dropping here) had provided me with tailor made lists of restaurants that are a must for our trip, but the main reason why Melbourne is the city of choice was simple: Greg Malouf. A few months back, I was reading through Greg’s fine book, Saha. I can not stress the importance of this book enough. This is a unique travel log by one of Australia’s finest, documenting the impressions and emotions that the food cultures of Lebanon and Syria can impart on a man whose mind is ready to take it all in, and draw and mix those experiences with the expert eye and knowledge of a master chef. And it was as I was reading through that I decided to email Greg and express my admiration. Unbelievably, Greg answered my email, and extended an invitation for me to visit him at his Melbourne restaurant MoMo. Greg had only recently reopened MoMo and there was a lack of literature on this new venture, so I was not sure what to expect, but I knew one thing, it was going to be worth the trip to Melbourne. And boy was it worth it! Now, I don’t want to jump ahead of myself, so let me list down the places that I will be covering in the next few posts.

Gertrude Street Enoteca
Books for Cooks
MoVida Next Door
• MoMo

Following a friend’s suggestion, and gratifying my well loved hatred for hotels, we decided to base ourselves in arty Fitzroy, in a little Victorian bed and breakfast called the Brooklyn Arts Hotel:, 48-50 George St Fitzroy Melbourne, Australia
Telephone +61 3 94199328

Our room at The Brooklyn Arts Hotel

This cool little space is run by Maggie who is possibly the friendliest person you will ever meet, so if you are ever in Fitzroy, make sure you stay there. The hotel has a very communal feel to it, very befitting the area of Fitzroy, which is very similar to Newtown, with the difference that you can get some fine tipple even at cafe’s, which are abundant. So, for a morning coffee, having just arrived from the airport, first on our list is Gertrude Street Enoteca.