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.
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.
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.