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Eating Melbourne in three days – Maha Bar and Grill Review

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 – Books for Cooks

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

As chance would have it, two doors down from Gertrude Street Enoteca sits a bookshop. Standing infront, window shopping, a realisation came over me. This is no ordinary bookshop. Every single book or poster in the window is about food. A quick glance at the name and my dreams come true. A bookshop purely for the pleasures of cooking and food!

window shopping gives me a swift realisation

I ran inside, and I did not know where to look. Stacks upon stacks of books, all calling out to me, whispering sweet nothings into my ear. I was like a foody kid in a Valrhona store. A quick chat to the owner told me that Books for Cooks has been open for around 10 years now. I made a joke about finding somewhere that had more cook books than I did, and was quickly shot down even further, told that there were two other rooms packed full of books!

Another room full of books

There also was going to be another shipment of books coming in soon. The great thing about Books for Cooks is that they have a mail order service, and you can send them an email to check if they have your favourite book. So if you are in the market for a specialist food book (as I often am), which is rare, or out of print, get in contact, and they should be able to sort you out!

And another room full of books

Books for Cooks
233-235 Gertrude Street
VIC 3065
T: 61 3 8415 1415

Eating Melbourne in three days – Gertrude Street Enoteca Review

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

The Gertrude Street Enoteca
229 Gertrude St, Fitzroy 3065 VIC, Phone: (03) 9415 8262

View of Gertrude Street Enoteca from with my back to the courtyard

Leaving the hotel and heading right, a 2 minute walk will get you to Gertrude Street Enoteca.
The word enoteca is Italian. Breaking down the word, you will see that it sounds like biblioteca (library) , having the suffix “teca” in common which means case or box. The “eno” prefix refers to wine, and so, putting 1 and 1 together, we have a wine library.

enjoying my coffee!

Unfortunately, it was only 10 am, and I did not feel the need to start loading up with wine, regardless of the setting. So Elaine and I ordered coffee and cake, kicked back and enjoyed the surrounds. The coffee was fantastic, and the cakes fresh and tasty, and oh how good it was to have real cream with real vanilla seeds dispersed throughout, slightly sweetened with some caster sugar. We both agreed that even though the chocolate hazelnut torte was extremely good, the lemon cake won hands down. There is nothing like a simple, buttery cake, a small side of cream to make the heart happy.

hazelenut and chocolate torte (front) and lemon cake (back)
with gertrude street in background

Try Gertrude Street Enoteca for a light lunch, or come for dinner where there is a limited menu with usually some form of meat (a bird or something similar). The focus is on local produce, and you can buy some hampers. The floor stocks some nice local products, but the room is tiny, so be early, or try to book.

Eating Melbourne in three days – Introduction

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.

Orange and Blossom Cordial

Homemade cordial calls back to my childhood, and mom made the best. Dad would come back with boxes full of oranges, which he would have picked up from the local growers, and mom, knowing that there was no way we would get through them, would start the “mooneh”. The word mooneh translates to “supplies”, but is most usually used to indicate the larder, or the winter store with pickles, jams and of course cordials. My brother Fady was a big fan of mom’s thirst quenching cordial, of which she kept several bottles in the kitchen pantry. I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing Fady pull out a bottle from the pantry, pour some in a glass, and add some water straight from the tap, and in his haste, he downed it all without stirring. Before I could say anything, Fady spat out the lot. Those of you who know Fady, know he is a bit like Emile, the gluttonous brother from Ratatouille. Fady had taken a bottle of our own cold pressed, unfiltered olive oil and downed the contents. I have not let him forget that story.

This weekend we went for an Easter visit to Lainy’s parents, who own a fantastic plot of land in Picton, NSW. I’ve tried to grow some vegetable there before, but our visits were not frequent enough, and the land itself needed some serious work, so the yield was low. There are, however, some old fruitful trees that are in desperate need of being taken care of. One of which is a loquat tree (my favourite) which self seeded in the same month I met Lainy, and we take that as a “sign”. Another one is a sorry looking orange tree, around a meter and a half tall, but with fantastic yield. My in-laws are not big fans of this tree, and I have difficulty convincing them that the oranges should be eaten, rather than let go to waste. So I picked some oranges and brought them home with me. I also picked some of the orange blossoms in order to infuse them in my cordial.

orange blossoms from Picton

So once I got home, I cordially recruited Ludwig’s help (as he had made the last batch of lime cordial). The recipe could not be any simpler than this:

4 cups of orange juice
8 cups of boiling water
10 orange blossoms
1.5 kg of sugar (yep!)
1 tsp citric acid (from the supermarket)
The rind of 3 lemons

Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water, infuse the lemon rind and the orange blossoms for 10 minutes. Add the orange juice and citric acid and stir, making sure all the sugar has dissolved. It’s now ready to go, so add some water as desired, and plenty of ice! And it tastes so good, especially with the orange blossoms having infused in there. Very Lebanese!

The finished product, orange and blossom cordial

Congratulations to Trish

This morning, my friend Trish became a published author, with her article on baking for Greek Easter taking the cover position in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Living publication.

Check out Trish’s article here, and you can also see her blog here.

Congratulations Trish!!!

You say tomato, I say tomato

I wonder how you can actually write that in a way that makes sense: you say tomato, I say tomato. Hehe.

Anyway, yeah, just wanted to share some action shots with some beautiful heritage tomatoes growing in my backyard. Are they not beautiful?

Tonno Di Coniglio – Rabbit Like Tuna

I doubt that any serious food lover has not heard of the very respectable Matthew Fort. If you haven’t seen him gain weight by judging on the Great British Menu, providing enthusiastic and insightful feedback, you may have seen him with on the slightly less exciting Market Kitchen. Matthew is also the Food and Drink editor for The Guardian and is the author of several books, one of which I own – Eating Up Italy, Voyages on a Vespa.

Now, I remember some years back seeing our main man on Rick Stein’s Food Heroes (if memory serves). Rick visited Matthew for lunch, and Matthew was showing off an Italian specialty he called Tuna Rabbit. The texture of the rabbit was supposed to have some how been transformed to that of tuna. To me, that was interesting! I can’t explain why it stuck with me, the idea of flaky rabbit in olive oil. The issue was, when Matthew opened up the tuna rabbit batch, it had grown moldy and hairy. So I never got to see how it looked like, but I trusted that if Matthew Fort raved as much about it, it must be good.

Sage and garlic play a big role in this 4 ingredient recipe

So, I pick up Matthew’s aforementioned book two days ago, and flipping through, what do I find? A good recipe for Farro soup, Sfarrata. I also find the recipe for Tonno Di Coniglio subtitled Rabbit like Tuna. Matthew had this dish at a restaurant called Cascina Martini. He describes it as the inland version of tuna in oil and as being typical of the cooking of the people of Monferrato, which, having little access to seafood and finding canned tuna too expensive, came up with this dish. The recipe is quite simple and is as follows:

1 rabbit
20-30 sage leaves
20 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil

The finished product, ready to get into the fridge for 3 days

The rabbit must be cut and simmered in salt water until it’s ready to fall off the bones, at least 45 mins. Drain the rabbit and pull the flesh off the bones while the meat is still warm. Layer an earthenware container (use one with a small radius to save on olive oil) with rabbit seasoned with salt and pepper and topped with garlic cloves and sage, in at least 3 layers, seasoning each layer individually. Cover with olive oil put in the fridge for 2 to 3 days. Serve on a bed of rice or some slightly bitter chicory leaves.

I am still waiting for the rabbit to mature in the fridge, and I’ll add some action shots of the dish itself when I decide what to do with it. But the picture looks delicious no?

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