Restaurant Reviews

MoMo, Melbourne restaurant review

Michael Harden welcomes the long-awaited return of MoMo to Melbourne’s dining scene, and indulges in a feast fit for a sultan.

By Michael Harden
This restaurant has closed.
The last time the basement at Melbourne's Grand Hyatt turned any heads was in the 1990s. The Hyatt's cavernous food court was once the venue for some of the city's wildest, most fashionable parties before the show ponies left for hipper pastures and the increasingly deserted and forlorn space finally closed. But with the reincarnation of Greg Malouf's much-missed MoMo restaurant stepping in to fill the void, the Grand Hyatt is back on the radar.
People with memories of those heady days would be hard-pressed to recognise the space now. Executive chef Greg Malouf's employers at the original MoMo, Geremy and Dean Lucas, have joined forces with Robert and Victor Zagame, and this band of brothers seems to have spared no expense.
The largest proportion of space has been given over to the dimly lit and completely over-the-top lounge and cocktail bar, Spice Market. With its split-levels, multiple private rooms, Asian and Middle Eastern antiques and London nightclub vibe, Spice Market couldn't be labelled subtle or restrained. But MoMo, inhabiting a more intimate area glimpsed through intricate screens (and soundproofed glass) separating it from the bar, has a more pared-back approach, albeit one laden with a heady, deliberately retro luxury.
MoMo, version 2.0, is serious about placing Malouf's intricate and aromatic modern Middle Eastern food in an unashamedly upmarket fine-dining context. Gone is the moody, Moroccan bazaar-channelling clutter of the original restaurant, replaced by clean-lined five-star hotel luxe that offers Middle Eastern hints through restrained designer touches.
It starts with a ride in a private lift from the Grand Hyatt's Collins Street entrance. As the elevator doors close, the lights dim, and illuminated shelves filled with hand-painted Middle Eastern ceramics set into one wall of the cabin glow in the gloom. The doors then open onto a small lobby dominated by a looming wine rack set in front of a curved curtain of metal beads, softly glowing under blue and yellow downlights.
Past the curtain, white lacquered chairs with flocked leather upholstery and metal-stud details, and high-backed banquettes, covered in burgundy and green patterned fabric, surround tables double-draped in linen. Curved lines of Swarovski crystals spatter the ceiling with refracted light and there are walls covered in pale gold crushed velvet. The beige and brown carpet is patterned with plants and flowers, and dramatic sculptural flower arrangements are feature-lit on one wall. The floor staff, uniformed in long white shirts of damask-like material, are an important part of MoMo's old-school fine-dining feel, which could be either 1960s-era fine diner or current-day Malaysian resort. Either way, the theatrics look expensive.
Malouf's menu offers à la carte and a couple of banquet options: an entry-level "Arabesque" menu where you choose two entrées, two mains and two sides from a list of four or five, before a series of small desserts, or a heftier (in size and price) "Moorish" menu. Both banquets are silver-served at the table. This level of service seems almost arcane in today's casual-dining-obsessed restaurant scene but is completely in tune with the luxury of MoMo, particularly as the waiters perform with purpose and skill rather than "Aren't-I-clever?" flashiness.
Malouf's cooking is similarly simpatico. His influences come from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and North Africa but also his mother's kitchen, worker cafés and palace kitchens. Malouf's formidable skill has always been in emphasising the elegance and refinement in dishes of even the humblest origin. He nails the link between high- and low-art that others miss.
His appetiser of raw vegetables, landing shortly after a silver tray of warmed, rosewater-scented refresher towels, underlines the point. Sprigs of mint and dill and shards of cucumber, carrot, fennel, celery and radish sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper sprout from a beaten Arabic coffee pot, accompanied by a dish of olive oil and organic pomegranate molassesand a pile of round Arabic bread, warm from thestone oven. It's a simple and rustic beginning that's also elegant and refreshing.
Zucchini flower dolmades teamed with a yoghurt soup also straddle the elegant/rustic divide. The flowers, coated in a crunchy tempura-like batter and stuffed with lemon-flavoured rice mixed with barberries and nuts, sit in a shallow pool of superbly comforting yoghurt soup, the soup based on a family recipe. Flavoured with silverbeet, chilli, lemon and sumac, it is tangy and earthy, its soft textures working magnificently with the brittle crunch of the zucchini flower batter.
The same philosophy pervades many of Malouf's dishes. Ox tongue that has been pickled in brine before being hot-smoked and poached in aromatics is sliced into voluptuously textured and richly flavoured slivers and then paired with a traditional Lebanese mezze dish of silverbeet stems flavoured with allspice, lemon and garlic. A dish of crisped onion is provided as a condiment adding some snap to the smooth, slippery textures.
Knee-weakeningly pink and juicy spiced duck breast, flavoured with cinnamon, ginger and black pepper, shares a plate with a soft herb salad and sultan's eggplant delight, a smoky Turkish version of baba ghanoush that has been pushed through a sieve and mixed with Gruyère to give it a richer, silkier consistency and a notably bitey aftertaste.
Pin-boned garfish is bedded down with dill, sheep's milk feta, chilli and lemon before being wrapped in filo pastry and served with a citrus-and-olive-oil-dressed cucumber salad, while farmed rabbit, gently roasted, is curled around sujuk and mint before being wrapped in silverbeet leaves and teamed with a sour, salty mustard labne.
Side dishes show the same care and thought. The  salad of vine-ripened tomatoes is a poster child for a vegetarian lifestyle, combining sweet heirloom tomatoes with tarragon, goat's cheese and subtly powerful sumac vinaigrette. It just nudges out the couscous, stewed with leeks and pumpkin, as the side dish most likely to turn your head from the main course.
Malouf's food, with its preponderance of sour, tangy flavours and salty dairy products, doesn't lend itself to obvious wine matches but MoMo's lengthy wine list, with its slight bias towards the Old World, is comprehensive and interesting enough to cover most bases. The generous, nicely focused by-the-glass selection is an excellent, if potentially pricey, game plan.
A glass of the wonderfully rich 2005 Sauternes Le Tertre Du Lys D'Or Cuvée d'Exception, for example, brilliantly partners the assortment of desserts that are part of the sharing menu. There might be Malouf's signature Medjool date brûlée ice-cream served in a Turkish tea glass and topped with a moon-shaped cardamom wafer with a round sugar "window" fitting perfectly into the moon's curve, or perhaps a cube of thin pear slices that have been layered with sugar,lime zest and orange blossom water, poached, pressed, chilled, cut into shape and served topped with candied walnuts and crème fraîche.
Figs, persimmons and plums, poached in an aromatic sugar syrup, are topped with a sorbet, perhaps of a deep pink prickly pear or a lighter-hued vodka and pomegranate, while a tiny pavlova studded with chewy toffee-like figs sits in a deep red pool of summer berry soup.
It is a fine thing to have regular access to Malouf's cooking once again and a pleasure to see how well it sits within a glamorous fine-dining framework. If making people remember the Grand Hyatt basement's existence was part of the plan, getting a rebooted MoMo on board was a truly inspired play.