The first dish that Coskun Uysal brings to the table at Tulum makes a great argument for Melbourne needing more modern Turkish food in its tank. The dish, called cilbir, is based on the traditional Turkish combination of poached egg, brown butter and yoghurt. Uysal's mother used to make it for him when she got home from work, he tells us - the sort of quick, instantly filling snack ideal for tiding over a ravenous schoolkid until dinner. Tulum's version is a rich, texturally diverse delight that combines smoked yoghurt with a poached organic egg, two versions of brown butter - one a sumac-flavoured sauce, the other in the form of a biscuit-like crumb - crowned with crisp slivers of salty, translucent chicken skin. It's innately comforting, eaten simply with torn pide.
This is how Tulum rolls.
Most of the dishes at this Balaclava newcomer arrive complete with a family-centred origin-story. This tableside tale-telling has its risks. It can be tedious in the wrong hands. Here, though, it's kept on and charming.
Chef-owner Coskun Uysal.
Then there's the modern-technique part of the equation that comes via the two types (and textures) of brown butter and the salty-good chicken skin. And the fact it's a dish that's probably too rich for one person alone; Uysal's dishes, divided into small and large mezze, are very much designed to share. (That said, the menu also works if you're not interested in sharing dishes and want your own plate of food. Just avoid the cilbir if you want to make it through to dessert.)
Easy-going is Tulum's default setting. Which is remarkable in a way because this is an ambitious, relatively new restaurant dishing up unique and largely unprecedented food.
Organic semolina helva with mandarin granita, pine nuts and goat's cheese.
Turkish cooking in Melbourne seldom strays from the kebab, gözleme and dips path. And while there are few complaints about that, the occasional glimpses of modern Turkish from places like the sorely missed Gigibaba have shown how well traditional Turkish ingredients and techniques respond to being interpreted by the right hands. In this modestly decorated shopfront, Tulum is proving the point.
It's there with sogan dolma, a dish with roots in Antep, a town near the Syrian border. Onion, slowcooked until it has a soft, vine leaf-like texture, is wrapped around rice and minced lamb flavoured with lemon, parsley, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. The stuffed onion is then cooked in a red capsicum sauce and served with smoked yoghurt, a sweet Turkish apple-tea sauce and pickled apple. It's subtle, fragrant, comforting, fortifying, the balance of flavour and texture closely and carefully calibrated.
It's also there with balik ekmek, based on a fish sandwich traditionally served on the streets. Pan-fried blue mackerel is teamed with a sardine "custard" (sardines, anchovies and lemon zest in an egg yolk and cream base), the crisp fried bones and head of the sardine, pickled mussels, rosewater-pickled cucumbers and small slivers of crisp roasted bread. It's busy but flavour and texture are carefully tended and nothing on the plate is superfluous.
Fava bean pâté, raki-pickled grapes, fried mussels and dill.
It quickly becomes apparent that Coskun Uysal - and head chef Murat Ovaz - can really cook, that they truly understand the cuisine they're toying with.
Uysal's been at it for a while, working towards the end-game of owning a place where he can cook the way he wants. Istanbul born and bred, he got the food passion from his mum, worked in places like London's River Cafe and The Savoy and spent 12 years as executive chef for Istanbul's House Café group. He's done months as stagiaire at Attica and has been a regular visitor to Melbourne for years, drawn by the food culture. He's been around.
The Turkish references in the dining room are sketched in with just a cultural nod here and there: the music, jars of pickled (and pickling) vegetables stacked on narrow shelves, little arrangements of fresh flowers in tiny pottery vases on each table. Otherwise, it's linen-aproned waiters and monogrammed napkins, polished concrete floors and blue-green fish-scale tiles, plants and white-painted walls, banquettes, bare timber tables and bentwood chairs. Melbourne now.
The touch of Turkish decor.
What's not so Melbourne-now is the booze list, which feels half formed and a bit wobbly. Turkish wines are thin on the ground (exactly two at time of writing, from the same Anatolian producer, Vinkara), plus one Turkish beer (the Efes) and a cocktail list that comes and goes, apparently dependent on the presence of a particular bartender. The cocktail list hide-and-seek is a pity because the drinks are well conceived and original. Winter in Tulum, for example, is served warm in a glass teapot and mixes raki's aniseed backbeat with pineapple, mint, thyme and sumac in a thoroughly enjoyable, grown-up play of savoury and sweet.
Otherwise the bulk of the wine list zips restlessly from place to place - chardonnay from Long Island in the US, Italian nebbiolo, Sancerre, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, a grab-bag of decent Australian labels from the likes of Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Barossa Valley. The prices are reasonable, but the lack of Turkish labels makes its safe, something-from-everywhere approach feel like a missed opportunity. Best to focus on the menu, the home of the real action.
Tulum's namesake salty cheese gets teamed with fennel slow-cooked in olive oil, an orange jelly, and dark, thin irregularly shaped crackers made from olives and finished with dried olives shaved over the top. Again, there's a fascinating play of crunchy and soft textures, salty and sweet flavours that's like nothing else in town.
Octopus braised with pears and pear juice, served on a smoky eggplant purée and finished with Turkish tea and bonito sauce does much the same thing, as do dried broad beans blitzed to a purée with lemon juice, olive oil and dill, then set in a mould and served like pâté with tiny slices of raki-pickled grapes. Fried beer-battered mussels immediately register in the food memory under "must eat again very soon".
Roasted fennel, Tulum cheese, orange jelly and olive crackers.
Tulum's lamb meatballs also set the bells ringing. The meat is flavoured with lemon zest, coriander and fennel seeds, nutmeg and cinnamon, wrapped in caul fat and then pan-fried. The meatballs, rich and intense, are quite brilliant, especially when accompanied by a white bean and tahini salad, pickled onion and shaved cured egg yolk.
Desserts take the baton without faltering. There's some challenge, too, in the appearance of ingredients such as eggplant and Jerusalem artichoke, porcini and sumac. The brave will be rewarded.
Semolina helva is unmissable, the semolina cooked with pine nuts, butter, sugar, milk syrup and plum molasses, sweet but nowhere near sickly. It's served with a pine nut and cinnamon crumble, a superb mandarin granita and a gently salty goat's cheese "mousse" flavoured with cinnamon. Cold, crunchy, creamy, warm, spiced and salted, this is a dessert to inspire return visits.
The chocolate muhallebi is also memorable. A milk-based, panna cotta-like dessert, it's made with 70 per cent pure chocolate and served with sumac-flavoured strawberries and a surprisingly appropriate smoked eggplant mousse. Topped with a blizzard of shaved hazelnuts and a crisp rubble of crushed kataifi pastry, it's busy but in a good way.
Coskun Uysal's approach at Tulum is a great example of the "learn the rules before you break them" maxim. He truly understands the origins of the dishes, ingredients and flavours that he's remaking and reworking. They're from his childhood, his family, and so there's respect, love and DNA involved, always a positive thing. There's also an equally important, forward-looking and creative part to Uysal's approach that seems to have been turbo-charged by his decision to move so far from home, balancing the new with the trad. It's been a good move for Uysal. And an even better outcome for Melbourne.