We all have one dish that's an instant order, sight unseen, whenever it's on a menu. My kryptonite? Probably steak tartare – or anything in that raw, chopped and seasoned meat family tree. So I'm glad I immediately pulled the trigger on the beef nayyeh at Aalia. The classic mezze is kept simple here: a jumble of beef, black cardamom and rhubarb served precariously on a thin, crunchy cracker. That tactile little beauty augured well for the rest of my meal.
Aalia is by ESCA Group, the team behind Surry Hills restaurant Nour. And as at Nour, executive chef Paul Farag is deftly drawing on his Egyptian heritage to provide an exciting expression of Levantine cuisine. The a la carte menu (there's a banquet option for groups of four-plus) is divvied up into sections. On the raw menu, which is where that nayyeh lives, one highlight is the waraq simsim: a bite of sea urchin on aged rice, wrapped in a perilla leaf. The mezze selection of smaller and midsized plates is a rollcall of Middle Eastern and North African flavours and dishes – masabacha, iskender, molokhia, chermoula. You could easily spend your entire meal in the mezze part of the menu.
But you'll want to move on, to order one of the big shareable mains. I was cajoled by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable waitstaff into ordering the lamb neck shawarma. Lucky me. Arriving on a rumpled bed of Saida saj flatbread alongside tarator and pickles, the lamb neck was tender, fun, and very filling. Choose from a range of sides to supplement your main, but err on the side caution: the portions are generous.
Order dessert, if you can. I saw the kataifi (crisp, noodly pastry) with chocolate and a sesame dulce land on nearly every table – including mine. But the coconut mahalabi (Middle Eastern milk pudding) with a kishk and sour amardine (an apricot paste) was the sweet, tart highpoint for me.
As someone who doesn't – really doesn't – work in finance, I always feel slightly self-conscious whenever I'm in Martin Place. And while there are plenty of options at Aalia that are expense-account friendly (like the Iranian caviars, or the Southern rock lobster, and some pockets of the thoughtful wine list), I felt completely comfortable here.
Aalia is a common name in the Arabic world. It means "lofty, sublime." And since it was announced last year as one of the flagship tenants of the 25 Martin Place development (formerly known as the MLC centre), expectations have indeed been high. I think it's met them: Aalia more than lives up to its name.