Restaurant News

Beirut to Balwyn

It’s a Melbourne phenomenon: the rise and rise of modern Middle Eastern cuisine. Michael Harden rides the second wave of the city’s sumac-spiced love affair.

Modern Middle Eastern flavours have become so integral to Melbourne's culinary identity that it's hard to imagine the city's dining scene without them. No other Western city in the world sees sumac and za'atar, rosewater and burghul as readily accepted and available from its modern fine diners, bistros and cafés as from its more traditional Middle Eastern restaurants.

So why have the flavours of the Middle East gained such traction in Melbourne while struggling to make headway elsewhere in the country?

Melbourne's modern Middle Eastern style first emerged in the 1990s with Greg Malouf at O'Connell's and rapidly sprouted so many high-profile offshoots - Mecca, Mecca Bah, Owensville, MoMo - that some pundits predicted it was a fad that would fade as quickly as it had arrived. But with Middle Eastern flavours now a common feature on the menus of lauded modern Australian fine diners such as Cutler & Co, Pearl and Ezard, it seems that the 1990s represented just the first strike in an ongoing campaign.

The recent relaunch of Malouf's MoMo, in an unashamedly fine-dining setting in the basement of the Grand Hyatt, has cemented the notion of modern Middle Eastern (and Malouf himself) as a fixture of Melbourne's top end. But it is in the growing number of fashionable mid-range restaurants, often run by the children and grandchildren of migrants - Rumi, Gigi-baba, Maha, Canvas, Mama Ganoush - where the clues emerge as to why these flavours have found fertile ground in Melbourne.

Joseph Abboud is the son of Lebanese migrants and owner/chef of Brunswick East's Rumi. Classically trained, he worked at a series of top Melbourne restaurants including Ondine, Circa, the Prince and MoMo but had become disillusioned with cooking and was considering his options when he rediscovered his passion for the flavours of his childhood. Wanting to adapt home cooking to a restaurant setting, he first had to get his head around pushing the boundaries of a cuisine with long and quite rigid traditions.

"Lebanese restaurants are the same all over the world, so what you get at Abla's is pretty much what you get everywhere, though the quality varies," he says. "And what you get in a Lebanese restaurant and what you get at home is mostly the same. I reckon the hardest people to convince about modern Lebanese flavours are the Lebanese," he adds. "Hardly anybody who's Lebanese comes in here and when they do, they see the grilled quail with spiced quince or the Persian meatballs and they ask: 'Where're the dips? Where's the tabbouleh?' And I say: 'They're at home - you eat them every day so why don't you try something different?'"

Abboud believes this attitude could explain why modern Middle Eastern has taken hold in Melbourne rather than in Sydney, a city with 75 per cent of Australia's Lebanese population. Simply through numbers, there is less pressure to conform.

It is a pressure he understands well because even his parents questioned his crazy notion of opening up a Middle Eastern restaurant without putting at least a couple of pasta dishes in the mix in case people didn't want to eat Lebanese food. Sticking to his guns has struck a chord with the wider population, however, who are drawn to Abboud's simple, honest take on food that taps into tradition, not cliché.

"I try to do things that we do at home that don't appear on restaurant menus," he says. "I like to do the yoghurt soups that have been hard to get in restaurants because they are harder to produce fresh. We also do a Lebanese omelette - really simple, just a bit of flour, onion, allspice and parsley - that is really beautiful, rich and flavoursome and thin, almost like a crêpe. Those things don't usually appear on restaurant menus and I wonder whether that is because they have to be made to order, and maybe because of my training that sort of cooking comes more easily to me."

Formal training in non-Arabic restaurants and a return to the flavours of their families are common themes among the crop of chefs that includes Abboud, Gigibaba's Ismail Tosun and Maha's Shane Delia, but they're hardly themes exclusive to Melbourne's cooking fraternity. The secret of Melbourne's modern Middle Eastern success could come down to the Malouf factor.

Malouf is a third-generation Lebanese Aussie. His father was born in Australia, his mother in Lebanon, and he grew up in Balwyn. Funnily enough, what was Melbourne's quintessential white-bread suburb seems to have played an integral part in the city's future love affair with freekah and pomegranate.

"It was hard for my mother coming from cosmopolitan Beirut to Balwyn," he says. "This was a time when you bought olive oil from the pharmacy and an avocado was considered exotic. But like with any migrant family the traditions were kept. There were always buckets of labne and stuffed vine leaves. My schoolbag always stank of onions and garlic but it was never an issue for me. Everybody was eating Strasbourg and tomato sauce sandwiches and I had leftover kibbeh wrapped in Turkish bread with labne and tabbouleh. But there was Vegemite in the cupboard and Mum would cook roasts and so, growing up in Balwyn, our household was a mix of Lebanese and Australian."

The family banquets cooked by Malouf's grandmother and aunts on the weekends gradually opened him up to the real possibilities of Middle Eastern cooking.

"When the grandmothers came to live with us, that's when the banquets started to come out, the Sunday mezze feasts, and when every celebration would mean four days of cooking. There was always a lot of food in the fridge and on the table and it was always exotic - raw lamb, raw liver, brain omelettes and so on."

Malouf always wanted to use Middle Eastern flavours and dishes in his cooking even when he was at cooking school. An early project saw him sketching a menu that included quail and couscous. But it was only after a 10-year stint of mostly classical cooking in Europe and Asia that Malouf was able to put his passion into practice as head chef at South Melbourne's O'Connell's. It was a defining moment when Melbourne diners suddenly found themselves eating - and becoming au fait with - mussel and prawn tagine, fried chicken with Eastern spices, and Medjool date brûlée in what was an upmarket but unmistakeably Australian pub. And it wasn't only the punters who were having their eyes opened.

Gigibaba's Tosun returned to Melbourne to open his shopfront in Fitzroy's Smith Street afterwowing Perth with his modern Turkish restaurant Eminem. He believes that Malouf's influence is largely responsible for the strength of the modern Middle Eastern scene in Melbourne today.

"It has a lot to do with Greg," he says. "He has been around such a long time and all the Caths [Claringbold] and Kurts [Sampson] have come out of his kitchen, influenced by him. And then they have pursued their own ventures and influenced other people and it has all evolved from that. I did a stint with Greg at O'Connell's when I was young and it really opened my eyes. It made me proud even though it wasn't Turkish food he was doing, but there were the same tastes, the same flavours, and he was doing very, very well.

"I went back to Turkey in 1999 to do my national service and I ate out a lot and realised that there was the same mentality there as there was in Sydney Road - nice food but there was only one way to do it and it was never going to change. Seeing that, and seeing what Greg has done, I decided I needed to give it a shot."

Shane Delia is a Maltese-Australian chef whose Lebanese-Australian wife inspired both the name and the Middle Eastern direction of his restaurant, Maha. The menu at Maha seems quintessentially modern Middle Eastern with its foie gras pastilla and its roast duck with honey-poached Iranian figs, but Delia is also introducing Maltese flavours onto the menu so that his restaurant represents, he explains, "my culture, my wife's culture and our life in Australia.

"We do a dish that is smoked wild barramundi with Spanish jamón, Lebanese fried cauliflower, a tahini dressing and cauliflower foam," says Delia. "I think it sums up the sort of approach we are taking here."

He also acknowledges Malouf's influence.

"I've never worked with Greg, but if it wasn't for people like him there would not be the opportunities for chefs like me," he says. "He opened the door. I don't think he is the be-all and end-all of Middle Eastern food in Melbourne but he has played a very important part.I also think he was a good fit in Melbourne because people here like to seek out dining experiences. They like to find a comfortable place in a back street or down an alley where they can get great food and great service and that encompasses a lot of what Middle Eastern hospitality is all about."

Delia also believes that Malouf's introduction of Middle Eastern food in a fine-dining context has enabled other cuisines to tread a similar path, knowing that there is a receptive audience. He cites the acceptance of the Maltese dishes on his menu ("I do a peasant dish, a lamb stew, that my grandfather used to cook and people love it") and also his business partner George Calombaris's success in modernising Greek food at The Press Club and Hellenic Republic.

It is not drawing too long a bow to see the rise of Greek food in Melbourne following a trajectory similar to that of modern Middle Eastern food. Until Calombaris came along, the cuisine was almost exclusively defined by the rowdy, cheap and cheerful tavernas. Then Press Club, with its roasted silken tofu with feta crumble and chicken parfait, or chocolate and mastic fudge soufflé, came along and, like Malouf with Lebanese food, made people realise there was more than one version of Greek food to be sampled.

As Tosun says: "It's all originally peasant food, whether it's Turkish, Greek or Lebanese. We all come from villages and so it's peasant food that we are just trying to interpret in such a way that you can sell it to the Western world. I think when you have people like Greg and George around, and the people who train with them doing their own interpretations, and they keep trying that, then people will eventually get it."

There seems to be no question that Melburnians have got it. Whether they are being silver-served Malouf's intricately constructed veiled quail with rose petal stuffing at MoMo or tucking into Tosun's fabulous eggplant-wrapped prawns served with capsicum butter over a beer at Gigibaba, locals have come to appreciate and accept modern Middle Eastern flavours and textures as part of Melbourne's permanent culinary repertoire. They're probably also feeling a little smug at how lucky they are.