Raw yellowfin tuna kibbeh. Photo: Stephen McKenzie
Remember when Middle Eastern was the ''it cuisine''? When the mere whisper of ''falafel'' set our hearts a'quivering, and ''chickpea'' inspired a deep yearning only hummus could satisfy?
Ah, the honeymoon period - such a glorious, exciting time of pomegranate-driven elation.
That was 10 years ago but, like all good relationships, while the frenzy might have abated, the thrill is still there. Now we expect something deeper, and Melbourne's Middle Eastern scene continues to deliver.
Bayte is a little nugget of Lebanese gold. Photo: Eddie Jim
Take one-year-old Bayte, a little nugget of Lebanese gold down the up-and-coming Hoddle Street end of Johnston Street. It's run by Julie Touma, who has Lebanese grandparents and Euro training, with stints at Centonove (Italian), Boire (French) and Ba Ba Lu Bar in Lorne (Spanish).
Since opening, she has been making the flatbread by hand, serving it to order hot and char-striped from the grill, but she has just scored a new dough maker to keep up with demand.
Touma makes the labna, too, a three-day process that involves boiling milk, adding yoghurt, wrapping it in a woollen blanket ''like a baby'', adding a bit of salt and letting it hang in the fridge.
It's served as a generous smear with juicy kafta skewers made with minced lamb shoulder, heaps of mint and Touma's trademark, heavy-handed spicing. ''When I use an ingredient, you know that ingredient's there,'' she says, naming sumac, allspice and salt as her big three. Yellowfin tuna kibbeh is a signature, a modern play on the traditional lamb version. The fish is raw, spritzed with lemon, mixed with sumac, allspice and cumin, fresh mint, shallots, and burghul for texture. It's good - robust but balanced.
Baba ganoush is loaded with garlic and lemon, the eggplant cooked on the bare flame so it's nice and smoky.
Crisp filo pastry cigars are rich and intense, filled with molasses-laced lamb mince and pinenuts. Dunk some in the sticky, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses on the side.
Bayte's banquets are superb value, created for each table to suit price and diet. Mine - for nine people at $30 a head - was a huge multi-course spread, including dill-marinated olives; scrummy crisp-shelled falafel sauced with hummus; pastry cigars; gutsy, garlicky broad bean dip; lamb skewers; fresh, lively salads, including fattoush; and whole baby snapper, beautifully cooked, with tahini and walnuts.
Bayte is a little ripper and - good news - it will be opening nights next month. So, let's raise a glass of Arak, or mint tea, if you'd rather, to Middle Eastern cuisine. Now it's true love, and Bayte, you're part of that.
Do ... Check out the Lebanese weekend breakfasts
Don't ... Have time to eat in? Grab a wrap to go
Dish ... Raw yellowfin tuna kibbeh
Vibe ... "Bayte" is Arabic for "home", and so it is ...
The Age Good Food Under $30 is on sale now at selected newsagencies, bookshops and at The Age online shop (theageshop.com.au).
- 03 9415 8818
- Cuisine - Lebanese
- Prices - Wraps, $9.50-$11; dishes, $8-$18.50; desserts, $3.50-$15
- Features - Licensed
- Cards accepted - Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, 7am-4pm; Sat-Sun, 8am-4pm (opening nights from May)
- Author - Nina Rousseau