The inviting b'stilla dish. Photo: Paul Jeffers
You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime, said a gleeful Kerry Packer, and you can bet your no-bookings policy that most chefs would cheerfully kill for their own Bond moment. But here we are at the end of fashion, where the chance of doing a Mamasita (dictionary definition: spawning a super-size trend) is less likely than stumbling across a forgetful tycoon.
Jason Jones, Mamasita's former chef who remains a co-owner, would be excused for ploughing the same furrow for the rest of his career. Other chefs are hitching themselves to the Mexican supernova and throwing out feelers across Latin America - Argentina, big; Peru, getting bigger - but he disappeared for a while, muttering something about a new direction, and popped up again a month ago with B'Stilla.
Predominantly Moroccan, B'Stilla (pronounced basteeya, after the spiced pastry) is dusting off a cuisine that has had several turns on the merry-go-round. Time was when you couldn't eat out without falling over Levantine influences, thanks to Greg Malouf's MoMo and its energetic kitchen diaspora.
Chef-owner Jason Jones. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Like anything that once ran white-hot, it eventually headed to the backburner, but its legacy means plenty of diners will be on familiar terms with merguez (sausages), chermoula and ras el hanout, the ubiquitous spice mix Arabs seem to add like salt.
But how about briwat and rgahaif? Both types of Moroccan street food cultivating an air of authenticity (on which note, a glass of iced mint tea and a date with spiced pumpkin and pepita precedes the meal), the briwat are Morocco's answer to the spring roll, oily fried filo pastries filled with rainbow chard and leek, gently spiced with nutmeg and paired with a dipping sauce made from crushed cashews. Rgahaif are more of a doughy cake, sandwiching a mix of orange-scented braised oxtail, onion and raisins. Simple stuff, and likeable enough.
There's a menu glossary but the waiters give the impression they've been doing their homework. They're sweet as all hell, although there's too much conversationus interruptus as dishes are put down with lengthy explanations. I think Melburnians are cluey enough not to expect sterling service at a restaurant that feels more like a bar, with soul-funk pumping at nightclub levels and a floor plan - a strange serpentine arrangement - that pays homage to a central Moorish tiled bar. There's a high communal table, but most of the seating at this smart new place under a backstreet South Yarra apartment block is on two deck areas that are destined to be enclosed in heavy Perspex curtains when the cold sets in. On a warm night, it's magic.
The food is good - robust without being clumsy - and although it plays to the key of ''plonk it in the middle and share it'', the plating skills smarten up the experience. Duck breast ham cured in-house, all chewy-salty with a golden crescent of fat, plays to modern preferences with slices of grilled pear, crunchy swatches of fried skin, and spiced, sweet honey dressing. Whole sardines in vine leaves have absorbed the smoky notes of the grill.
The b'stilla is a sweet pocket of brik pastry filled with pigeon and duck, made even richer with egg and saffron, and dusted in cinnamon and icing sugar. Any MoMo refugees might consider it a sentimental journey.
Of three tagines, a goat version suffers from the meat's tendency to dryness, although the wet cooking juices bolstered by quince and slivers of almond are worth spooning up like soup. You'll need carbs: plain steamed cous cous is a side order, but upgrade to the A-grade version thrumming with smoked chilli heat and preserved orange rind. It's no great impost - $12 for a huge bowl - and other textural salads (a riot of heirloom tomatoes with smoked walnuts and sumac is a stunner) are worth the modest outlay.
Desserts, at $10, maintain the theme without going down the honey-drenched pastry route. A rosewater flan with dates and molar-grabbing bits of nougatine is not too sweet, and bucks rosewater's reputation as the eau de toilette of the food world.
The cocktails have been given some care, with a Middle Eastern slant, but the wine list, at six whites and six reds plus a Crittenden keg wine, is disproportionately short. No bargains, either. Anyone willing to pay the average $60 a bottle might be miffed at the lack of choice.
It must be hard following up the crazy success of Mamasita. B'Stilla hops on board a different aircraft with essentially the same principles: the free-wheeling smack of authenticity, the cocktail-crowd buzz, the bang for your buck. In a nutshell, the modern recipe for success. It may be time to turn up the heat.
The best bit Welcome back, Moroccan
The worst bit Nightclub-lite
Go-to dish B'stilla, $12
Wine list Limited: six whites and six reds. All but two available by the glass.
Vegetarian Four smaller, one larger, plenty of salads.
Noise Nightclub funk
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- 03 9826 2370
- Cuisine - Moroccan
- Prices - Typical smaller dish, $14; larger dish, $28; dessert, $10
- Features - Licensed, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options
- Chef(s) - Jason Jones
- Owners - Jason Jones
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon, 5.30pm-late; Tues-Sat, noon-late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki