Everyone's into sharing these days. The first thing you hear in most modern restaurants is that the chef has designed all the dishes for sharing. So you order the prawns, the gazpacho and the miso salmon … and they're tiny. How, prithee, do you share a shot glass of chilled soup? A single lamb chop? A scallop? So the next time you hear the sharing mantra, you order individually - then every person gets a massive serve of pork belly that would feed four … aaaargh.
When in doubt, go Lebanese. They've picked up a thing or two about sharing during the past few centuries. They know how to put on a splendid spread of dips, breads, salads, bowls of raw vegetables, grilled meats, fried fish and garlicky relishes. If you don't share this food, you will surely die - not just of gluttony but of shameful ignorance, because this is food as hospitality, food as emotional comfort and food as cultural exchange.
It's also food as food and there's a lot of it going around at the el-Bayeh family's new El Phoenician at Walsh Bay. This one's a bit smoother and smarter than their much-patronised Parramatta original.
It has a glossy, glassy space of white-clothed tables, white marble bar, sandstone columns, handsome banquettes and padded walls inset with showcases of expensive liqueurs. There are also water views, albeit across the road and easily obscured by an inconsiderately parked delivery van.
The best strategy is to come with a crowd and do one of the four banquets. This will save you a good 40 minutes trying to decide between individual dishes and seems more in the right spirit.
A simply pathetic two of us approach the evocatively named Meat & Poultry Platter ($53 a person) with something akin to fear. It kicks off spectacularly with three different dips, a plate of pickled chillies, olives, gherkins and the omnipresent luridly pink turnip, a bowl of tabouli salad and a napkin-lined basket of fresh and dark, oily, fried khobez flatbread. Dip, scoop, bite; dip, scoop, bite. And still no inroads seem to have been made in the pure, white, lactic labne, runnelled with olive oil; the creamy, earthy hummus; or the rich, smooth, tongue-curling babaganouj, the eggplant tinged with a faint undercurrent of smoke.
The lovely thing about these dips, apart from their fresh, fresh, freshness, is their silent testament to the fact faithful reproduction of the traditional is immeasurably better than change simply for change's sake.
Onwards, ever onwards, for here comes a large platter of long, skewered lamb shish kebab, chicken shish taouk and spicy makanek (sausages), along with chicken wings, grilled minced lamb patties, grilled peppers and eggplant and a bowl of soft, fat, fried potato wedges tousled with garlic and coriander for good measure … and more bread, in case there's a national shortage.
When there's so much choice, it pays to get ruthless.
Waste no time in establishing the best things to eat, then mercilessly ignore all else.
This means the plump, full-bodied sausages, the sweetly spiced minced lamb patties and the snack-attack chicken wings are the first to go, eaten with more of the dips, more of the breads. And the bordering-on-dry skewered meats are mostly left unmolested.
You'll be needing wine, if only in self-defence. There's nothing cutting-edge here (and little from Lebanon's resurgent wine-makers) but nothing that's a rip-off, either.
A crisp, light 2007 Ra Nui chardonnay ($42) and a 2011 ripe, spicy Stoneleigh Rapaura Pinot Noir ($47), both from Marlborough, are decent value and there are a couple of rose´s that would potentially be the best summertime match.
At last, I close my knife and fork, grateful for apparent survival. But I have forgotten the rich tradition of equally rich Lebanese pastries such as znood el set, or ladies' arms ($11).
What the hell. I'm in so deep already that four deep-fried filo pastry rolls filled with ashtar - a clotted cream - and topped with a spindly spider's web of spun sugar can't do much harm.
El Phoenician caters for big table bookings well, with its willing-and-able floor staff perfectly accustomed to people wearing silly hats or going outside for inter-course cigarettes. There's no mystery to this food, just freshness, generosity and garlic.
It's good for groups, good for the greedy and, of necessity, very good for sharing.
- 02 9633 1611
- Cuisine - Lebanese
- Prices - $100 for two, plus drinks
- Opening Hours - lunch, Mon-Fri; dinner, Mon-Sat
- Author - Terry Durack