645 Rathdowne Street Carlton North, VIC 305403 9348 0455
|Opening hours||Tues-Sun, 6-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
ZUM ZUM IS A BIT LIKE A CAT that wandered off to live with different owners for a while but is now back, rightfully curled up with Amal Malouf - and she missed it terribly.
She and her husband, Geoff Malouf, bought the big-windowed, single-roomed shopfront in 2001, creating a neighbourly Middle Eastern cafe, beloved by the burghers of Carlton North. Geoff sold it four years later, a decision that rankled Amal, so last August they did a Kerry Packer and bought it back.
Word spread and the buzz grew, especially when Greg Malouf (Geoff's brother) returned from London's Michelin-starred Petersham Nurseries restaurant to lend a consultative hand.
Greg and Amal tackled the menu, rethinking dish presentation, revamping old faves - the haloumi now comes crumbed in semolina and zaatar with a harissa dipping sauce - and introducing new dishes. There's garlicky, half-boned quail marinated in smoked paprika, cumin and chilli and barbecued exactly right so the meat is tender and plump but the skin is blackened and crisp. It's served with a lemony lentil salad.
Duck is cooked in Zum Zum's 10-year-old masterstock, topped up with star anise, honey and lots of fresh coriander. It comes with two sides: a yoghurty tahini chickpea salad with crunchy pieces of pita; and buttery basmati rice, flavoursome with baharat spices, toasted almonds and pomegranate seeds.
Lamb shoulder - it's halal - is another newie, rubbed with dijon mustard, garlic, cumin, allspice and coriander, slow-cooked in stock and then baked with preserved lemon.
From the mezza, silverbeet rolls roll out the door, the dark-green leaves holding spiced rice, chickpeas and broad beans, with a hot yoghurt sauce that offsets the lot. Or try crunchy, crisp-shelled falafel, each ball topped with dukkah-dusted marinated feta, and tahini sauce adding nutty creaminess.
The room still has the same informal, low-key vibe but with fresh love - a colourful paint job, some snazzy new chairs - and the same star-shaped lights that have always been there.
But my absolute favourite things about Zum Zum are its generosity, good value and a menu that rewards sharing - great for a small group. Yes, the duck is $29, but it easily feeds two people, and each main comes with a brilliant side. It's the sort of place that will pop an extra falafel ball on the plate if there are five at the table.
''I really love cooking,'' Amal says. ''I'm quite passionate about it.'' And you can tell.
Do … Check out the takeaway menu
Don't … Forget to try the sweet mint tea and Turkish delight
Dish … Duck fatteh
Vibe … Hospitable, generous and casual