Middling service: Staff clangers diminished the experience.
Middling service: Staff clangers diminished the experience. Photo: Ken Irwin

304 Toorak Road South Yarra, Victoria 3141

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Opening hours Tues-Sun 11am-10pm
Features Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Mastercard, Visa
Phone 03 9827 1956

Sitting at Zurouna, holding the dessert menu up so it didn't splodge in the unwiped debris of our main course, I had time to think about why I was there. We go to restaurants to eat, obviously, but we dare to hope for stewardship that adds warmth and atmosphere to the calorific nourishment. There's some good food at Zurouna, and I did sense love and care in the business, but it could be expressed with more energy and polish.

It's not just about smiles (we got one on entering, though a hopeful drop-in at 9pm got a terse, rattled look after the waiter glanced at her watch). It's about being observant the whole meal long: prioritising plate clearing above resetting tables that won't be sat at until the next day, for example. And when the notion of collecting dirty dinnerware does strike, it would be nice to clear all of it, not just two plates before dreamily disappearing.

Other clangers included forgetting dishes, not knowing the menu very well, bringing a teaspoon to serve the rice, and leaving us without water (the opaque carafes are pretty but they don't facilitate this basic amenity).

Zaatar-spiced calamari was excellent.
Zaatar-spiced calamari was excellent. Photo: Ken Irwin

There are so many restaurants. It pains me to see restaurateurs undercut their hard work by offering easy reasons to never go back.

And there are good reasons to eat at Zurouna: the dining room is simple but comfortable and the front deck is a lovely place to share a well-priced banquet on warm nights. The food is more or less Lebanese with the occasional Moroccan excursion. The menu is an easily navigable array of snacky stuff, salads, grills and oven dishes; presentation is attractive, spicing is gentle. The wine list is cursory but traditional drinks are sparky, especially the date, carob and rosewater juice. The calamari was excellent, dusted with a vibrant zaatar spice blend, and grilled into a fork-tender, twisty, sweet-and-tart tumble.

The chicken mograbieh was beguiling and satisfying, the braised bird submerged in enticing, soupy gravy scented with cinnamon and lemon, and dotted with mograbieh (giant couscous) and chickpeas. Whole snapper was expertly cooked so it flaked easily from the bone and smothered in wholesome tarator (walnut sauce).

As I write about the food, I feel even sadder about the experience. Toorak Road is a tricky strip but there's promise here - I sincerely hope Zurouna fulfils it.

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of five)