Aalia review

The indoor-outdoor space features plush circular booths inside.
The indoor-outdoor space features plush circular booths inside. Photo: Louise Kennerley

25 Martin Pl Sydney, NSW 2000

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Opening hours Lunch Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm; dinner Mon-Sat 5.30-10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Private dining, Business lunch, Vegetarian friendly, Pre-post-theatre, Licensed, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 02 9182 5880

Everyone says you have to have the lamb. Aalia has only been open about three minutes and already people tell me, "Get the lamb" and "Make sure you have the lamb". It's enough to make me feel sorry for the whole Murray cod and dry-aged duck on the menu.

Ibrahim Moubadder and Jorge Farah have relaunched their restaurants (Nour, Lilymu, Henrietta) under the new umbrella of their Esca group, and Aalia is their most ambitious project yet. Its sinuous curves help frame the terrace at 25 Martin Place, with tables for post-work drinks outside and plush circular booths inside.

Architect Matt Darwon (Automata, Toko) has created a seamlessly dynamic space in which steam-softened spotted gum soars to the ceiling like the finely ribbed gills of mushrooms, echoing the Harry Seidler MLC Centre landscape. The same treatment turns a slow curve of bar into a sweet place to be.

Lamb neck shawarma with tarator, pickles, chermoula and flatbread.
Lamb neck shawarma with tarator, pickles, chermoula and flatbread.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

The ambition is clear, and executive chef Paul Farag is skilled enough to play with the food of his own Egyptian background while rethinking ideas from across the Middle East. High on detail and execution by head chef Guen Young Choi, these new creations still taste like part of the family.

Waraq simsim ($16), for instance, tweaks Lebanese stuffed vine leaves by topping a heart-shaped perilla leaf with a nigiri finger of aged rice tiled with a large, fleshy lobe of sea urchin. You wrap, roll and bite into richness fringed with a tinge of green bitterness; a very sophisticated little bundle.

There's a surfeit of ideas, from ultrasonic cocktails zapped with high-frequency vibrations to the dry-ageing of beef, duck and fish hanging in glass-fronted cabinets as if at Tiffany's.

Waraq simsim (aged rice and sea urchin on perilla leaf).
Waraq simsim (aged rice and sea urchin on perilla leaf).  Photo: Louise Kennerley

Yet when dishes arrive, the food has clarity and structure. Brined quail ($16) are halved, skewered and cooked over coals with a sour barberry and verjuice glaze, served on a velvety puddle of spinach-like molokhia in an inspired plating.

One big, fat Angelachu anchovy ($12) rests on Turkish bread spread with muhammara, a fruity Levantine red pepper dip, dusted with macadamia.

Beef nayyeh ($9) raises kibbeh from the usual mezze scrum by lacing it with rhubarb and black cardamom and serving it for snacking on a crisp cracker.

Quail skewers with barberry glaze and spinach-like molokhia.
Quail skewers with barberry glaze and spinach-like molokhia. Photo: Louise Kennerley

This kitchen goes beyond the obvious. Beyond hummus, for example, to masabacha ($26), an almost sloppy, rich tahini studded with chickpeas. Then beyond masabacha to fold in gently cooked mussels and roasted urfa biber chilli. One step more and all would be lost.

It also goes beyond the usual flatbreads to make bread a backbone of the meal, acting as both plate and cutlery (if you do it properly). Beautifully burnished brown balls of Persian khorasan bread ($9) line the counter of the open kitchen until sold out. Split one open in your hands to admire the long strands of gluten inside from the slow ferment. "We all take turns doing the bread," says Farag. "It keeps everyone humble."

There's plenty more on offer, from a Persian caviar service to Black Onyx bavette with North African mustard, and the cutest little Egyptian om ali custard tart ($22) of spelt pastry, dried figs and almonds, which spills a rich evaporated milk custard.

Om ali custard tart with dried figs and almonds.
Om ali custard tart with dried figs and almonds. Photo: Jason Loucas

And, of course, the lamb. Slow-roasted for four to five hours, the lamb neck shawarma ($56) is all soft, smoky, striated meat under great hunks of crispness, resting on folds of floppy, tear-apart flatbread baked on a saj, a large round griddle. Silky tarator (tahini and garlic), lush chermoula, and fierce little pickled shifka chillies turn it into a hands-on feast. Not so much a dish, then, as an event. (As is the trek to the shopping centre toilets, always the downside of a corporate precinct.)

Just a few years ago, the richness of the sauces, intensity of the service and the sheer over-thinking of Aalia could have been overwhelming. These days, I think the hospitality industry needs all the drive, ambition and creativity it can handle. And the lamb.

The low-down

Drinks Ultrasonic cocktails, Egyptian beer and an adventurous wine list that holds an absurdly drinkable Moondarra Studebaker pinot noir and '96 Grange before going global.

Vegetarian Dedicated vegan menu also available

Pro tip Just have the lamb, will you?

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and a senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.

https://www.aaliarestaurant.com/