Abla's review

Banquet dishes clockwise from top left: Mixed dips, fattoush salad, chicken and rice topped with almonds, baklava and ...
Banquet dishes clockwise from top left: Mixed dips, fattoush salad, chicken and rice topped with almonds, baklava and silverbeet rolls. Photo: Eddie Jim

109 Elgin Street Carlton, VIC 3053

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Opening hours Mon-Wed, Sat 6pm-10pm,Thurs-Fri noon-3pm, 6pm-10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Business lunch, BYO, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Abla Amad
Seats 90
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9347 0006

You can spot the uninitiated. A couple who huffs out because the initial greeting has taken too long. Those Googling mjadra and ma'hshi koussa, or basically reading the menu at all.

This is Abla Amad's 40-year-old Elgin Street Lebanese eatery and it's a restaurant in Melbourne's bones. Where menus are opened out of habit not necessity. Where most summon the cabbage rolls and chicken and rice that Amad has barely changed in four decades. Where diners themselves look as embedded as the portraits crowding the duck-egg blue walls.

It's annoying that every term you should use for this place has been bludgeoned to death over the decades by marketeers who realised authenticity could pass as a "concept". Suffice to know Abla's is ground zero, an eatery born to give Amad reign over a dining room instead of her own packed kitchen (which was further up the road).

Abla Amad has ruled the kitchen, and dining room, at Abla's for four decades.
Abla Amad has ruled the kitchen, and dining room, at Abla's for four decades. Photo: Eddie Jim

Have you become accustomed to prettied plates of Middle Eastern origins at Rumi, the Armenian Sezar or Turkish Tulum? Abla's never has nor will bend to the aesthetes, and satisfies itself with a jewel of diced tomato here, a sprig of parsley there and, at its most outlandish, golden crisped almonds, but even they are more functional than flourish.

Banquet or not, you summon baba ghanoush that's both distinctly charry but free of acridity, and hummus diplomatically balancing the merits of both tahini and chickpea. With them come olives, and flatbread both in pillowy piles and crisp sumac-sprinkled shards of yesterday's, deep fried.

Here are lady fingers, where cinnamon-flavoured lamb mince is cocooned in filo so fine it's like buttered tissue paper. And if there's a leaf-wrapped rice mezze of any fixed abode more worthy of your attention than Abla's silverbeet rolls, rich and sticky with olive oil and electrified by lemon, I haven't met one.

It's not just plates. Anyone gets to feel anchored at Abla's, whether they're part of the great Lebanese diaspora, or just someone whose own culinary traditions might make for a disappointing blog. In Japan, you can pay for the services of a handsome "weeping boy" to dry your tears. In Melbourne, you order mjadra, a rice-and-lentil peasant dish of kings enhanced with a halo of crisp onions and creamy labna whose comfort is universal.

Should this still be a hatted restaurant? Does anyone dining or cooking here need or want it to be? Abla's never pushed for the cutting edge and it's that which has kept it full for 40 years. Even tonight. On a Monday, in late January, in an area that likes to eat restaurants for breakfasts. Come. There'll be company. The chicken and rice and baklava are ready. Don't forget you can BYO.

Est. October 1978

Famous diners: K.D. Lang; Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam); Paul Simon and a billion footballers.

Signature dishes: Cabbage rolls, mjadra, lady fingers, chicken and rice.

Banquet: $60 per head.

http://www.ablas.com.au/