22 Punch Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri noon-11pm; Sat 5.30pm-late|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8639 0265|
All you need to know is you have to order the okra to start and the mamool for dessert.
Even if you don't normally like the slippiness of okra – those fat green pods you see in gumbos – a dust and deep-fry in cumin-y chickpea flour cuts the slime and gives incredible fragrant crackle. Squeeze with lemon. Add a beer. Repeat whenever you have five minutes to kill around Spring Street.
Ditto for those mamool. It's dessert-meets-cheese course: warm buttery shortbread filled with Meredith chevre and Greek kasseri cheese that becomes molten and stretchy inside the hot biscuits. These arrive on a sweet, nutty schmear of fig and sesame jam. It's the perfect salty-sweet foil.
Bracket dinner with those two dishes at Bar Saracen, the brand new broadly Middle Eastern restaurant from industry vets Ari Vlassopoulos and Rumi's Joseph Abboud, and you have a guaranteed good time whatever you sandwich between them. Even better, the filler stacks up, too.
For starters, Vlassopoulos is a hell of a practiced hand. He's paced the floors of Pei Modern, Rosa's Canteen, Hellenic Republic and back in the day, Pearl. He's the guy cracking jokes, contemplating frazzled eaters and thrusting an Angry Joe (bitter cynar and Bordiga red vermouth) or frosty beer into hands in need.
Let him absolve you of all drinking decision-making responsibilities and he'll steer you right with a strong example of a Santorini assyrtiko, chuck in a Sicilian grillo and maybe throw a surprise Turkish red in like the okuzgozu that's all fruit-forward pep.
That very familiar, old-school form of hospitality is kind of perfect given this Punch Lane bolt-hole (right next door the hot new Sunda) used to be home to Rosa Mitchell's comforting Sicilian. Saracen neatly picks up where Rosa's Kitchen left off.
The long, deep cave of a room remains more functional and friendly than flash. A bar with ringside seats has been erected, making drive-by snacking a real possibility. Trim is minimal, but thoughtful. Beads hung along bareback walls represent the rosaries you'll see old salts clutching with their coffees. A heavy curtain cocoons a big group table. The bathroom offers a selection of perfumes and colognes. Be careful or you will smell like a teenage disco.
Like Rosa's, the Lebanese-ish, Greekish, Turkish-ish menu, executed by Rumi chef Tom Sarafian, continues a tradition of straight-to-the-point deliciousness.
When you sit, you're given half of a super crisp cucumber from Day's Walk Farm cut lengthways and lightly sprinkled with nigella seeds and a little coarse salt. There's the Egyptian flatbreads: two pillows made with cereally khorasan flour that arrive fully puffed with steam. Break and spread with housemade labna rolled in a thyme-heavy zaatar. Save some bread to use with the silky plate of hummus decorated with lemony, paprika-tinged curls of baby squid, whole chickpeas and garlic butter.
Unless you are a helluva fish fan, the tarator, a raw salmon (or cod, depending on the day) dice folded with nuts, tahini and garlic carries the same potency warning as those colognes, even neutered by really interestingly tart pickled semillon grapes. Caveat snack-tor for the crisp cheesy prawn parcels too: bisque pungency meets saganaki. I like them but our table is split.
There's not much else I'd kick out of bed in the ensuing party of spice and char. A whole eggplant is melted over hot coals for hours, gently peeled and dressed with a tart crunch of crisp onions, sparkly with sumac and mint, surrounded by a yoghurt moat.
Summon and scoop out the sweet, soft innards from a blackened leek and mix with the vibrant, smoky red pepper and pomegranate dip muhammara. Get a hanger steak, its bloody richness offset by more of those crisp cucumbers stripped to ribbons and folded in sharp yoghurt.
In coming weeks you're going to hear a lot about Bar Saracen's neighbour, Sunda. Deservedly. The new South-East Asian entrant has some show-stopping dishes and a crazy interior constructed of scaffolding (stay tuned). Bar Saracen needn't worry. It's more comforting than cool here, but like Rumi, it's compelling.
Maybe it's the well-practiced service honed over years. Maybe it's the ancient flavours doing new tricks so both your nostalgia and new taste receptors get a dopamine hit. Maybe it's the booze – your other essential dessert sees a swathe of tart pineapple sorbet filed with arak and basil oil. You feel like you've been here before. You know you'll be back.
Pro Tip: Consider for drive-by beer snacks or dessert.
Go-to Dish: Goat's cheese mamool with fig and sesame jam, $10.