These past months have been unrelenting for almost every restaurant Australia-wide. With one exception: restaurants that have opened post-COVID, whose owners would have been living the exhausting, uncertain hell of birthing their concept anyway.
In fact, for chef Rotem Papo and Adam Faigen, COVID-19 actually gave them the push they needed to launch Golda, an Israeli restaurant they had fruitlessly been trying to situate for a year.
Faigen already had Gramercy Social at Prahran's Cullen Hotel, which post-lockdown, for obvious reasons, was somewhat under-utilised. Papo, former head chef at Bar Lourinha, found himself equally free. In May, they bore down on some branding, and let loose with a takeaway menu of tender lamb, zucchini salads and citrus-and-cardamom puddings.
Is it a pop-up? It doesn't look like it, thanks to Gramercy's well-established frame of glossy dark walls and elegant black chairs, to which designer Romy Dankner has added some key flourishes, like a misty drape that shields the outdoor terrace to up the intimacy, and two frothy clouds of dried florals resembling a plump of ducks exploding mid-flight. This may not be the final home for Golda, but the pair are convinced they're onto something. They're not wrong.
Before the heart-warming story about Papo's Israeli upbringing and rendition of his mother's chopped liver, a quick hands-in-the-air moment for being back in restaurants.
High-end takeaway has done some heavy lifting convincing us to stay at home, but have you even once had a trolley loaded with sparkling glassware, liquor and rhubarb twists trundled up to your table/couch to take your cocktail order?
It's a sight to build a thirst, and a pomegranate-spiked negroni is the thing to slake it with tart accuracy. See also the forgotten joy of having six labour-intensive dishes delivered all at once, and then taken to a place where they are not your problem. That's worth the price of admission alone.
So is that liver. Chopped to the degree you'd call it paté and crowned with grated boiled egg, it is an intensely deep, dark and sweet swipe for your flatbread, a confit of liver with caramelised onions and big slugs of oil. No schmaltz (chicken fat). Papo is of Mizrahi Jewish heritage, which brings the lighter, brighter spice-laden flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine to the table.
More from the family album: a rich, fudgy plate of roasted zucchini, buzzing with paprika oil and refreshed by goat's feta and mint. This is part of the saltatim ("salads") opening flush, and is joined by a sharp, crunchy plate of cucumbers and lima beans in vinaigrette, a deeply savoury hummus slicked in paprika oil, and pomegranate-bejewelled baba ghanoush.
Papo tried to open an Israeli street food restaurant a few years ago and hit some creative walls with a business partner at the time. Golda is his more rounded vision: family recipes and Israeli memories shaped by his subsequent learnings from his posts at restaurants like L'Hotel Gitan and Bar Lourinha.
You advance to fish, a dish of his mother's, but where she would steam fillets for hours over a bed of garlic, peppers and oil, his is a clipped version: a fish stock, garlic, coriander and capsicum emulsion in which he finishes his snapper, for a brighter, firmer result. Silky beads of Israeli couscous swim in a creamy pumpkin base almost like risotto, spiked with a herb blitz akin to salsa verde. Even the dark, wintery dish of beef cheeks is lifted by pomegranate and beetroot.
As restrictions lift, Papo will stretch. A la carte will soon come to the fore, including tapas-style snacks like sambusak, Iraqi crimped pastries that he plans to plump with rockling, prawns and crushed potatoes, and mini falafel pitas served with fermented mango pickle, amba.
This is a slick hotel space in a strip of Commercial Road that attracts the ferociously groomed, but there's little gilding of the lily – except where it counts.
Like when mint tea is poured as a breather before dessert. Or when dessert comes and it's the elegant simplicity of malabi, a set cream pudding slicked with skinsy citrus and cardamom syrup and a nutty whorl of toasted coconut.
COVID has taken a lot, but if it has forced places like this into being, that's one silver lining.
Address: 162 Commercial Road, Prahran, goldarestaurant.com.au, 0438 824 297
Cost: $55 set menu, Cocktails $18
Takeaway: A tighter menu is still available for pick-up
Go-to dish: Chopped liver with grated egg and laffa bread
Pro tip: The cocktail trolley is the best drink situation since Stanley Tucci's lockdown negroni video
Where's the score? While the industry works to get back on its feet, the practice of scoring reviews has been put on hold.