Shop 5, Casba, 18 Danks Street Waterloo, New South Wales 2017
|Opening hours||Lunch Tue-Fri 11.30am-3pm Brunch Sat-Sun 9am-3pm Dinner Tue-Sat from 6pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Breakfast-brunch, Family friendly, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9690 0931|
The hummus comes to the table in a heavy stone mortar, still flecked with nutty, softly cooked chickpeas. It is gently pounded into a warm, thick paste, spooned into a bowl and doused with extra-virgin olive oil.
A wooden board arrives holding a proudly puffed loaf of Palestinian bread - taboon- its crust charred, its bready base cakey-light. What a luscious, evocative combination; the tahini-powered hummus, the smoky, hot bread; it's as if we have gone back centuries.
That's really all you need to know about Michael Rantissi's new Kepos & Co, just around the corner from the nearly three-year-old Kepos Street Kitchen. It tells you that there is the commitment of a wood-fired oven; that somebody in the kitchen can bake like an angel, and that Rantissi continues to draw inspiration from his cosmopolitan upbringing in Tel Aviv, channelling Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African food into a confident, classy mix of small plate feasts.
What else do you need to know? That Kepos & Co is ensconced in the smart, sleek Casba development in Danks Street, facing a palm-fringed, brick-paved courtyard complete with oasis-like pool. That the dining space is all a-glow with decorative screens, rough-hewn floor and Moorish tiles under a flotilla of filigreed pendant lamps; that the kitchen is all stone, brick oven, and bronzed metal behind white-washed stone arches; a look that Rantissi calls "old Jerusalem". That it's modestly sized inside, with extra seating outside for those brave enough to do the throw-rug and patio heater thing; and that service is downright sweet and hospitable.
What else? Rantissi's cooking is rich and forthright; he keeps accompaniments simple and precise rather than decorative or cheffy. Flavour notes are big at weekday lunches and dinners: tahini, walnuts, coriander, pomegranate, eggplant, haloumi, kalamatas, grape vinegar.
There's oven-baked baby cauliflower ($18) - the leaves curling like blackened octopus arms encircling the soft, cumin-spiced head - with little more than a slather of raw tahini (made from unprocessed, untoasted sesame seeds) on top. At night, quail ($34) is stuffed and slow-cooked, then roasted and served cleft in two under a sweet Israeli date honey glaze, spilling out spicy sucuk sausage, date and pine nuts.
Wagyu brisket ($28) is slow-cooked into a motherly stew with the slightly bitter leaves known variously as mulukhiyah, molokhia or mallow, accompanied by a big bowl of mujaddara - a comforting mix of rice and lentils that could be a meal in itself. Dessert could be a modest baked labneh cheesecake ($15) topped with medjool dates and a date syrup of biblical sweetness.
Weekends see all-day brunches starring a great "laham bil agine", Lebanese spicy minced lamb pizza topped with pinenuts, yoghurt and mint ($22); and "mum's favourite soup", a full-bodied chicken broth sweet with Israeli egg noodles, leeks and poached egg.
You'll be needing something light and juicy as well, like a Shirazi chopped vegetable salad with house-smoked feta ($15).
A spice-friendly, well-travelled wine list runs to a 2014 Gaia Thalassitis ($74), an intense, citrussy white from Santorini, and a ripe, cherry-led 2010 Vinea Marson sangiovese from Heathcote ($16/$72). As well, there are iced teas, cocktails and excellent coffee from The Grounds via a powder-coated Synesso.
I love that Rantissi & Co is going next-level on a cuisine too often relegated to cheerfully cheap status, treating it with respect, delivering it with skill, and pitching it right in the middle of home-cooking and dining-out.
But really? That hummus. That puffy, crusty taboon. That's all you need to know.
Best bit The breads, the breads …
Worst bit Tables for two too small for share plates
Go-to dish Warm hummus with taboon bread $17
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.