236 High St Northcote, VIC 3070
|Opening hours||Wed-Thu 5.30pm-11pm; Fri 5.30pm-midnight; Sat 5pm-midnight; Sun 5pm-11pm|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9031 6507|
"Dobredojde!" proclaims the menu in Macedonian. And welcome is exactly how you'll feel at this family-run Balkan bistro dishing up home-style classics from the motherland.
Brothers Miki and Igor Dodevski have been imagining this restaurant for 20 years and are rapt at the support they've received since opening Le Lee in Northcote in March. "It's a dream come true," says Miki. "It's the food we've grown up eating, the same food I remember my grandma cooking at home."
Growing up in the capital of Scorpia, Miki and his family spent most weekends at his grandparents' farm in the nearby village of Mrsevci. "Baba and Dedo had pigs, and every autumn in early November they'd slaughter a pig," says Miki. "The whole family would get together to get ready for winter."
The men would butcher the animal, and everyone pitched in to smoke and prepare the meats, a centuries-old family tradition.
"Dad still helps a lot with the meat smoking," says Miki, "And the rakia drinking! He still makes his own." Like grappa to the Italians, rakia is a 40 per cent proof fruit brandy traditionally drunk at the start of a meal. It's a fiery kick-off, and Le Lee has more than 25 to choose from, served in sweet little vase-like glasses.
Their mother, Vera, is a professional chef, having spent 45 years in kitchens here and in Macedonia, where she had the honour of cooking for the former Yugoslavian president, Josip Broz Tito. All the recipes on Le Lee's leather-bound menu are hers, and you'll often find Vera checking on the slow-cooked comfort food simmering away in the restaurant's beautiful clay pots.
Pinning down Macedonian cuisine is a lesson in geography. Influences come from its Mediterranean neighbours, years of Ottoman rule, and Eastern European classics. It's a hospitable, lively culture, where meze (a feast of small plates) is the typical way family and friends come together to share a communal meal. And so it is at Le Lee.
A spread of vego snacks might come first, such as hand-rolled leek and cheese pastry, a fresh and zestily dressed chopped salad of tomato, cucumber and onion, and crunchy crumbed zucchini.
Mains are heartier – and meatier – although it's easy enough to put together a plant-based spread with baked vegetarian moussaka and a bunch of awesome salads and sides.
Le Lee's signature dish honours Baba and Dedo with pork shoulder slow-cooked with leek (seasonal to November in Macedonia) and home-smoked bacon – add pickles and red-pepper relish for maximum authenticity.
Cabbage rolls, stuffed with a herby mix of beef, pork and vegies, maybe with a side of deliciously warm potato salad, round out the spread, and children's meals rock, with baked potatoes and skinless cevapci.
"Mum and Dad are both very, very proud of what we've done," says Miki. "My mum can't believe her cooking and our cuisine has been so well received. To be able to showcase our food to the broader Melbourne community, well, to be honest, I'm still pinching myself."
Go-to Dish: Sarma (cabbage rolls), $18, and shopska (chopped salad), $9.