219 Park St South Melbourne, VIC 3205
|Opening hours||Wed-Mon 11am-8.30pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Groups, BYO|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9645 5800|
Looking to kill an hour (OK, maybe a day)? Ask an Israeli (OK, anyone from the Middle East) about hummus, then prepare for an outpouring of passion.
What may seem like a simple combination of chickpeas and tahini is more than mere dip. It's history and culture, family and memory, sustenance and fuel. Calling it a dip is like calling Buckingham Palace a house.
Israeli chef Ehud Malka has such strong feelings about hummus he's slowly built a restaurant around it. Malka opened the Left-Handed Chef seven years ago but he's only just wrangled it into the place he wants it to be. That is, the small, heartfelt Melbourne version of a hummusiya, a casual Israeli restaurant devoted to hummus.
In Israel, hummus isn't something you absent-mindedly poke with carrot sticks or corn chips. It's the centre of a meal topped perhaps with grilled eggplant or charred chicken or falafel, always served with pita and pickles.
Malka makes hummus twice a day, seven or eight kilos at a time so it's always fresh. If there's some left over he takes it home - this is not a guy who gets sick of hummus.
Everything from the size of chickpeas (nine millimetres), the source of the tahini (Ethiopian sesame seeds, milled in Israel), the ratio of the two main ingredients (80/20, but don't tell anyone) and the seasoning (salt, pepper, lemon juice but no garlic - "it stinks the hummus") is highly considered.
The ingredients are milled in a Magimix with oft-sharpened blades and the result is a hummus that makes you smile: silky, fluffy and with a clean, nutty chickpea flavour.
This don't-call-it-a-dip is the foundation of Left-Handed Chef's signature hummus bowls. You might order yours topped with spiced minced lamb, crumbed cauliflower or a three-lentil mix with red onion, parsley and cranberries. The hummus is also stuffed into pita or slathered over laffa (wraps).
But guess what? You don't have to have hummus here! The key pita is the sabich, a two-hander overstuffed with fried eggplant, potatoes, boiled egg, tahini and amba, a ubiquitous Iraqi-Israeli mango pickle. Eggplant is heroed as a side dish too: charred and served with yoghurt and zhoug, a punchy green chilli sauce.
Sharing is the idea, never more so than with the jumbo challah schnitzel. Challah is a sweet egg loaf; it's stuffed with fried eggplant, chicken schnitzel and matbucha, a fiery Moroccan condiment with tomato and capsicum. It's epic.
There are many stories of dogged ambition hidden behind unassuming shopfronts in our city. Ehud Malka's is one of them. After compulsory army service he ended up on a kibbutz washing dishes. When the pizza chef did a runner, he started cooking, burning himself hundreds of times on the wood-fired oven as he learnt.
He travelled, fell in love with Melbourne then continued chef training in Israel as he plotted how to return. He came on a student visa, studied patisserie at William Angliss, then worked 80 hours a week at a cupcake kitchen while saving to open his own place.
In its early years, Left-Handed Chef was a classic bacon-and-eggs cafe, except that Malka arrived at 1am to bake the bread. He also worked a second cheffing job at nights; sleep definitely took a back seat. Slowly he built regulars and trust, morphing the menu with more Israeli dishes and in August, he finally stopped breakfasts.
Built on stubbornness and hummus, this is now the left-handed chef living his dream. Luckily, we get to eat in it.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)