298 Carlisle St Balaclava, VIC 3183
|Opening hours||Mon-Tue and Thu 7am-3pm; Fri-Sat 7am-5pm; Sun 8am-3pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 8589 3241|
"Levanter" is the Mediterranean equivalent of "the change", a wind that blows fresh and cool, relieving the heat and sometimes bringing rain. It's how Syrian mother-and-son team Marcelle Hanna and Sam Dawod view their sweet and homely cafe – as a piece of Syrian culture and cuisine blowing into Melbourne's food scene.
"Before the war, about 15 years ago, Syria was a good place," says Dawod, who arrived in Melbourne as a refugee with his mother three years ago. They spent time honing their English before opening Levanter Cafe on Carlisle Street's busy strip. "Balaclava is lively with a good vibe," Dawod says. "It somehow reminds me of home, having the market and shops around. This is a place I'm comfortable in."
He runs front-of-house, while Hanna's domain is the teeny benchtop kitchen, where she cooks up traditional Syrian dishes with love and pride. "I love to cook," she says. "For the whole of my life I've fed my family healthy food, fresh every day."
Dawod grew up eating his mum's ful medames, a soul-reviving fava bean stew with fresh tomato, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil, while Hanna reckons it's not a meal without kibbeh. "At any festival or any feast, you should have kibbeh!" she says. There are more than 15 versions of the spiced burghul and minced meat street snack in Aleppo.
Falafel is another benchmark of Syrian cooking, its origins hotly contested. Historians credit Egypt as the creator, and Syria as close second. Levanter's falafel are magnificent; doughnut-shaped, fried fresh to order, they're crisp-shelled with a herby green fluffy interior, and topped with sesame seeds.
They go through kilos of falafel mix every week. Have them as a side, or part of the signature Levantine breakfast, a big wooden board loaded with grilled haloumi, oil-slicked labne, sliced boiled egg, flavourful fresh hummus, pickled veg and flatbread.
There are feta pies to take away, along with chocolate or coffee baklava, lokum (Turkish delight), and the national speciality, halawet el jibn, a three-cheese Syrian cake with haloumi, mozzarella and sweet ricotta, semolina, a dusting of pistachio, and a jug of rosewater syrup to pour over the top.
Coffee comes two ways: from the espresso machine, or as a thick, cardamom-laced brew with plenty of sediment.
As for working together as mother and son, Dawod says, "She's responsible for the food and I'm responsible for the coffee and no more drama!"
Hanna's take? "For me, it is really lovely, but I'm afraid for my son; it's not always enjoyable to work with your mother!"
Our take? Melbourne is happy the wind has blown Levanter Cafe to our shores.
Go-to Dish: Levantine breakfast (solo/for two) $20/$32.