128 Longueville Rd Lane Cove, NSW 2066
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-10pm; Sat-Sun 11am-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9420 8508|
Zhoug, labna, dukkah, maamoul, hummus, falafel, fattoush, toum. You're talking my language. Who doesn't love this food?
Just as Japanese culture has pushed us to dine at bars and counters, surely the assorted cultures we lump together under "Middle East" are the forces behind the small plates, sharing platters and dips 'n' chips that so define dining in 2018.
More vegetables, grains and pulses, grills and spices; less meat, less dairy. Lots of yoghurt, no mayo. Invariably, it's food that's more enjoyable the closer it stays to the street, the market and the backyard grill. So Lillah, a spanking new, casual, mid-market Middle Eastern in Lane Cove, sounds worth a shot.
Nour executive chef Roy Ner worked with owner Trevor Blye on the menu, while Melbourne's Studio Y did the fit-out. It's a long, light space that runs from bar to a bright open kitchen, with plenty of pale terracotta tones, exposed brick, skylight, banquettes and share tables along the way.
The best way to start is to share an Old City platter ($19), a paper-lined metal tray bearing – you name it – fried cauliflower with baba ghanoush, crunchy little falafel with smoked tahini, hummus and pickles, Lebanese olives, smoked almonds, flatbreads, pickles and deep-fried calamari with warm, charred lemon for squeezing.
The dainty oval saucers, the generosity, the pick-and-peck: it's an immediate welcome mat of food.
From there, the menu moves more into casual fast-food territory with its laffa rolls of beef, lamb or chicken, and handful of grills from an impressive parilla set-up. As in the Middle East, vegetables are treated with respect.
A meaty slab of smoky, charcoal-grilled eggplant ($16) is warm, generous and filling, pimped with pomegranate seeds, mint, a little stack of flatbread crisps and stripes of green tahini.
It's a better bet than the lamb shoulder ($22), which has been brined, slow-cooked and grilled – a system that suits the kitchen better than the diner, or indeed the lamb. It's just plain dull and boring, even with a fruity, soft-fleshed grilled bullhorn pepper, sauceboat of spicy chermoula jus, pot of creamy, whippy, garlicky toum, and a pile of terrific za'atar-dusted soft/crisp chips.
Wines are limited, but the priciest, a spicy, balanced Chateau Musar Jeune red ($55) shows how far this Lebanese winery has come in the past few decades.
Service in these early days is on the chaotic side, with some staff members taken by surprise by the fact they may need to take an order, go and get something, and bring it to your table.
You'll need two hands to pick up the chicken laffa roll ($15) that comes with more of those excellent super-long, super-thin chips. The chicken is flabby, but the crumbed eggplant is a star, along with crunchy golden beetroot and cabbage slaw, smoked tahini and baba ghanoush.
The meats need more work – or perhaps less – to be as satisfying as the vegetables, but there's not a single element of this family-oriented, eat-with-your-hands, dip-and-swipe food that doesn't naturally go with everything else.
And the no-fuss formula means you're here to eat, talk, go; pay at the bar, and see yourself out. Lillah has no ambitions to elevate and reinvent Middle Eastern cooking, and for that we can be thankful.
Vegetarian Vegetable dishes are the stars here.
Drinks Middle Eastern-themed cocktails and mocktails, Young Henry's Newtowner on tap and a 10-bottle wine list mostly under $50. BY0 $10 corkage a bottle.
Go-to dish Old City platter, $19.
Pro tip The sweet spot is a booth for two,that comes complete with phone-charging ports under the table.
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.