36 Chapel St Windsor, VIC 3181
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 5pm-midnight; Sat-Sun 11am-midnight.|
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8419 8924|
Go west, life is peaceful there. More peaceful than at Shane Delia's new Windsor restaurant, which creates middle ground between his fast-food brand Biggie Smalls and central city fine diner Maha. It's Tuesday, it's freezing outside. Would you have thought to book for 7pm at the top end of Chapel Street on an early week night? No? Then you too might find yourself being made a makeshift table at the end of the freshly buffed bar.
That busyness is a rare and excellent sight in Melbourne winter. Maybe we're not as horrible at operating in sub-15-degree temperatures as we've always thought. Then again, Maha East, with its promise of a slightly more accessible version of the Middle Eastern feasts and arak drinks Delia has been delivering in the city for years, creates a potent proposition for Chapel Street punters. This is an area rich in dine-in takeaway joints but with very few big R restaurants.
Why is that? Was the recent closure of innovative and delicious Ramblr (reopening this week as pizza joint Leo's by the Slice) proof that serious options can't flourish here? Or do restaurateurs keep hounding the idea that a Southside crowd is all young and only responds to neon, sick beats, pan-Asian flavours and chips?
That's a riddle I suspect Shane Delia is trying to figure out. East's menu has many of the calling cards of the Maha brand, from the hefty menu of araks and rakis to its finessed desserts and a vibrant vego offering, but it is also determined to be edgy, and fun.
Taramasalata? Present. But here the whipped fish roe, cult snack of now, is thick as clotted cream and piped into fried buns scattered with dill and Yarra Valley trout roe, like salty, fishy bombolini. Woof.
Manti? Sure. The tiny beef-filled Turkish dumplings, pinched into puckering stars, get yoghurt tang, sumac sparkle and that intensified weedy back note of dried herbs.
Your hit of spiced, shredded lamb comes cocooned in sheets of flaky pastry resembling buttery paperbark, and squiggled with (very sweet) raisin jam and olive dust.
So far, so fun. Then comes gnocchi. Delia loves this dish, with its saffron-honey "tagine sauce" that reads slightly sweet and spice-fragrant in the vein of Japanese curry. To our group, the texture play of fried chicken against the gnocchi remains puzzling no matter how long we squint at it.
The cultural collisions are a new move for Delia, who is manning the kitchen himself and reasons he shouldn't have to stay in one lane. It's a bold move that comes with wins, draws and losses.
French fries loaded with spice mix zaatar and salty kefalograviera cheese? Can't go wrong. I'm intrigued by chilled white cut chicken, a Chinese star made Moorish with nutty tahini and harissa heat instead of any Sichuan tingle, and a roasted rumble of eggplant among the sesame and green onions. It's disorienting, but in a good way. As for the hummus, where you'd expect to find a lift of garlic or acid, it's instead dressed with saffron XO that registers a touch metallic. Is it an upgrade? You decide.
So not every punch is landing. Some things are perhaps ambitiously priced ($18.50 per dessert and $12.50 each for those tarama buns). But I don't think Delia is doing it wrong. When both Ramblr and lower-key businesses (including Biggie Smalls) are struggling against high rents and delivery apps, it makes sense to put it all on the line and see what works.
And there's plenty in this package that does. The room is long, inky, cosy, all sleek textures of dark stone and pools of light. Aside from some musical bangers, you'd never pick that this was recently a hip-hop kebabery.
Zucchini, bright and vibrant and rich with pinenuts, chickpeas, the chilli-coriander zap of zhug and mint is memorable veg.
A seeming wildcard dessert of more chickpeas infused into a mellow ice-cream (it mostly tastes of anglaise with a slight soy-ish tinge) with poached pears, sweet and saffrony, and syrup-soaked olive oil cake has rum baba texture but with its innocence intact.
Then there's friendly professional Maha frontman Ross Frame to keep you in your cups. And if the wines, an interesting global snapshot that largely sit around $16 and up a glass are only casually priced when compared to the fine diner in town, there's always BYO Monday and Tuesdays for $20. A nice community touch.
This isn't Maha. East is a whole new beast and I don't think Delia has finished deciding what that means yet.
Vegetarian: Maha has always made veg shine.
Drinks: A few Middle Eastern and local beers, and lots of arak and raki to back those wines.
Cost: Small-medium mezze $8-$28; share dishes $36-$48.
Pro Tip: Monday and Tuesdays are $20 BYO nights.
Go-to Dish: Zucchini with zhug, $14; tarama buns, $12.50 each.