21 Bond Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000
|Opening hours||Daily noon-3pm; 6pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Shane Delia, Daniel Giraldo|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9629 5900|
''THE second a girl hesitates on sharing food, you're out,'' declares the young man with black hoodie and sweeping black fringe on the table next to us. The wisdom one encounters in restaurants by virtue of involuntary eavesdropping. Mr Hoodie seems to know what he's on about. He's here with an equally cool young woman sporting a perky topknot and showing no reluctance to share their Middle Eastern spread. So listen up, gents, if your date's not eagerly poking your pilaf and fattouche, you might as well surrender your post-dinner plans. Maha is as good a place as any to test the theory.
Dark and intimate, but not cloyingly romantic, this sleek basement space evokes the lavish Levant with modern restraint: Persian-style carpet, exotic cushions scattered on black leather banquettes, black Laminex tables, wooden slatted partitions, and shelves displaying a glowingly beautiful collection of glassware.
It's hard to believe Maha has been around for only 4½ years but in Melbourne's cauldron of a restaurant scene, where hip new places bubble up with searing regularity, a four-year-old business can seem part of the establishment. Judging by the crowds on both Wednesday nights I visit, chef Shane Delia's upbeat, sophisticated take on Middle Eastern cuisine has lost none of its allure.
That's saying something when you consider that Maha (named after Delia's Lebanese-Australian wife) is located in a rather poky part of town, opposite a multi-storey car park, down grey old Bond Street, off the not-so-glamorous end of Flinders Lane. It used to be a Chinese restaurant before Delia and its co-owners transformed it into a thriving Aladdin's cave, complete with a terrace shisha bar.
I vividly remember being blown away by the food on my first visit about a year ago and again, on my second in April, when I had the pleasure of dining with the scandalously entertaining English actor Miriam Margolyes. We had the vegetarian banquet and it was superb.
The food's still very good, but I feel as though having made his mark, Delia is on automatic pilot. He's an extremely busy man, and one wouldn't want to see Maha marred by a lapse in attention. There's no risk of that when it comes to the service, though - Delia's team is switched-on, fun and knowledgeable.
An a la carte menu feels almost redundant here, and most eschew it for the soufra or sultan banquets. The soufra is more rustic, and we choose it on our first visit, along with a restorative bottle of 2010 Muros Antigos ''vinho verde'', from Minho, Portugal ($70) - our eagle-eyed waiter does a supreme job at keeping our glasses full.
A shot of hibiscus tea and a selection of ''mezze'' start us off: a pine nut tarator that we scoop up with loaves of warm, pocket Turkish bread; an interesting dish of roasted apricot kernels, lightly coated with Aleppo pepper and laban (a Lebanese yoghurt); a mini-salad of broccoli, cauliflower and tahina mayo; olives coated with fel fel (a Maltese chilli paste); and a warm, cleansing shot of black cardamom and oxtail soup.
Small plates are next. First, a pair of delightful golden-crumbed salmon croquettes with kimchi mayo, slithers of macadamia nuts, and preserved lemon. A chargrilled spatchcock, with a punchy marinade of black chilli and cumin salt, is wonderfully tender, served on a bed of cinnamon-spiced Jerusalem artichoke puree.
The first of the larger plates features two fillets of grilled trumpeter on a terrific salad of freekeh and crunchy quinoa. The signature dish of 12-hour slow-roasted Mount Leura lamb shoulder is fall-apart lush, balanced by an inspired pistachio and green olive tabouleh.
The soufra dessert platter, though, is disappointing. A chocolate date pudding is on the dry side, barely saved by a delightful ball of peanut ice-cream coated with chocolate. The coconut water and milk jelly with spiced strawberry arak pearls has a somewhat bitter aftertaste, and the Turkish delight doughnuts - tiny fritters with a hint of rosy delight at the centre - are uneventful.
The sultan's menu is more upmarket. Even the bread differs - it's a divine selection of cinnamon-spiced rolls and zaatar-coated sourdough. A delicate smoked pork-hock broth, topped with a poached quail egg, makes for a fittingly subtle start.
But the dish that shows Delia at his clever best is the corn-fed chicken tagine - a gorgeous, rubbly pile of bite-sized pieces of deboned chicken thigh, a broken egg, crumbly corn bread, Iranian figs, and a earthy, salty-sweet ''soil'' of roasted, caramelised, pureed and dehydrated sucuk (traditional Turkish sausage). Fabulous. Next to it, a john dory fillet topped with rocket, and served with smears of mushroom cream and almond mayo, pales into insignificance. A roast duckling breast, served with parsnip, carrot, potato and celeriac puree is better but missing the wow factor. The 12-hour lamb features again, but we also try the wagyu - an excellent decision. It's an astonishingly tender, rosy-centred slice of David Blackmore rib-eye cap, marinated in honey and coriander seed, served with roast garlic parfait and shavings of root vegetables.
At last my sweet tooth is satisfied. The sultan's dessert is sumptuous - a glossy white dome swathed in a blanket of honey and orange blossom foam, concealing a peanut butter parfait heart, with pieces of sponge soaked in white chocolate and rum, and chocolate sorbet, on a bed of baklava crumb and salted caramel. This one's not for sharing.
Food Middle Eastern
Where 21 Bond Street, city
Phone 9629 5900
Cost Eight-course sultan's menu, $125 a person ($95 a person for six-course); four-course soufra, $75 a person.
Licensed Excellent 36-page list featuring an interesting selection of old and new world wines, as well as arak, raki, and beers from the Levant.
Owners Shane Delia, George Calombaris, Joe Calleja, George Sykiotis, Tony Lachimea
Chef Shane Delia
Noise A lively buzz
Wheelchairs Yes, via a lift, and disabled toilets.
Parking Street and paid
Cards DC AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Daily, 6-10pm; Sun-Fri, noon-3pm