Sezar

Larissa Dubecki
New territory: Sezar, formerly Saint Peter's.
New territory: Sezar, formerly Saint Peter's. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

6 Melbourne Pl Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 12 Noon–3pm, 5:30–11:30pm ; Sat 5:30–11:30pm
Features Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Degustation, Groups, Licensed, Private dining, Pre-post-theatre, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Bar
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Garen Maskal, Franc Bakkes
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9663 9882

Another first. Armenian, this time, which follows on the heels of a groundbreaking Burmese expedition as Melbourne pushes further into uncharted restaurant waters. What do I know of Armenian cuisine? What, indeed, do I know of Armenia? The Kardashians spring unfortunately to mind, that over-exposed family of pampered nobodies celebrated at Sezar with a cocktail (or should that be kocktail?) named in their honour.

And the metal band System of a Down. Armenian by way of California, technically speaking, although they illustrate the ruggedly masculine image of the Eurasian republic, female Kardashians excepted. Sezar is a masculine restaurant, from the spiky gothic font to the forbidding aerosol murals - a helmeted warrior, a winged horse; real cradle-of-civilisation stuff - decorating the inner-city laneway haunt that used to be Saint Peter's.

The new owner-chef is Garen Maskal of nuevo Mexican joint the Black Toro in Glen Waverley but, along with his cousins/backers, of Armenian descent. What they have created here is putatively Armenian, although it lacks the throat-grabbing passion of a chef really getting down with the food of his family table. Best approach the place armed with the knowledge that Maskal was sous chef at Ezard. Rather than going the full kufta, it's more of a Melbourne restaurant with an Armenian accent.

The spinach and feta-filled boreg.
The spinach and feta-filled boreg. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

The Middle Eastern inflections are most extant - the cumin, the pomegranate, the smoky eggplant - but it's highly unlikely anyone stumbling across Sezar would be able to get more geographically specific, despite the menu being divided into bzdig (small) and medz (large) dishes. The welcome mat is flung out to a broader audience, although the sacrifice is any profound sense of originality.

There's quinoa in the grain salad, for instance - wrong continent, wrong hemisphere, but boringly on-trend - and cauliflower puree bedding down scallops on the half-shell, sprinkled with cumin and za'atar, the Middle Eastern spice mix that makes everything it touches warm and toasty. It's a good match. The spanner crab falafel is wanting for such innate balance; it's an intriguing concept that turns out to be the familiar fried orb on a warmed tortilla with the crustacean dabbled among tabbouleh, pickled radishes and tahini. It's a chef-driven dish that certainly doesn't do the crab any favours.

But then you've got the boreg, fried filo cigars that are simplicity itself - stuffed to the gunwales with spinach and feta and lifted by a mildly kicking aleppo chilli mayo. There's air-dried beef, marbled curls making a salad of sorts with fresh figs and a charry eggplant puree; and lamb kebabs, sweetly spiced and smoke-soaked from the charcoal pit out the back, that arrive with baby cos leaves for wrapping before a dip in the sour cherry sauce.

Mains - apologies, medz - start with the (rib-free) pork ribs, slow-cooked and roasted to order, and slapped with a sweet pomegranate glaze in which you could see your own reflection. This hunk 'o' meat comes with confit garlic puree and date molasses, and a sexy little purslane-driven salad. It's a winning argument for old-meets-new, but better skip the dry and dusty chargrilled whole prawns with a bland side-order of raisin-sprinkled burghul wheat.

Like The Black Toro, there's rapprochement between what's essentially a peasant food style and restaurant posturing. The smart modern crockery helps compensate for the closeness of the tables and the System of a Down noise levels the room reaches at peak hour, and the wine list rises above the typical pro forma document of the just-opened restaurant. There are no Armenian or regional drops to be had, mind you - although there's a pleasant lager called Kotayk - but the punchy little list has an interest-to-price ratio that's above average.

The service, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly familiar: bored, reactive, ill-informed and often absent. It's another Melbourne trend they'd be wise to buck.

Desserts give the old favourites a new spin. Baklava is done as an ice-cream sandwich with walnut ice-cream and salted caramel. Nice enough, if again imbued with an unexciting sense of familiarity. But there you go, Armenia. I didn't realise I knew you so well.

THE LOW-DOWN
The best bit
The hidey-hole location
The worst bit
Service needs a rev-up
Go-to dish Boreg, $12

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or email: ldubecki@fairfaxmedia.com.au