217 Carlisle Street Balaclava, Victoria 3183
|Opening hours||Tue-Sat 5pm-11pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Bar, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Family friendly, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9525 9127|
Diners, meet vinegar. It's the secret assassin of the seasoning world and the reason Tulum is going to stick in your mind.
Turkish chef Coskun Uysal is going to whip your weary palate at his six-month-old restaurant, Tulum. And you're going to enjoy it. We're in Balaclava for this modern-Turkish odyssey, where Uysal and co-pilot Murat Ovaz squeeze Anatolian flavours into bracing and downright stunning food.
If you caught the train here – and that's a smart move, the Middle Eastern-leaning cocktail list is surprisingly good – perhaps you thought of Attica, Ben Shewry's now world-famous restaurant, one stop away. The thought isn't misplaced. Uysal spent his past few visits to Australia completing stages at high-end restaurants, and Attica was among them. The most notable link, though, isn't a Turkish take on wallaby pikelets, but a common connection with food that has a story and place.
Uysal has a rare gift for cloaking dishes in narratives. What's become schtick for so many chefs in no way feels contrived here. Maybe it will be his razzed up after-school special, the now cult cilbur, a translucent poached egg napped in smoked yoghurt and brown butter, which you'll run golden shards of chicken skin and torn pita through.
You'll be ordering that dish, if only to balance the festival of fresh to come with one all-out gut-buster. Beyond that, the best advice is to throw control to the kitchen. The unlikely wins on paper transpire to be game-changers on the plate.
So there is a pâte of fava beans, tofu-like in texture, jump-started by sweet currants, dill and sliced grapes soaked in raki – that grappa-like spirit with hints of fennel and kerosene.
Or there's the stumpy arrangement of chilled leeks, crowned with a halo of shaved carrots, charred, puffed rice and sweet-sour hits of prune, molasses and orange zest that pings your palate like an elastic band.
The party continues with rockmelon compressed with rosewater vinegar (house-fermented over six months, and seen in jars along the walls), curled around picked crab in a luminous garden of watermelon, tomatoes, smooth feta and toasty pepitas. It shouldn't work. But this is high-wire balancing without even a feint of a stumble.
Wine-wise, it's an eclectic grab bag of Australian, French and German wines with just a couple of options from Turkey. There's a price-consciousness to the list (few things over $60), which some will love but adventurers might find restrictive. Having said that, the Suvla Kinali Yapincak does a fair impression of Jura chardonnay for only $47.
Space-sensitive diners should note that while Tulum is a study in anti-cliche elegance, its front bar glowing with modern liquors and long white walls beautifully scaled in turquoise tiles, the blond tables are so close you'll be trying not to sit in your neighbour's dinner as you fold yourself into wall-seats.
It is testament to Uysal's tableside manner that visibly miffed diners melt at the arrival of their onion. If you need further evidence of the power of vinegar, take it from the slow-cooked bulbs cocooning cinnamon-fragrant lamb mince and rice. Apple tea and cider vinegar soak a crowning lozenge of apple, acting like an amplifier, and almost reminds you of Carolina barbecue.
The beauty is in the balance here. Just when you think you're about to go over the edge, there's the simplicity of pan-seared duck breast, with a paste of un-hulled tahini.
You wind down to just-warm rice pudding flecked with sweet jerusalem artichoke and petals of fresh peach, like a mirror to the opening act.
It's been a long time since a restaurant took you on such a trip. Get on board.
Prepare for the palate-whipping of a lifetime.
Pro Tip: Throw control to the kitchen for the best adventure.
Go-to Dish: The cilbur – an egg docked in a pool of smoked yoghurt and butter with chicken crackling.