Yalla Sawa

Terry Durack
Rough-hewn: Yalla Sawa has a general air of moody, shadowy  tavern about the place.
Rough-hewn: Yalla Sawa has a general air of moody, shadowy tavern about the place. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Shop 8, Beach Park Arcade, 138-142 Cronulla Street Cronulla, New South Wales 2230

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Opening hours Dinner Wed-Sun, 6pm-late
Features Accepts bookings, Groups, Licensed, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Walid Karam
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 8544 0614

Heading to Cronulla for a dip has never been easier. With Yalla Sawa opening its neighbourhood Arabic/Lebanese/Moroccan eatery on a corner in the Beach Park Arcade, you can have three dips for $18. There's a rich-but-light hummus, baba ghanoush, and a luminous beetroot and chilli dip, all ready to pile on to warm folds of grill-speckled saj flatbread, made daily in-house.

Yalla Sawa is the latest venture from Jad Nakhle, who also runs local live music venue Brass Monkey, and nearby Mexican, El Sol. Keeping things in the family, Nakhle's sister, Zena, works the floor, while cousin chef Walid Karam is visible through a glass hatch in the kitchen.

Latticed Moroccan metallic lanterns hang from the ceiling, stools line a mosaic-tiled cocktail bar, and there's a general air of moody, shadowy, rough-hewn tavern about the place.

Felafel with pickled turnips, chillies, mint, tahini and saj bread.
Felafel with pickled turnips, chillies, mint, tahini and saj bread. Photo: Cole Bennetts

While traditional Arabic spice mixes are as ancient as the desert sands, Karam gives them a contemporary makeover. Take marinated labna ($12), the hung yoghurt rolled into bocconcini-like balls and served in a preserving jar of herbed olive oil on a wooden board, along with saj bread. Lined up ''a la cocaine'' on the board are thin lines of dukkah, zaatar (wild thyme and sesame seed) and a relatively un-tangy purple sumac. Roll the labna in the spices, squish on to the bread, wrap, bite, smile.

This sort of cover-the-table eating is great for four or more, and frustrating for couples. Add a cocktail from the bar and a Lebanese 961 beer, and there's little room on the small, metal-framed table for elbows. So it's nice of the kitchen to offer the sambusic, felafel and kibbe individually ($6 each).

And it's just as well, because they're all spiffing; you could live on this sort of mezze for days on end.

Slow-cooked lamb shank tagine.
Slow-cooked lamb shank tagine. Photo: Cole Bennetts

The sambusic pastry turnovers are plump with juicy, fragrant lamb kofta, and the kibbe are crisp-shelled footballs of pumpkin and cracked wheat encasing spinach and chickpea stuffing.

Best of all is the felafel, coated in tahini and served on saj bread with pickled turnip, chilli and loads of mint leaves. This is not your stale, crumbly felafel, nor your deeply fried, armour-plated felafel. Instead, it is a light, juicy, soft, slowly cooked, freshly made menu standout.

Almost every table sports a tagine of slow-cooked lamb shanks ($28). The terracotta lid is whisked away to reveal a deeply dark stew, the bones cut as if for ossobuco, the meat fragrant with spice, and sweet - almost too sweet - with honey, raisins and dates.

A small dish of couscous ($6) is just plain delicious, the light little fluff-balls soaking up the stewy tagine juices as if born to it.

The short but serviceable wine list deals mainly in Oz labels, with a few ring-ins, including a silky, rich, ripe Central Otago 2012 Terra Sancta Pinot Noir ($55).

To end, a French-ish orange blossom tart ($12) with ashtar (Lebanese clotted cream) and fanned strawberry is unexceptional, knocked out by a little pot of ahweh (Arabian coffee $3) that's souk-smoky, syrupy and strong.

Happy little Yalla Sawa (means something like ''let's get together'') and its sweetly spiced, comfortably priced food is a great fit for the Cronulla dining scene, joining the terrific Italian food of Giro Osteria and Thai of Alphabet Street. Proof that the short, sharp memory notes of other cultures and cuisines will always stand out over the diluted flavours of the anonymous melting-pot.

Best bit: The mezze
Worst bit: Not having room for the lamb shish
Go-to dish: Felafel with pickled turnips, chillies, mint, tahini, saj bread. $6 each

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.