New Years Eve is one of my favourite holidays of the year. I guess the main reason why I love it so much is because the whole night is unstructured and not bound in tradition or protocol which means that we can party it up our way and do whatever the hell we want. Plus, it’s one of those holidays where, I reckon, that we don’t have to be with family members so I feel much better running a muck without my mum’s hawkish gaze burning holes on my back every time I move.
This year, Adam and I decided to go somewhere decent for dinner and Maha Bar & Grillwas the place we chose. They were advertising an “Arabian Nights” NYE dinner which included food, a cocktail on arrival and live entertainment including music, belly dancers, a tarot reader and a henna tattooist which sounded good to us. Two weeks ago, we made the booking over the phone and my card was charged on the spot so that all we had to do was relax on the night. Maha may have only been open for about a year or so but it’s already one of Melbourne’s hip and happening restaurants thanks to its very very impressive pre-Civil war Beirut-meets-New York decor and its Middle Eastern-slash-Maltese inspired food by Shane Delia. On the night, there were two sittings. One at 6pm, which was $135 per head (we had to be out by 8pm) and one from 8:30pm onwards, which attracted an extra $50 per person. There were no doubts that the second sitting was going to be any different from the first one, so we settled for the first sitting.
We arrived right on time to a basement on Bond Street. The street (or alleyway, rather) was deserted bar a few dodgy looking characters smoking on the gutter. Not a particularly suave-looking location for an apparently cool venue but the spicy smells of cumin, garlic and cardamom emancipating from the basement told us that we were in the right place. A glass-walled courtyard just outside the front entrance housed the henna tattooist and a hookah pipe for white folk who like to suck on them in order to feel cultured. We walked past the squarish bar to a secluded dark wooden booth covered by lattice-style screens and looked around us. Definitely had more of a “bar” vibe than “one hatted restaurant ” vibe but we were nevertheless impressed.
First Entree! A little morsel of vanilla-cured ocean trout was topped with what looked like a blend of dried herbs, the dill, coriander and Italian parsley being the dominant notes. It was topped with a cigar-shaped borek (pastry) filled with feta cheese. The thing that looks a bit like chicken liver is walnut tarator, which is what I could best describe as something that had the consistency of the Turkish cacik, rich and creamy. The entire arrangement accompanied by a shaved fennel and asparagus salad which didn’t really add much flavourwise, but perhaps added some welcome crispness to an otherwise rich dish. I thought the dish had the potential to work well and while some elements such as the trout and the fennel were amazing, I felt that the dried herb chunk had no place on the plate as it was bland and made me feel like I was eating a mouthful of lawn clippings leftover from two weekends ago. On the other hand, I thought the borek was executed well, it delightfully light and pleasant on the tastebud. I also liked that it was shaped into a cigar rather than the usual triangular shape you get at Sydney Road bakeries.
Second entree. Two thin sliced of air-dried wagyu provided the base for this dish. A pickled beetroot, sliced apple and shanklish (Lebanese sheep’s milk cheese rolled with thyme and other spices) salad topped the wagyu; and an apple foam cornet completed a very aesthetically pleasing dish. Hmmm… apples, wagyu and cheese. The combinations may sound weird on paper but strangely enough, they worked well. Not only was this dish a celebration of taste (the sharp, pungent cheese balls, the sweet tanginess of the apples and the rich, meaty wagyu…. oooooh), it was also a culmination of various textures: the seamless yet slightly waxy wagyu, the crumbly shanklish, the crispy cone, the soft airy apple foam and the rice-paper thin apple slices… oooh yes please! In fact, it was so good that I actually ate all my beetroot, a major feat in itself because I don’t really like beetroot…
The mains (large dishes, designed to share). Does this remind you of The Press Club? If you answered “yes” to that, don’t be surprised. George Calombaris, the owner of The Press Club, also happens to have part-ownership of Maha so it’s no surprise that his influence shines through in the cooking. Starting from the left:
–Marlin warra inhib (Vine leaves stuffed with marlin). This dish was a milestone for me in two ways: 1) it was the first time I’ve had vine leaves stuffed in something other than rice or chicken and 2) it was the first time I’ve tried the marlin fish. It was funny… we were both sitting there, not knowing what was inside the vine leaves – it tasted a lot like chicken, the textured was a little like chicken but not quite as firm. A quick glance at the paper menu showed that it was, in fact, marlin… a fish that is rarely consumed except in fine dining establishments. When I think about it now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on restaurant menus, even the toffy ones, and while I don’t think it’s that fantastic a fish, it was definitely “interesting.” Then again, it was minced and mixed with other stuff so I couldn’t really make a proper assessment. The warra inhib was also accompanied by rice foam (clearly Mr Delia still loves a bit of molecular gastronomy…) and a sweet grape dressing to break up the “weirdness” of the vine leaves.
–Muhammara (Hot dip made with peppers, walnuts, breadcrumbs and olive oil). Apart from something in which to dip our pita breads in (provided with every course), I didn’t find this to be special and would not have missed it if it was taken out of the meal. Perhaps it’s my “I-Don’t-Particularly-Like-Hot-Things” bias talking here…
–Fattouche (Middle Eastern salad). An interesting mix of contrasting textures – tomatoes, mint leaves, coriander, olives, cucumbers, red onions and something nice and crunchy which I THOUGHT might’ve been baked chicken skin but wasn’t – it was probably roasted pita bread or something but I couldn’t be sure.
–Lemon and coriander potatoes. They tasted exactly like the ones I had at the Press Club, only they were chopped and then crushed so that they were soft all the way through, rather than crunchy on the outside. Still, they were nice enough.
–Roasted lamb with green olive and pistachio tabouleh. I would say that this was my favourite dish of them all. Apparently the lamb rump was slowly roasted for 12 hours, letting the cumin, onion, spices and lemon juices soak right through the meat and giving it a soft and melt-in-your-mouth texture. The meat easily broke away from the bone as Adam and I took turns in cutting pieces off and dipping it with the tabouleh. Damn, who would’ve thought that lamb meat could ever be this silky-soft and soo good?!
Desserts! I had originally planned to use one of my sharper images so that everyone can see every little piece of walnut and every strand of Persian fairy floss but I kinda like how this photo turned out so I decided to use it instead. As some might know, I’m not a huge dessert person but I found that this was the first time I actually enjoyed the desserts more than the entrees and mains. Starting from the left:
–Turkish delight filled doughnuts: Everyone raves on about Maha’s doughnuts and for a good reason too – they’re absolutely amazing and dare I say, better than the Press Club‘s loukamades too. They came out straight from the fryer, all round and crisp. Drizzled with rosewater and pine nut honey, the doughnuts are ridiculously sweet from the word “Go.” Crunchy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside, with a cube of Turkish delight in the inner depths of the ball to prolonge the sweet sensation of eating one doughnut. If there is ever a reason to go to Maha, THIS IS IT.
–Sesame nougat ice cream: another highlight of the dessert wooden board. Very sweet, very creamy… a shame that it melted too quickly for me to slowly savour it. Sigh.
–Watermelon and mint salad topped with cinnamon labneh. This salad presented a rather refreshing coolness to the rather calorie-inducing doughnuts. The use of cinnamon to flavour the labneh was quite interesting though I felt that the salad would’ve still been okay even without the labneh.
–Chocolate and walnut baklava. I love my baklava and Maha’s chocolate-flavoured ones were no exception. I will however say that I do prefer my baklava’s done the normal, boring, traditional way. Heh!
-Finally, the lemon curd and halva laban martini topped with Persian fairy floss. Yeah, it actually looks pretty cool but I didn’t particularly like it. I just felt that Delia was trying a bit too hard with this one – too much flavour, too much richness, and too much fanfare. He should’ve just kept it simple like the other desserts.
What better way to finish off such a meal than by sipping on Arabic coffee (which is really like Turkish coffee…)
And by laughing at Adam’s reactions as this one belly dancer kept gygrating towards our table every five minutes to shake her boobs and ass in front of Adam’s face (he told me that he didn’t like it which is exactly what a misses wants to hear from her boyfriend, whether he’s being honest or otherwise… haha).
Verdict: Maha’s NYE dinner had the potential to be awesome. Yes, it was good but I felt that there were a few elements missing and that the restaurant still had a lot to learn. The service for one thing, was almost fantastic, but little incidents such as the waiter forgetting to bring our pita bread for the first course and the lady at the door almost forgetting to bring our jackets mean that the staff still have plenty to learn. Little mistakes, yes, but those incidents are what first-time diners such as ourselves take note of the most when we enter a new restaurant.
Another thing that I want to mention is the value for money thing. We paid $135 per head for two hours of food and entertainment, which is not a cheap night out. And that does not include extra drinks and tips too. For some reason, we thought that we’d be getting more food and getting full to the point of almost self-combustion, Press Club style. For $55, we got that at Press Club. Yes, we felt sick but it was worth $55. At Maha, we did not get as much food as we thought and although we were both full (though not full-full), we still felt well, jipped. Another reason why we felt that the $135 wasn’t worth it was because I’ve heard so many things about Maha‘s $75 banquets where people have said that they were very very full from the rustic simple Middle Eastern dishes that they were served. We had expected something similar to that (Middle Eastern version of the Press Club Sunday lunch) so we were naturally surprised when we got all sorts of weird fancy entrees. I can understand that it IS New Year’s Eve and that Delia wanted to do something special for his guests and perhaps it is my own fault for creating warped expectations and always thinking about money… but when I read other Melbourne food bloggers’ sites and see that they enjoyed rustic meals for almost half of what we paid, I can’t help but feel a little pissy.
Having said that though, this was the first NYE night that Maha has had to organise so obviously a few issues were bound to happen. There may have been some shortcomings, yes, but I can easily say that Maha is a place that I’ll return to again somewhere down the track. Perhaps not for NYE again but maybe to have their supposedly awesome $75 banquets or for a Friday night drinks/supper – I wouldn’t mind sipping on a cocktail or a glass of Israeli beer while munching on those awesome doughnuts at 1am on Friday night!
We left at 8:15pm – the guys at Maha didn’t seem to mind that I took a long time to finish dessert which I was much grateful for – to meet Aaron and Cathy for a stroll down the Yarra to catch the early fireworks with a bunch of families and SENSATION WHITE party revelers. On the way to Crown, Aaron and I took a photo of the last sunset of 2008…
Happy New Year folks!
Let’s hope that 2009 will be sweeter than Persian fairy floss!