21 Bond Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9629 5900
This one’s been sitting in my ‘to write about’ for 2.5 months now. Not because I’m preparing to write a Mark Knopfler-like lyrical masterpiece for this post or anything like that. No, his dinner at Maha was one of the longest and most tedious weekday dinners we’ve ever sat through and it left the four of us feeling like a ball smashed into the Southern Stand for a six. Let’s face it, folks, writing about fun meals is always more fun than writing about mediocre meals (not bad meals though, it’s always fun to unleash your claws to bitch about bad meals). Battered, bruised and underwhelmed, let me tell you now that Maha’s souffra dinners are one of the most overrated things in the world besides Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and this food blog.
My first experience at Maha was a New Years Eve banquet that was innovative, yet overpriced. Still, I vowed to return to Maha to try their souffras, banquet-style dinners, and it wasn’t until a late dessert at Maha with Shirley earlier this year where we feasted on Turkish Delight donuts, burnt butter ice cream and a hunky bartender named Dorian did we decide that, once and for all, we MUST come back here for dinner. So sometime in October, I gathered three other members of The Dinner Crew for a souffra dinner at Maha.
Shirley and I, having arrived early, had pre-drinks while waiting for the others to arrive. Sitting in the front courtyard, surrounded by unused hookahs, I ordered a 1964 Indipendenza ($19), a cocktail which plays tribute to Malta’s day of independence in well, 1964. Like something from 1806 or Der Raum, this cocktail was designed to be interactive. In the background, a glass of Zeppis Bajtra prickly pear liquer and Appleton estate 12 year rum sat there ready to be drunk. I was told, however, to pour some of the Amara Montenegro kinnie mixed with pineapple juice (second glass) which I happily did as I did like my drink herby and pineapple-y. Actually, I just love pineapples in general. I then had to shove spoonfuls of pistachio praline into my mouth in between sips for a heightened experience… which I did get.
Once everyone had arrived, we assembled at a table backed against the lattice screen dividers. Once we told the waitress that we wanted the $75 p/h four-course souffra, she disappeared and then reappeared with four shot glasses of Egyptian hibiscus tea. After toasting each other accompanied by cries of “SAHA!”, we sculled down the tea which was refreshing yet slightly sour. I likened it to drinking a heavily diluted cranberry juice.
We started off our dinner with berid mezze (small cold dishes). A basket of warm Turkish bread was provided…
… and an assortment of dips. In the centre was a glass of smoked chicken jelly, tabouleh and couscous topped with avocado foam which went down alright; clockwise from left: olives rubbed in Maltese fel fel (a capsicum relish), chickpeas and fava beans in lemon, char-grilled eggplant and a smooth labne and beetroot dip. All were pretty delicious, a good way to start the meal off.
Unfortunately (apart from a couple of good dishes), things went downhill from the moment the sahen zghir (small plates) arrived. Take the Glenloth quails wrapped in vine leaves, for example. It was certainly an interesting take on quail – quartered bits of quail, roasted in vine leaves, were scattered all over the plate with zalzett Malti (Maltese sausages), figs and walnuts, also wrapped in vine leaves. I can see the dish working extremely well… had the quails not been overcooked. Me no likely stringy and dry bits of quail.
Spring Bay mussels with dry aged beef with chickpeas and pearl couscous in saffron. Again, another dish that could have been good… but wasn’t. I’m not sure what made it fail like Jenny Humphrey’s climb on Manhattan’s social echelon. There was certainly nothing wrong with the saffron broth and I did like the squishy pearl couscous. Perhaps it was the slivers of dry aged beef that stood there awkwardly like Vanessa Abrams at a black tie gala at the ballet (sorry, I’ll stop the Gossip Girl references now). Ditto the chickpeas.
Maha’s garden salad wasn’t anything to sing about. It had sliced cucumbers, sliced turnip and iceberg lettuce pieces in an unremarkable dressing.
Once the small plates were cleared, it was then onto the sahen kbeer (large plates). Served in a piping hot ceramic bowl was Shane Delia’s mother’s baked rice with pork, beef and saffron. After such mediocre dishes, I wasn’t expecting much but deary me, this was one helluva fantastic dish! A cross between a lasagne and a risotto, this was a heart-warmer that only someone’s mother was capable of making. A rich, hearty comfort dish, it really served no place in a Spring dinner banquet but whatever, we’ll take it.
Olive oil-poached lampuki and calamari, lemon and capers. Lampuki is the Maltese word for mahi-mahi, a white fish that is popular in Malta. While eating this dish, I tried to find the Maltese word for ‘meh’ before realising that they do, in fact, speak English up there for my efforts were futile. The slightly tangy olive oil-based sauce was lovely and ditto the perfectly tender pieces of calamari but the fact that the fish was remarkably overcooked pretty much spoilt the dish for me.
Finally, Maha’s famous 12-hour roast Mt. leaura lamb shoulder. Adam and I enjoyed this dish very much last time but unfortunately, I can’t say that I enjoyed it this time. All the elements were fine – the pistachio and green olive tabouleh, labneh dill and apricot pilaf all had nothing wrong with them – and the lamb was beautifully tender. The problem? There was just way too much fat and oil-y residue coating the lamb meat that made eating the lamb a bit of a turn-off. While I’m well-aware of the fact that lamb is a fatty meat, I couldn’t help but wonder why they couldn’t, at least, rid some of the nasty oils prior to serving the meat to us?
Our plates were then cleared for the helwayet (sweets) course. Heck, why am I being such a pretentious douche by chucking in random Maltese words? Well, because the Maha menu does the same thing. Anyway, dessert time!
First up, the famous Maha Turkish delight donuts with crushed candied almonds. I loved the donuts the first time I had them at the NYE banquet. The second time I had them with Shirley, I felt that they weren’t as good (they weren’t as crunchy on the outside, and the dough just seemed a little… tired) but nonetheless still okay. But tonight? They were limp as (insert your own analogy here), with only a thumbnail-sized squirt of Turkish delight jam. Disappointing.
When we placed our order with the waitress, we asked her if the delicious burnt butter ice cream dish was included in the souffra. We were told that no, it wasn’t but that the kitchen would be happy substitute the treacle ice cream in the super moist and super rich banana and caramel tart dessert with the burnt butter ice cream. Sadly, this did not happen. I don’t know whether the waitress was promising us things that the kitchen was never going to deliver in the first place, or whether they simply forgot. Despite the fact that it was rich, I must admit that this dish was actually pretty nice… it’s just that the disappointment of not having the burnt butter ice cream made me cranky. Heh.
Finally, we had a chocolate and burnt orange mousse which was topped with a clove foam and rum gel. Like a pot of guinness on a cold night, the chocolate mousse looked pretty damn impressive. And although I tried to push aside my I-Am-Not-A-Chocolate-Dessert-Person bias, I couldn’t help but hate this dessert and so did my chocolate-loving buddies, Linda and Shirley. We all thought that it was way too runny to be considered a ‘mousse’ for starters…
See? THIS is not what mousse is supposed to be like. Where did the lovely, airy and fluffy texture disappear to and what the eff is this?! In saying that, the texture was a rather moot point. Even if it was lovely, airy and fluffy, the chocolate flavour was just too rich, and the clove and rum just overpowered the whole thing.
Look, I tried to like Maha. I WANTED to like Maha. Unfortunately, this dinner made me not like it (reluctantly, I might add). Sure, Shane Delia has some daring ideas and sure, I really do like the space. It’s just that the food didn’t really agree with me and for $75, I expected something more. Especially from a hatted restaurant. In saying that, I can’t exactly put Maha on my ‘ban’ list. While I certainly won’t be recommending it to anyone, I will be lying if I said that I won’t be returning again just for drinks and/or dessert. I do rate their extensive drinks list, which includes fantastic cocktails, and oh man, their burnt butter ice cream is to martyr for. Plus, their service isn’t bad. But if I needed a ‘creative spin’ on Middle Eastern cuisine, I’d be happier going to Baba Levantine … and I would only be paying half the price for it.