Melbourne, VIC 3000
I always look forward to the end of the year. The combination of Christmas, Chris' birthday, and our anniversary gives us an excuse to really splurge on something special. Last year we celebrated at Movida Aqui, but this year we decided to go Middle Eastern and indulge at Maha Bar and Grill.
Maha is situated in an empty laneway with nothing to distinguish itself from the surrounding grey, other than a rectangle of red with the restaurant name engraved in it. So we were surprised to find ourselves in a richly carpeted, masculine space filled with wood and leather when we descended the stairs. On the way down, we passed a small cushioned lounge; the infamous shisha lounge, judging by the shisha pipes lining the walls.
We already had our eyes set on the Four Course Soufra ($45pp, $35 for matching wines), but we took a peep at the menu anyway. Considering that some of the more extravagant mains were hitting the 40 dollar mark, the soufra was definitely a good way to go, as it allowed us to sample most dishes from the menu.
|Mezze (Small Cold Dishes)|
|Labne/Red Bean Dip/Saffron Pickled Vegetables/Olives with Fel Fel|
Minutes within deciding on the soufra, the Mezze (small cold dishes) were brought out on a wooden platter, and each element was explained to us by the attentive waitress. The olives with fel fel were coated in a bread and chilli oil that was reminiscent of the chilli oil used in southern China, and they were given the nod of approval by Chris. The saffron pickled vegetables consisted of tangy sweet and sour cauliflower florets topped with coriander and a note of saffron (well, obviously); they were quite herby and a good wake up call to our palates. Our favourite mezze was without a doubt, the red bean dip. Creamy and smooth with a squeeze of lemon and drizzle of good olive oil, it ended up slathered on most of the soft and warm Turkish bread. And the remainder of our Turkish bread was topped with Labne, yoghurt cheese balls covered in zaatar (spice mix), the only spicy dish of the lot.
|Tempura Zucchini Flowers with Ricotta|
|Caramelised Quail with Allspice on Coriander Rice with Candied Walnuts|
There was a small break between the courses as our used plates and cutlery was exchanged for clean ones, which is great for a messy eater like me. After that, our second course, the Sahen Zghir (small plates) was brought out without delay. This course consisted of two beautifully plated dishes – tempura zucchini flowers with ricotta, and caramelised quail with allspice on coriander rice and candied walnuts. Both of these dishes were simple but faultless. The zucchini flowers were encased in a light yet unbelievably crispy batter that gave way to smooth ricotta under my knife. The herbed, almost risotto-like rice was the perfect accompaniment to the four small pieces of quail, which were smoky and tender, and glazed with a sweet and sticky sauce. I regret not stealing Chris' portion of the candied walnut; it was brittle, nutty, and incredibly moreish.
|Sahen Kbeer (Large Plates)|
|Sides of Pilaf and Fattoush Salad/King Salmon with Panko and Citrus/Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder|
The third course, the Sahen Kbeer (large plates) is a substantial one. We were served slow roasted lamb shoulder with pistachio and green olive tabouli, king salmon with panko and citrus, and sides of fattoush Lebanese bread salad, and pilaf of tomato, dill and pine nuts. The lamb was so rich that I could have sworn that I was losing feeling in my legs. It was possibly the most unctuous and tender lamb I’ve ever had, and a squeeze of lemon was definitely needed. The planks of salmon were yummy, though not spectacular. I found it to be too rich when served alongside the coronary-inducing lamb. Thank goodness for the fattoush, a simple garden salad served with crunchy bits of pita bread. Its lightness was very welcome, even if it was much too salty. We would have liked to have finished the pilaf, but unfortunately there was no stomach space left in either of us by that point.
|White Chocolate Tart/Turkish Delight Doughnuts/Rose Water Sorbet with Cherry and Chocolate Biscuit|
It was a relief that there was a longer gap between the big plates and the Helwayet (sweets), because I don’t think either of us could have had any more food straight after the last course. The desserts were once again served on a wooden platter, and we were spoilt with white chocolate tart with lemon yoghurt ice cream, little shot glasses of rose water sorbet with cherry and chocolate biscuit, and Maha’s famous Turkish delight doughnuts. The white chocolate tart was our favourite of the lot, being sweet and buttery, and perfect served with two scoops of the surprisingly tart ice cream. The rose water sorbet was flowery and refreshing, but the elements didn’t quite come together. The doughnuts were unfortunately more chewy than fluffy, but the ruby droplet of Turkish delight inside, although tiny, was lovely. We were actually fonder of the nutty crumble that the doughnuts were served upon.
|Bill/Hand Wash in Toilet|
The meal was ended with a squirt of Turkish lemon cologne to our hands, and a beautifully presented bill in a hollow book. Even the bathroom is worth a mention, smelling nicer than my room ever has thanks to the scented candles.
Despite the delicious food, despite the friendly and helpful waitresses, and despite the exceptional atmosphere, I left Maha feeling underwhelmed. It’s like they tried to shoot for the stars, but landed at the awkward in-between of good honest food and fine dining. I would happily come back here, but only if I wasn’t the one paying.
Rating: 14/20 – delicious but underwhelming