I feel very lucky to have hummus as a staple of my diet thanks to my Lebanese Mum but poor dad who barely can make toast has his Syrian heritage ignored most of the time. All my life we happily labelled all the food we ate as Lebanese. So when I stumbled upon Food Safari’s edition of Syrian food I had to ask – what does Syria have to offer? My dad and his brother always claims anything Lebanese as Syrian, mind you this argument has stood the test of time with the Greeks, Egyptians and other Middle Eastern countries battling out as inventors of tabouli, baklava (betlawa as the Lebanese would say), kibbeh, hummus, kafta…you get my drift. This is a result of the constant war in the Middle East with invasions and fighting leading to the infiltration of cuisine and also the stealing of recipes – so this makes it quite a complicated tale. Now besides Food Safari introducing me to frekkeh, sumac and other Syrian delights, it also introduced me to a restaurant run in Darlinghurst by two Syrian sisters. Almond Bar is a winner in my eyes for its small touches of hospitality. From the complimentary almonds on arrival to the attentive service of the wait staff – I was excited to see what was on offer. To make it clear you were at a Syrian restaurant, there was a map of Syria in the menu. Could I find my dad’s hometown of Aleppo – I’m ashamed to admit that was a fail. The food offering was different to what I grew up with – yes there were your regulars but there were a lot of new dishes and flavour combinations to try. I had the difficult duty of choosing the selection of dishes for my friends. The great thing about Middle Eastern cuisine is this concept of ‘Mezze’, which involves sharing a number of dishes for an amazing feast as evident below:
- Trio of dips: hummus, muhammara (chargrilled red capsicum, chilli, walnut & pomegranate dip, shawandarr (traditional roasted beetroot & yoghurt dip).
- Pumpkin Kibbeh - fried pumpkin & burghul balls stuffed with split chickpeas, carrot, onion, capsicum & all spice; served with mint yoghurt.
- Tabouli - diced tomatoes, organic, home-grown parsley, burghul & onion
- Mukloubi with chicken - layers of spiced rice, eggplant & chicken, finished with homemade yoghurt, almonds & pinenuts (chef’s favourite dish growing up)
- Shawarma & shanklish - strips of beef cooked with baharat, onion, tomato & capsicum; served on a loaf of Middle Eastern bread & layered with shanklish (aged yoghurt cheese) & diced tomato
- Pomegranate lamb shanks - 8-hour cooked boneless lamb shanks stuffed with freekah (flame-grilled wheat), apple, cinnamon & walnut; cooked in a tomato & pomegranate molasses sauce
- Betlawa and Lebanese coffee
So my ordering is like my mum’s cooking, she always makes too much but that’s always good for leftovers. The dips were amazing and the standout for me was the shawandarr, a beetroot dip I had never had before that was spiced lovingly with cinnamon. That is definitely something I will attempt to make at home. I do not exaggerate when I say hummus is a staple in my diet, it’s a cute story actually. Everyday when my dad comes home from work (he’s still working hard as a labourer at 65) there is hummus, carrots and celery waiting for him. I think I am quite biased with my hummus (mum’s is always the best) but Almond Bar’s version definitely had that home-style element. The pumpkin kibbeh was a great alterative to the regular mince kibbeh we have at home. I told my non-meat loving mum excitedly about the pumpkin kibbeh, only for her to dampen my hype with her knowledge of the dish. I’m surprised we’ve never ate it at home – another dish for me to learn. The tabouli provided the freshness we needed as we got onto the heavier meals. The squishy taste of the eggplant complimented the chicken and rice dish and the yoghurt always is a welcome addition in most dishes I eat. The shawarma was plated up in a similar style to the barbeques we have at home with the Lebanese bread soaking up the meat juices – delicious. I also will mention the shanklish, which I was first introduced to by Food Safari. Shanklish is an aged yoghurt cheese, smoother than a feta cheese but harder than labne and it was a revelation seeing my dad’s reaction as memories of his childhood flooded back from this cheese. My dad’s love of cheese is not new to me, there was a cheese festival at our local deli and he came home with a selection of ten different cheeses. This childhood memory though was a new revelation for me and so I looked high and low in my Sydney trip to bring back this childhood cheese to him. The lamb shanks was the heaviest dish in the feast but definitely worth the food coma after. The meat fell of the bone and the seasoned juices were amazing with the touch of pomegranate giving you the freshness required to lighten the heaviness of the lamb. This is becoming quite a long treat but I can’t end till dessert is talked about. In celebration of Kirsty’s unbirthday I did request a betlawa (filo pastry and pistachio layered dessert aka baklava) to go with the Arabian style Happy Birthday song. If only my words could explain the tune but it definitely brings back childhood memories (and when I say childhood I’m lying – we still do that tune till this day with our own Khouri family touch). I also attempted to read my friend’s fortunes from their Lebanese coffee cups but that is a gift I am still to learn from my mum and aunty. So what can I tell you about Syrian food – firstly it is different to Lebanese food though there is a lot of overlapping (makes sense since Syria has invaded much of Lebanon over time) but there are a lot of spices and recipes new to me. I am still thinking about that beetroot dip and am so thankful to Almond Bar for introducing it to me. If Middle Eastern cuisine is still new to you or if you feel like something different and homely I definitely recommend trying Almond Bar – your tastebuds will be delighted.
THE FOOD JOURNEY
Beetroot dip (left) AMAZING
- chicken and rice (simple things can be so delicious)
Shawarama & Shanklish
In this post I am going to take you back to 2010, to a previous visit to Sydney when I was still fresh to the Sydney food scene. The lucky restaurant this time was Red Lantern in Surry Hills. What inspired me to visit this establishment? In my days as a uni student with time on my hands I was an avid viewer of Ready Steady Cook and the clever creations of Chef Mark Jenson. The reason for this journey down memory lane is I had the recent pleasure of meeting the fellow owner and chef of Red Lantern, Luke Nguyen. I didn’t know much about Luke Nguyen before the recent book launch of his new book, Indochine but I will say one thing, he is a funny guy. It was refreshing to hear his combination of humour and food knowledge. The tale of his growing up eating Vietnamese food of baguettes was an eye-opener to the French influence in Vietnam. Back to the meal at Red Lantern, besides running late for our 8pm reservation who are quite strict on the 2-hour sitting we managed to fit in an array of dishes shared around the table. You know you’ve had a good meal when it strikes a cord with you that you keep thinking about it till this day. The citrus-cured beef salad blew my socks off and I ate it! Here is the food journey below:
Muc Rang Muoi - Lightly battered chilli salted squid
Goi Cuon - Soft rice paper rolled with prawns, pork, vermicelli, perilla leaves and garlic chives
(Sorry I forgot the rest)
I went on the website to find the beef salad and I couldn’t find it. I am devastated, that was the hero of the meal, the dish I have been talking about non-stop. It was one of those dishes you kept eating trying to figure out what was in it. It’s a dish that has left a lasting impression as was my recount of my Red Lantern experience/journey to Luke Nguyen. The service was very good; the waiter very helpful in explaining how to order and share but the only fault was giving us the table next doors bill that amounted to $1000. It scared us poor uni students who were getting our $50 notes ready. This was quickly fixed and we also had the opportunity to meet Mark Jensen, who was cooking in the kitchen. Yes, who would have thought chefs actually cook at the restaurants they own. I don’t know why I keep getting surprised. Mark Jensen also got to hear me babble about how he took us on a food journey while my table of friends held their laughter. To this day I am reminded of the journey I went on. In my defence, Luke Nguyen did talk about the importance of eating and travelling. That is proof in the pudding that food can take you on a journey. I think Luke Nguyen appreciated my humour, he was laughing with me (not at me) because I was laughing as well. I will also take the opportunity to share the food from the book launch that were taken from Luke Nguyen’s new book Indochine. It just shows Luke does not know me at all by having a side dish of onion. Not sure if it’s come through in my blogs but me and onions aren’t best friends. Matt Moran changed that with his shallot tart disguised cleverly by the caramelisation. This time around it was just too oniony for me, it looked like onions, it tasted like onions and then the matching wine just made your breathe all oniony. Besides that the Vietnames French influenced chicken roulade was tasty and the main of barramundi I thoroughly enjoyed. Now the bitter melon to quote Luke Nguyen was ‘bitter’, no surprises there and I did find it overpower the fish and pea puree. It’s probably like vegemite, an acquired taste. Now that’s another story…..
I LEFT THE BEST TO LAST – THE BEEF SALAD! YUMMMM!
We head back to Sydney to explain my love affair with not one but three places where we had the pleasure of dining and wining. This treat is dedicated to these wonderfully decorated and fantastically creative destinations – a drumroll please….The Winery, Manly Wine and the Gazebo. The first stop was The Winery and after that it was a domino effect we had to try them all. My first attempt at The Winery was unsuccessful back in November 2010 where the Perthie in me forgot that Sydney was a city where bookings were essential. Unlike Perth where you a pretty much guaranteed a seat with the exception of Neil Perry’s Rockpool in Burswood where theres a rumoured three month wait. A girl from work just got back from Sydney and raved about the Gazebo and the Winery and the merry time she had there. I was determined more than ever in Septemeber 2011 to make it happen, walk past those pretty-litted trees in Surry Hills and secure me a table. So three weeks out I got the latest booking – 6.30pm and I was happy as Larry. We secretly went there after our Marque visit for a caffeine hit only to return a couple hours later for dinner. The menu for the night:
- Hand-made pumpkin, ricotta & sage ravioli, pine nuts, burnt butter with confit
- Double chocolate brownie with fairy floss & vanilla bean ice cream
Now I am fussy with my pasta, I love it home-made and I was pleasantly surprised by The Winery’s offering. The ravioli was soft, cooked al dente and full of flavour. A pet peeve of mine is flavourless Italian and The Winery puts pub grub to shame and even Italian restaurants to shame. Big call I know. Whilst we ate the cocktails flowed with the rose wine sangria and the pimms enjoyed by the jug. The dessert was also a highlight, a rich chocolate brownie with an awesome fairy floss twist. To top it all off was the decor that really caught our eye. We started talking about all the things we would take and recreate in our future homes. So let’s countdown how awesome this place is – food check, decor check – so there must be a fault. In Perth you’d usually blame the service. No, not here. A big shout out to the Scottish dude (humble apologies if you were somewhere else from the UK) for going out of your way just so we could get cash out behind the bar. Also good on you for offering that, I have never been to a place which offers that so please keep it up. Now our journey with The Winery does not end there. For my first ever visit to Manly while we ferried over and I made some ill attempts to find Kirribilli house and Leo Dicaprio’s rental in Vauclause (only to be corrected by a local) we stumbled upon Manly Wines. So instead of walking along the beach we sat our bums down for a much needed coffee break. Again it was the decor that caught out eye and we were not disappointed. Furthermore, on the way to the bathroom we were captivated by this hen’s lunch which we found out to be the ladies lunch. So what did we do? While sitting at Manly Wine we rang it’s sister the Gazebo in Elizabeth Bay asking to book for the ladies lunch the next day. Apparently you need to book by the Friday but after I told him the sob story of how it was our last day in Sydney he obliged and so lady lunching was on the last minute itinerary for Sunday. It would mean we’d miss the NRL Grand Final but then again who are we kidding we are from Perth we don’t have a clue what we’d be watching anyway. Of course Manly all the way (they won right?). So the Gazebo was the continuation of our love affair with the awesome interior design. While tables around us were popping double magnum Moets we sipped our champagne and enjoyed our lemonade while enjoying our girls picnic lunch. The wonderful spread included:
Basket of Crudités with Sauce Gribiche
Italian Sliced Prosciutto
Today’s 3 Cheeses & Crisp Breads
High Tea Stand of:
Prawn Cocktail & Grilled Lemon
Buffalo Mozzarella, Roma Tomato & Pesto
Chicken & Cider Roasted Apple
Homemade Feta, Pinenut & Spinach Quiche
Dessert & Fruits
Mini Chocolate Brownies & Raspberry Macaroons
With Fresh Seasonal Fruits
A special mention to the picnic basket that first came out and that delicious Sauce Gribiche, which went down a treat. To the quince jam you are still on my mind to this day. We left more than satisfied with our meal and I enjoyed the melted chocolate that came with our desserts, it’s as if they read my mind.
Three days in a row we enjoyed the fantastic establishments of the Keystone Group. But do you know what the cherry on the top was? After making a booking and subsequent visit I was emailed a feedback form for The Winery, which I was happy to do. To my surprise I received an email from one of the owners thanking me, something so rare to receive in the hospitality industry unless you are making a complaint. I am big on service and coming from Perth where it is mediocre at best – Sydney has won me over. Not once did I come across bad service. Actually most times I was impressed. I really hope Perth is graced with a similar outfit like The Winery model because we could not get enough. I seriously want one of their zebra stools or their awesome bookshelf or the flamingo lamp…I could go on. Satisfy your curiosity and visit at least one of these places or do what I did and go to all three – trust me you won’t be disappointed. While you are there have a rose wine sangria for me!