29 September 2007

Mama Ganoush

‘The true Gourmand never ventures out without an emetic; it is the quickest and safest way to avoid the effects of indigestion.’


To eat at Chef Greg Malouf’s table is to leave with a desire to loosen one’s belt and take a happy little siesta. Or even in some instances to push one's belly along with the aid of a wheeelbarrow. He once said in a cooking class, that his mother would chop off his legs if he ever dared to reduce the serving size of his dishes.

So here I was, standing in Melbourne’s soon to be hottest ticket restaurant, bristling with anticipation for the feast to come. Following the line of stars along the wall we made our way into the romantic gloom of the restaurant, where I groped my way along our table to sit on a leather banquette.

Beside me stood a carved wooden Middle Eastern inspired screen. When my eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light, I was finally able to read the menu and peer through the cut outs in the screen to my right, like a concubine about to enter a harem.

We had with great excitement arrived at Mama Ganoush. Our expectations were high, as fans of Greg Malouf’s talents and of his brother Geoff’s previous ventures - Aziz in South Melbourne and Zum Zum in North Carlton. This venue, Geoff’s latest restaurant, is a small, comfortable and intimate space compared to the cavern that was Aziz and a much more appropriate size and location for the offering.

I felt instantly at ease. The décor is warm and leathery, with chocolate being the dominant colour. One feature wall is lined with backlit panels featuring laser cut stars. These are repeated on the ceiling, but were not illuminated on our visit and hence the pitch-black conditions, punctuated with manufactured starlight. To the front of the restaurant the Middle Eastern theme is hinted at with the construction of an MDF wall of alcoves housing decorative urns.

The wine list is small and conservative with price points to suit most and the menu did not disappoint. With eight entrees and mains on offer, we as a group of six were delighted that we could sample nearly everything on the menu. A happy gurgle greeted our vivacious waitress when she instructed us that the dishes were best shared.

Sadly the oysters were not available, but that allowed us to order two serves of three crisp and light Cheesy Ladies Thigh pastries with sublime honey cardamom stewed leeks.

Deceptively substantial was the Avocado Fattouche with salmon and a chilli egg. Punctuated with parsley, tomato, pickled pearl onions and barberries, it was rich and tasty, dusted with sumac and flecked with onion. The smoothness of the ingredients was broken up by the crunch of fried Turkish bread.

Alongside were Greg’s marvellous and familiar lamb kibbeh and we chose a dish of shaved smoked ox tongue with a salad of cucumber, micro leaves and pomegranate seeds dotted with crumbled shanklesh. The deep smokey flavour of the meat was definitely a highlight, like a moist melt in the mouth pastrami complemented by the sour notes within the salad and the creaminess of the cheese.

The other palate startler amongst the entrees was, for me, the Vine Leaf Wrapped Quail on a la Grecque style white cabbage, which consisted of succulent de-boned quail perfumed with vine leaf and I think dried wild thyme. When eaten with the crisp cabbage, onion and mint salad it was a beautiful layering of textures and flavours.

We began our sojourn into the main courses with a bottle of La Zona Sangiovese and the first dishes to arrive were the sides. We had chosen Greg’s standard pistachio pilav - which is always a favourite with one of our group - and the delicate spinach with caramelised Spanish onions and yoghurt tahini.

Then came the delicious Claypot Roasted free range chicken with Mougrabieh, tomato, sweet spices and Turkish sausages. It sat in a complex broth flavoured with Ras el Hanout and possibly Baharat. In an outstanding melding of flavours from the sausage, spices and chicken juices, the ball bearing sized couscous known as Mougrabieh gave you yet another reason to forage in the pot.

I followed this with a sample of the Spatchcock roasted in Turkish bread. Here the integrity of the flavoursome meat was simply showcased whilst retaining a succulence as to be falling off the bone. Labneh and sumac provided an aesthetically pleasing garnish.

Another meaty concoction came in the form of tasty lamb cutlets barbecued with za’atar - a zesty mixture of dried wild thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. The simple execution allowed the sweetness of onions, perfectly roasted until caramelised, to shine through in harmony with the tang of the herbs and lamb juices.

Baby Snapper roasted on the bone with green chermoula and fennel came next alongside Baharat roasted farmed rabbit with warm fresh and dried broad bean salad. Although excellent they paled into insignificance when I turned my attention to the Crisp honey and orange blossom pork hock with butternut pumpkin and chickpea tagine.

For me this dish was heaven. It most probably had been braised, allowing the flavours to infuse, and then deep-fried. The textures and sweet-sour flavours of the pork reminded me of a rustic Chinese dish of pig’s trotters in sweet red vinegar, served in particular to pregnant women. The accompanying bright orange tagine had overtones of cardamom with golden ras-el-hanout and was dominated by chickpeas, making it a very filling meal.

My stomach found some respite with the arrival of a glass of Moroccan Mint tea, served from an ornate footed silver teapot. Gradually I worked up the courage to broach dessert. We chose four dishes to share: Chocolate Halva ice cream with pistachio dusted fig beignets; a burnt honey sorbet with fresh fruit; a creamy passionfruit panacotta served with shortbread Lokum biscuits; a smooth, milky Blood Orange Mouhallabieh flavoured with Mastic and served with Persian fairy floss. They proved to be a light and refreshing selection - the ideal flourish to end the marathon feast.

As the boys sipped thick Turkish coffee served in a traditional copper pot with an elaborate handle, I loosened my belt. The night had surpassed expectations and I was ever ready to slip into my nice warm bed and reflect on the evening.

Mama Ganoush, 56 Chapel Street, Windsor, Victoria. Ph. 03 9521 4141

Greg Malouf will only be in the kitchen initially. In the first week of October he will be moving on to Ikarus at Hangar-7 in Salzburg Austria and will later be involved in promoting his latest cook book collaboration with Lucy Malouf. Tourquoise – a culinary journey through Turkey is scheduled for release in November 2007. Greg’s restaurant Mo Mo will re-open in 2008, in the basement of the Grand Hyatt Melbourne. In the meantime, diners can also find him at Stones of the Yarra Valley on Sundays, presenting Arabesque, a weekly degustation.


Anonymous said...

Wow that food sounds amazing. Great intro by the way! With so many exponents of this style of food in Melbourne it must be great to go back to arguably what is the source of that inspiration for so many culinary devotees.
Curiously Hobart has its own esteemed legacy of Middle Eastern food that people here say pre-dates that of Melbourne. Without getting into any interstate tit for tat I was intrigued to know that Gearge Haddad & Anne Ripper pioneered a stylised Middle eastern/Lebanese cuisine her in the late eighties & very early nineties that blueprints what is now known as 'New Middle Eastern'. Sadly for us they are no more.
As a former resident of Brunswick & Coburg (before they were Uber-trendy)I must confess to a sweet spot for these foods, being a huge fan of Abla's, in my opinion a true gem. Melbourne does this food so very well that at times I wish I could eat this way more often by living there again!

stickyfingers said...

(Whoops - deleted my own comment - still got my L plates on)

Thanks Gobbler, its always interesting to hear about the Tassie food scene.

I think of Greg Malouf as the Godfather of Middle Eastern Cuisine in Melbourne, having spawned the proliferation of so many others like Kurt Sampson & Cath Claringbold who have emerged from under his wing. I first came across him when he was at O'Connells, one of my local pubs.

My earliest experiences of Middle Eastern tucker were like you in Sydney Rd, Brunswick & Coburg and ten years later I wrote up those restaurants for Melbourne's Cheap Eats Guide. But I am thankful to Greg and Lucy for demystifying the genre for me, lifting it out of the mundane and for teaching me to incorporate it into my own cooking.

Ed Charles said...

Back there Friday night served by the waitress from your pics. Alah, it was good, everything. I took my best mate from uni who is a big Momo fan. The only downside is that he insists on ordering big reds which is perhaps good because it meant I didn't drink too much.
Gobbler, Abla is so good and cheap. This has taken that style of food and refined it to the nth degree to the point that the two are quite different.

Truffle said...

Fantastic review and fabulous photos.

stickyfingers said...

Thank you for your very kind words Truffle. It's very encouraging.

BTW the price of our meal inclusive of pre-dinner drinks, wine, way too much food and a tip came to $80per head.

Anonymous said...

Hey Stickyfingers, where did you get the information about the food at Mama Ganoush from? Good write up by the way. I have to give it a go!

stickyfingers said...

To the previous comment, thank you for stopping by. I hope you do visit the restaurant. We are returning this week to try anything we missed before.

The information about the food came from tasting it - LOL!

I'm lucky I was raised by a couple of avid gastronomers - one was also a cooking teacher. They developed my palate very early in childhood taking me to fine dining establishments when other kids were at home eating macaroni cheese in front of the TV. So, I need only taste in order to tell what seasonings and techniques have been used in a dish.

Being a big fan of the Malouf family's ventures, also means that I have been blessed with an understanding of that particular food. I have all Greg & Lucy's books and annually attend at least one of Greg's cooking classes.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks to Mama Ganoush for kindly placing a backlink to this post on their website. Here in return is a backlink to their page. Cheers!


Anonymous said...

We saw The Age review so decided to give Mama Ganouch a go. The staff were welcoming and the layout downstairs is pleasant albeit crowded. The bright light coming through the kitchen door simply doesn't do anything for the atmosphere but apart from that all looks fine.

The starter we ordered came quickly which was a surprise as the waiter had told us that everything was cooked to order from scratch. We thought that this would be great if true and if true would be impossible to manage commercially. Nevertheless the starter was excellent. We'd nearly finished it when our problems started. Someone, who looked like the owner, whisked our plates away before we'd finished. When I looked at him and he in turn looked at the remaining food, he offered to put it back on the table. All a little too late for my liking. This is the sort of mistake that is really inexcusable in a restaurant of this supposed standard.

A little time after that our main course arrived, after two mouthfuls each we established that the chicken was hard and tasteless, although the source it was supposedly cooked in was quite nice. On noticing the waiter enquired if we'd eaten enough and when we told him of our disappointment he handled it exceptionally well. I got the feeling that it wasn't his first complaint of the night. It was clear that the meal was put together with haste, clearly not prepared from scratch nor prepared with any care or attention, and I'd bet that it wasn't tasted before it was sent out either.

On receiving the bill we discovered that we had items on there that we hadn't ordered and most disappointingly that the meal we'd sent back was being charged for. I'm not sure whether Mama Ganoush simply had a bad night or maybe they just can't cope. I fear that we won't be going back to find out.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks for stopping by Bramley. How disappointing to have this happen. Your first experience often leaves a lasting impression on the venue and I'm sure that the Malouf's would be mortified. We had a service mistake made last time we were there, but spoke up and things were quickly rectified.