I’m a little embarrassed to say that in the six or so years I’ve been living in my corner of Erskineville, I still have restaurants and cafe’s I’ve never stepped into. I mean, these places are within my immediate neighbourhood; less than five minutes walk from my house. Am I alone in being like this? Probably not. I should be supporting my local businesses, but when you’ve got neighbouring areas with a plethora of choices, hell, an entire city, it’s easy to forget what’s on my doorstep.
A few of us wanted to “go local” for an early dinner one night so, in my mind, I went through all the places we frequent along King Street south. Slim pickings, but it’s still a decent selection. I craved for something other than the usual pizza, Indian, Turkish or Macedonian so as we walked up King Street I suggested Arabella’s as we walked past it. Something tells me the weekends bring the belly dancers so a weekday visit was a good choice as I’m not one for cultural performances while I’m trying to eat.
Much like Al Aseel, another Lebanese place I tried late last year, the set-up is more contemporary rather than traditional garb adorning the walls and seating on the floor. Plush red high-backed chairs, slightly-bejewelled pendant lights hanging from the ceiling and the odd water pipe displayed in niches. Ok, maybe a little traditional garb.
Being the first ones to arrive meant the entire place was ours, for a little while anyway, and we could just sit back and graze at our leisure. Lebanese Almaza ($9) beer helped cool us down and a selection of hot and cold mezze to get the ball rolling. Beautifully smokey babaganouj ($13) with fried squares of flat bread, some of those ubiquitous pickles that adorn just about any Lebanese table and one of the finest hommous I’ve encountered. Not just ordinary hommous ($16), this was the stuff that’s topped with tender bits of lamb, pine nuts and really good olive oil. In the end I just left the flat bread in the basket and ate it with a fork. Loved it.
I don’t eat Lebanese food all that often so it was here that I tried fattoush ($16) for the first time. What we got was basically a salad of cucumber, tomato, radish, leaves and slightly-stale bits of flat bread. Lemon juice and tahini are the predominant flavours, making for a refreshing salad. I was completely intrigued by the tomme (or toum) which simply translates to garlic. I’ve had that white garlic sauce you get on kebabs many times but this one prompted me to ask how it was made. It’s an emulsion of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, lemon, salt and crushed ice. It’s the crushed ice that gives it that slightly grainy texture and whiteness.
Now, it was this little dish that caught me off guard. Kasbah dejaj ($16). I knew what I was in for as the menu simply read – chicken livers, herbs and fresh pomegranate. This meant one thing. It was all mine as nobody else at our table ate livers. Damn, what a pity. Whilst the livers may have been slightly over-cooked and no fresh pomegranate made it to the bowl, overall it was pretty bloody special. Pomegranate molasses stickied things up a tad, marrying perfectly with the iron-rich flavour of the liver.
Another dish I loved, as we all did, was the mansef lamb ($28). A generous mound of rice cooked in cinnamon and laced with torn shreds of steamed lamb, Lebanese 7-spices, a mixture of nuts and a side of slightly sweetened yoghurt. Not that we needed it, we also got some coriander potatoes that are seriously all about the garlic and lemon. Geez, we must have smelled a treat that night.
Some prawns were given to us by mistake, we said as they hit the table, but the friendly guy insisted we have them. Huh? It was a prawn cocktail of sorts, just lightly spiced and minus any cocktail sauce. Thanks guys! Juicy little fellows, they were. The final savoury dish was a large whole snapper ($32), grilled and topped with a curious concoction called tarjen. Of course I needed to know what went into it and am soon told its made up of grilled capsicum, lemon, tahini, a little chilli, garlic and ginger. Beautiful flavours that complement the flakey fish nicely.
I would have loved a coffee afterwards but that would mean buzzing for the rest of the night. Instead it was a minor sugar hit via a small selection of pastries and Turkish delight. It took six years to get to this place just five minutes from my house? Pathetic. I’m going back for some grilled lamb real soon.