Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Day 6: Ablas: Lebanese Restaurant

Far removed from flying carpets and magic lamps, traditional recipes and family ties rate high ...
Trends have long dictated the lifestyles of city folk be it fashion or food. Melbourne is no exception with ethnic restaurants cropping up everywhere, swapping their traditional eating customs in compliance with local formats, (i.e. entrees and mains) accommodating food fads and incorporating wines to marry food. Australia’s melting pot of cultures has subsequently influenced local cuisine, palate and eating patterns. Modernisation of the twenty-first century has added yet another dimension of innovative cuisine with fancy ‘foams’, ‘air’, intricate design, attention to space and garnished detail gracing plates. The combination of the rising popularity of contemporary cuisine art and the multicultural influx has directly impacted the kitchens of established restaurateurs, triggering a fusion revolution giving birth to cross-over ‘Modern Australian’ cuisine. While Melbourne has expanded; buildings have shot high into the skies, diverse population exploding, the city has become a bustling celebration of cosmopolitan life over the last couple of decades. Abla’s however has remained unaffected, retaining its ethos, remaining loyal to the original menu.
Sweeping globalisation has caused a homogenisation of regional cuisine, with Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean and Thai food broadly grouped as Asian, likewise Moroccan, Egyptian, Turkish, Syrian and Lebanese food, as Middle Eastern. The common notion is that Middle Eastern food is characterised by Mezze platters that feature flat bread, numerous dips and several kinds of kebabs that are consumed together instead of consecutively. While a notion of Middle Eastern food exists, most people grapple with differentiating cuisines from these regions: mainly because of the similarities in the names of dishes, recurrent themes and merging ideologies.
Mother, wife and above all exuberant chef, Abla Amad has strived to serve authentic Lebanese cuisine for over 25 years, giving Melbournians the opportunity to become familiar with the dishes of Ksaryachit, her hometown while fostering an understanding of how uniquely different Lebanese food is from its neighbouring counterparts. Having come to Australia on holiday as a teenager in the 50’s, she fell in love and settled Down Under, opening her restaurant as a tribute and testimony to her homeland and the food of her childhood.
Abla’s encapsulates more than Lebanese cuisine at its finest, showcasing a period of gastronomic history, an era of culinary genius (safeguarded through generations), treasured traditions and the honesty of scrumptious fare served unpretentiously. The apron-clad female staff (presumably family members) patiently provide insight into the menu as well as recommendations is definitely a hallmark of Abla’s. And of course, Abla herself ensures the meal has been a pleasurable experience, leaving you content with the satisfaction of that personal touch.

Muted lighting, white tablecloths, and fuss free silverware provide a simple setting creating a relaxing feel while setting the mood reminiscent of a home cooked meal. My only grievance is that the chairs were perhaps rather upright. But, where the restaurant lacks in sophistication, it makes up in the grand offering of an enthralling Lebanese spread prepared from quality ingredients. Entrees are priced at $10, mains at $17, making the banquet priced at $40 per head the best bet, enabling the ultimate feast comprising several decadent courses that come together in unison, infused with copious amounts of pine nuts, almonds, cashew nuts and slow cooked meats, seasoned with a symphony of spices.
On my visit to Abla’s one of my companions being ana phylactic, and having mentioned this at the beginning of our meal, our waitress was thoughtful enough to arrange a separate nut-free portion of whatever we ordered. We opted for the banquet, and the Mezze rolled out almost immediately. Starting with fresh, unleavened pita bread, black olives and slices of pink pickled ginger to snack on.

The dips followed suit: Hummous bi Tahini - chick peas ground to a fine paste with garlic, tahini - a sesame paste, finished off with lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with paprika; both were a perfect consistency and Labnee - a yoghurt dip made from fresh cheese, deliciously creamy. The Baba Ghannouj - a roasted aubergine paste, gave off subtle smoky undertones, drizzled with olive oil, garnished with fresh herbs, diced tomatoes and lemon zing. Altogether the mezze featured interestingly crafted flavours that played off each other tantalizing the palate.

Without any time to come up for air the Mahsi Warak or simply put silver beet rolls stuffed with rice, chickpeas, tomatoes and herbs was upon us! This dish is similar to the Greek Dolmades that uses vine leaves that can be bitter at times. Here the silver beet had a sweetness to it providing enough structure for the filling, encasing the soft, grains of cooked rice and veggies within the firm but tender silver beet leaves. Stuffed Cabbage Cigar Rolls or Warak Maloof was served as the nut free option.

Reeling from the burst of exotic flavours, the banquet steamed ahead, churning out more familiar Lebanese staples like Tabbouleh - a refreshing salad mix of fresh, finely chopped parsley, bulgur wheat, tomatoes, green onions, mint and lemon juice alongside delicious crunchy Kibbeh, akin to Falafel but of lamb. Lubyeh - a platter of French green beans cooked with tomato, garlic and a generous squeeze of lemon was the cold accompaniment.

At this point I was sated and contemplating coffee unaware there was more food on its way! The piece de resistance was indeed the most generic sounding dish simply called Chicken and Rice, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. A delicately spiced rice pilaf, layered with poached strips of chicken and lamb tantalisingly flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom and topped with slivers of toasted almonds.

The powerful aroma of the Kafta Mishwee - skewers of grilled lamb and onions with coriander teased me; however it was cooked through completely, a little too well done for my liking.

Having indulged in a meal fit for sultans, it was only appropriate to wind up in lavish style. A tall pot of rich, dark, bitter Arabic coffee sealed the deal along with a platter of sinfully rich, Baklawa - flaky pastry layered with pistachios and almonds generously doused in honey. And if that
didn’t tickle your fancy the pretty pink Turkish Delight, perfumed with rose water would. Biting through its delicately powdered coating into its firm, stable sweetness is pure heaven, indeed a delight!

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