I’ve followed Greg Malouf’s food for quite a while. He’s a bit of a culinary personality from my home town of Melbourne (Australia), and was the first person to take middle eastern cuisine up that extra rung in the city, and serve it in a fine dining restaurant. I used to love Momos – a mezzanine-basement cavern, filled with opulent oriental furnishings, a haven in it’s bankers-end-of-the-CBD location. I used to dine with extravagance or drink and nibble in the lavish bar and lounge area, feeling pampered and somehow magically transported in it’s exotic surroundings.
But that was Melbourne, a ten-years-ago Melbourne. A place where everyone wore black and the skies and streets were grey. A place where even journalists wore a suit to work. A city where everything fit on a grid, where buildings were only cuboid and public transport only travelled in a straight line. A place where the people conformed where they had to, yet sought out the bizarre every other way they could – where off-beat music flourished, where street art was respected, where lane-ways were named after rock-and-roll bands, where lawyers wore red and purple striped socks beneath their Hugo Boss trousers. A place where, in fine-dining terms, European cuisine was mainstream, and the hypercoloured cacophony of middle eastern dishes was avant garde.
And this is Dubai. Where he’s going to be selling proverbial ice to proverbial Eskimos. And what was the first dish he served to the gaggle of Middle-Eastern media for one of his first-ever presentations in the region? Hummus.
Well, that was brave.
But it’s not just brave, it’s clever. I don’t know if it was intentional, but what he did by presenting us with a series of mezze for appetizers, leaving them posturing brazenly on the tables as we entered, mingled, waited, and were left with more than a couple of food-photo opportunities (in very good light), was a way of showing us that he has passed the bar, so to speak. Dishes like hummus, moutabel, muhammara, fattoush and tabbouleh are recipes we eat constantly in the region, and those which many of us will gauge a restaurant’s capabilities by. They set a benchmark, and by giving us his versions, Malouf has painted his own standard.
The hummus was very good. It packed flavour as many can’t – the cardboard-flavoured chickpeas here bound by some other very tasty ingredients. Definitely some garlic, and some great olive oil, but what else, I cannot tell you, as it was a perfect pureed mush, creamy and totally devoid of any give-away features. The moutabel was even better. A more velvety one I have never tasted. The Syrian at our table did mention she liked her dips creamier, but I’ve no idea what she was eating, definitely not the moutabel. Just a touch of smoke brushed the edges of the palate, gorgeous. The Muhammara likewise carried a pristine texture – not creamy, but just grainy enough to remind you of it’s core ingredients (bread, walnuts), and carrying some sweet and spicy contrasts in efficient unison.
The fist salads we were given were fattoush and tabbouleh, and again, the benchmark was good. The fattoush well flavoured, definitely not mean on the pomegranate molasses like some are, but lacking the fresh za’atar I am becoming quite fond of finding in the various fattoushes of the city. The tabbouleh was perhaps a little wet and lacking acid, but was a minor let-down in a series of very good starters. These salads were followed by two more. One, a dish from his childhood – “Tata’s Salad” was his Grandmother’s recipe – a simple but flavoursome dish, similar to a fattoush, but in place of the kubz crisps, raw cauliflower, that sat in the midst all white and gorgeously crumbly, and tricked you into thinking you were going to get a mouthful of feta. Malouf spoke, and said he had no idea why Tata put the cauliflower in there. I know. It was to trick her family into eating a salad that appeared full of naughty, yummy ingredients, but was in fact something any raw-food or paleo fanatic would be proud to serve.
The final salad was so much more than that. Artichokes, tender and oozing with umami, art-worthy radishes with stalks attached, sweet oil-marinated whole chillies, and scattered all over, a mint-crusted shankleesh cheese – gloriously feral and funky in contrast to all those pristinely fresh flavours. A super dish.
But then came the Moorish Pie. I suppose it was what many would call a “pastilla” – sugar-dusted baklava pastry surrounding a savoury filling. This one was stuffed with swiss-chard, that horrendous melbourne-home-grown-vegetable we call silverbeet, that my mother used to prepare with love, and I would eat with resentment bitter enough to partner it’s foul taste. But here it was tender and mild, partnered with absolutely no acridity, but with the al-dente bite of chickpeas, the salty tang of sparse but just-enough feta, and the aroma-providing (but otherwise hidden) nutmeg and dried mint. The presentation on a plate dusted with a “hamsa”, or “Fatima’s Hand” motif icing sugar tatoo proved very photo-worthy, and there are probably already 12K likes of the dish on Instagram.
At this point, our table started discussing foie gras, cuddling baby lambs, the cute coloured chicks in Syrian Christmas displays, and why we don’t seem to remember those beautiful brown cow-eyes when we are eating a slab of tenderloin (I’m not sure how we got there, but throw four food bloggers together, and eventually we will get all food-political). And we realised that this entire meal had been vegetarian to this point. We hadn’t missed the meat at all, and were in fact so sated by that incredible pie, that we were a little conserned about having to indulge in a further course.
It’s rare to find duck in a tajine in Dubai, and so it was a welcome surprise. I hope when Malouf settles into his own premises he will show us more dishes than the ubiquitous lamb and chicken, as I’d happily order this again, and would be very interested in trying other meats cooked in middle-eastern style. The couza were however stuffed with sweet and spicy lamb, which was so deliciously gamey that I was sure it was also duck until he took the room through the dish and told us otherwise. It was served with couscous prepared the proper way (I really need to attempt this, as it’s so very much better than the instant stuff my family seems unfortunately happy with), spotted with deep-fried almonds and slithers of carrot.
The dessert was Nawwara Chef Youssef Issa’s creation. A “snowball” of fresh cream turned into gelato, completely unsweetened, but smothered with some exceptional honey and pistachios, and accompanied by a berry compote and fresh berries. It was an incredible dish. Simple ingredients and simple presentation, but so perfectly harmonious in flavour. Plate licked.
I must confess, that as much as I am a fan of Greg Malouf and his work (I also own some of his cook-books), I had initially worried that his style of cooking may not transport effectively into a region where it is not exotic, where the competition for these dishes and flavours is already so high, and so incredibly well understood by the populous. But I am starting to believe that he might just make it. I’m not entirely sure about his branding of “Modern Middle Eastern” – I think that he may have to work a little harder over here to prove his approach is in fact modern, particularly if he is to continue to serve the traditional dishes. And, I am holding out great expectations for his restaurant interior, as he will somehow have to present something curious and opulent where the very air is filled with the exotic. But will people go to his restaurant when he opens? Oh, yes, I think they will. And so will I.
Greg Malouf is an Australian chef of Lebanese decent, and has been at the helm of both Momos (closed 2012) in Melbourne, and more lately at Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, UK (1 michelin star). He is the author of several cookbooks, notably Arabesque, “Modern Middle Eastern Food”, of which there is a very well-thumbed issue in my kitchen. He has a family of food-lovers behind him – his brother Geoff is another Melbourne Middle-Eastern chef (ZumZums, and previously Arabesque, which was walking distance from my home), and of course his ex-wife Lucy Malouf, whom he continues to share a happy working relationship with, together with the writing of the cookbooks.
Greg Malouf is expecting to open his Dubai restaurant in the DIFC later this year (opposite the Ritz Carlton). In the meantime, you might just catch him at Litfest this Friday…
Oh, and he seems to be a particularly lovely bloke too.