If you undertook a food survey in Australia, you’d probably find that 100 per cent of respondents could identify the main elements of a pizza.
But what about pide or manoushe? These baked delights are commonly enjoyed in the Levant, yet many would be hard pressed to know what a manoushe is, let alone pronounce it correctly (for the record, it’s “man-oosh”).
Middle Eastern cuisine in Melbourne tends to fall at either end of the scale. Buy a pide for a couple of bucks from A1 Bakery in Sydney Road, Brunswick, or have an eight course ‘Sultan’ degustation at slick city restaurant Maha.
Sitting somewhere in the middle is Rumi, opened by Joseph Abboud and his wife Natalie in 2006. Rumi’s menu is best described as modern Lebanese – presented without much fuss, but with enough flavour and vibrancy to set it well apart from the pack.
When John Farha, who, like Abboud, is second generation Lebanese, joined the Rumi team as front-of-house manager in 2009, the two hit it off straight away.
After a couple of years of working together in harmony, the two fellows decided it was time to go into business. The basis of their joint venture was an idea that Abboud had been toying with for years – a casual pizza restaurant with a Middle Eastern bent.
“I think John was pretty happy to go with the flow of my idea,” says Abboud.
Farha’s vision for his first business was also already partially formed. “I wanted to serve wine in tumblers, so that it became not about ‘How much do these wine glasses cost?’ but about the food. And the experience,” he explains.
“Not even what’s in the glass,” interrupts Abboud (the two tend to talk over the top of one another). “Just an overall experience. Not a dining experience… Sometimes you just want to go and eat. So we were more than happy just to open a place where people go and eat.”
So with Abboud handling the kitchen and Farha the front of house, The Moor’s Head was born in late 2011, serving ‘inauthentic’ pizza and wine in tumblers.
The boys had fun naming the pizzas with a Middle Eastern-centric lilt. Pides include ‘Sultan Mehmet’, ‘Omar Sharif’ and the ‘Shams of Tabriz’. The manoushe column offers ‘Emir Bashir II’ and ‘Saladin’.
Farha assures us there’s no pressure to embark on a history lesson, but explains that “these are significant figures in Middle Eastern history and culture”.
“There’s a pizza called the Margherita, why can’t we call one the Oum Kalthoum?”
“Oum Kalthoum is the Queen of Arabic Soul,” Abboud adds, laughing.
On the drinks list, you’ll find something that’s rarely heard of in these parts: Lebanese wine. “Nobody blinks an eye at ordering a Spanish Tempranillo or an Italian Montepulciano…but there’s as good a wine being made in Lebanon,” says Farha.
You’ll also find Almaza (a Lebanese pilsner) and Arak (an aniseed-based spirit native to Lebanon). Indeed, the restaurant’s name comes from the colloquial term given to the top of the still used to make Arak. But they dislike the fanfare that often comes with serving traditional fare.
“With the Arak, we want it to be on the drinks list, but what can you say?” says Abboud. “We don’t have a song and dance attached to everything.”
“When I was growing up,” follows Farha, “my dad and his friends would just come out with four glasses of Arak and put them on the table while they played backgammon. It wasn’t an experience for them. It was part of their everyday.”
And speaking of Lebanese fathers, a couple of desserts at The Moor’s Head were named in honour of the owners’ dads. Were the older men happy about this recognition? Offers Abboud, laughing, “When Lebanese men try and please their fathers, the fathers just go… ‘What? Why you name it like that?’ They’re pretty strange, Lebanese dads. I think the previous generation is…generally the fathers aren’t renowned for their participation.”
It’s fair to say Abboud and Farha use their Thornbury restaurant to share great parts of Lebanese culture with the general public, without overly romanticising them. So what does the future hold for the business partners?
Well, for starters, they reckon the blueprint of The Moor’s Head could easily be implemented anywhere (even beyond Australia) and admit that they’re already scouting for a second location in Melbourne.
But expansion doesn’t necessarily mean change. “We’re pretty simple guys. I think wherever we go, the concept won’t change”, says Abboud.
For Abboud and Farha, it’s more about celebrating the food they grew up with the food they love. And with that, perhaps there are some benefits for Lebanese food culture in Australia. “Maybe it would mean that no one would have to ask me ‘What’s labne?’ You know, in the same way that no one has to ask what mozzarella is,” says Farha.
For now, it seems the glossary at the bottom of The Moor’s Head menu, offering explanations of some of the less familiar meats, spices and cheeses, is here to stay. But maybe not for long.