Many restaurants claim to take diners on a “culinary journey” but Atlas Dining’s head chef Charlie Carrington takes the trope more literally than most of his industry counterparts.
Three times a year, Carrington takes himself on a research trip abroad to discover a different country’s cuisine. Then, he channels the most memorable flavours, smells and textures he finds into shareable, multi-course menus at his South Yarra restaurant. Each is available for four months.
In the three years since Atlas Dining opened, Carrington and his menus have travelled from Thailand, to Brazil, France, China and beyond. Most recently, he embraced the flavours of America’s Deep South – and its smoke- and flame-powered cooking.
“Normally after four months, we’re ready to shake things up,” Carrington says. “I honestly could’ve opened up my own brisket place – I had such a good time.”
The brisket is gone, but the offset smoker, which Carrington borrowed from barbeque experts Burn City Smokers, remains. And it’ll soon be put to use smoking lamb and white fish for Atlas’s new Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-style offering.
"It was hard to say goodbye to our smoker as we left America's deep southern states,” Carrington says. “But we realised we could repurpose it for Lebanese cuisine, and so it's still sitting proudly in our courtyard.”
For the American menu Carrington cooked meats “low and slow”, but for Lebanon he’s opting for quick smoking to create “a tender, succulent and delicate piece of meat.”
One of the first dishes on the menu is a hot smoked rainbow trout with onion yoghurt and nuts.
“Trout is notorious for having a milder flavour than some of our other beautiful fish. This lends itself well to Lebanese cuisine, as you make up for flavour and vibrancy through its unique spices and herbs,” he says.
The trout is cooked for eight minutes, cooled, then garnished with onion yoghurt using a piping bag and peppered with green chillies and pine nuts. A preserved lemon puree is also drizzled on the side of the plate with basil oil.
The fourth dish on the menu is lamb served with radish and baba ganoush. The backstrap is grilled over charcoal and the belly is slow-cooked medium rare. The eggplant is cooked at 600 degrees in a woodfired oven to add a smoky hit, and a homemade dukkah adds spice.
Middle Eastern cooking is well-trodden terrain for Carrington, who opened his second, more casual eatery Lomah – meaning “land of milk and honey” – after falling in love with the food in Israel.
But after spending 10 days in Lebanon, based in the capital Beirut, this is the first time he’s fully explored the vibrant Mediterranean side of Levantine food.
“I’ve been keen to visit Lebanon for a while to explore the similarities between cuisines and also find out what sets them apart and makes them unique,” Carrington says. “I think the fresh flavours of Lebanon are perfect for summer.”
There’s no à la carte option – instead, a $75 set menu will include five courses of six to seven mezze (small dishes) using meat and fish or flavour-packed vegetables such as eggplant, cucumber, cauliflower, artichoke and capsicum; fermentation experiments; as well as spices from the region, such as cumin, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg and cinnamon.
The mezze come with dips including the baba ganoush, hummus and muhammara (hot pepper dip, originally from Aleppo, Syria); green and red falafels; and woodfired laffa flatbread.
The final flourish is a pistachio, rice and goat’s cheese concoction inspired by the sweet-tasting desserts of Lebanon.
The baked pistachio, rose and kataifi pastry is offset by a goat’s cheese sorbet.
“This salty flavour breaks up the sweetness, which means your teeth are less likely to stick together like mine did in Beirut,” Carrington says. “[It] complements the palate after eating your way through the rest of the feast.”
Atlas Dining’s new menu will be available until April and is $75 per person.