Joseph Abboud (owner of Brunswick’s Rumi and the Moor’s Head in Thornbury and Carlton) and Ari Vlassopoulos (ex-Pei Modern, Hellenic Republic) found a serendipitous location for their new Lebanese restaurant Bar Saracen: the former site of Rosa’s Kitchen, which closed in 2016.
The building is in Punch Lane, possibly the CBD’s most tranquil laneway, and it accidentally complements the food. Its sandy terracotta walls and triangular-archway windows aren’t too different to some of Lebanon’s mosques and churches.
With tongue firmly in cheek, Bar Saracen describes itself as “a bar/restaurant of Middle Eastern appearance” (the same way criminal suspects are often described by Western media). It aims to show the breadth of the region’s cuisines, especially those less familiar to Melburnians.
Yes, there are borek and kofta, but not as you know them. The borek is samosa-sized and filled with prawn, egg and cheese. The Wagyu kofta are raw, like steak tartare with Lebanese spices.
The food here is not home-style like it is at Rumi, although the fish taratoor with fried nuts and pickled grapes is an homage to Abboud’s mother’s Sunday lunch recipe. “She would pack little containers of leftovers and it would become a bit like shredded fish, like a rillette, so we’re playing on that idea,” he says.
The 18-dish list of mezze takes up 80 per cent of the food menu, and is designed to share. The back table, for a group of 10, has a mini Lazy Susan.
The fist-sized, super puffed-up house-made pita with marinated labne is a good place to start. One mezze dish that’s already taken the spotlight with diners is the crisp-fried okra. Abboud’s favourites are the hummus with calamari and the Iskender kebab – Turkish bread topped with tomato and lamb’s heart.
Head chef Tom Sarafian (also from Rumi) recently learnt how to make filo pastry from a Turkish woman who sells baklava at the Brunswick Market. It’s used in his pistachio baklava with sheep’s-milk yoghurt ice-cream.
The team is also experimenting with coffee. Code Black has created a custom cardamom batch brew: a classic pairing in Lebanon, according to Abboud. “I reckon it [the addition of cardamom] came at a time where coffee was harsh or really bitter, but all that aside, it’s such a great combination.” The result is strangely fresh and cleansing thanks to the cardamom’s menthol effect, with both flavours distinct yet harmonised. As for other drinks, there isn’t one type of alcohol that pairs perfectly with Middle Eastern food, explains Vlassopoulos. “When we’re sharing a whole bunch of things, I can’t see how you can match [each] to wine.”
The solution? It’s all about arak, an aniseed spirit served diluted with water. “It’s like ouzo but better because it’s Lebanese,” says Abboud. “You can have it all the way through, it fits with anything. For something so strong, it’s remarkably refreshing.”
22 Punch Lane, Melbourne
(03) 8639 0265
Tue to Fri 12pm–11pm