More than 10 years ago, Shane Delia bestowed Maha – now a city institution – upon Melbourne, bringing finessed Middle Eastern fare to the forefront of the local dining scene. Next, the Maltese-Australian chef and television personality gave us fancy kebab joint Biggie Smalls, which first opened in Collingwood, then on Chapel Street, Windsor. Now, Delia’s keen to get back in the kitchen, and a transformation is underway at his Chapel Street diner.
“Every time I step into Maha now it's such a well-oiled machine. I don't want to break it,” Delia says, laughing. “I do cook and create all the dishes with the team, and it's grown into something I never thought I’d be able to achieve, but the influence I'm having on the food there is on the top tier ... I can still throw a pan around. And I wouldn't mind doing that on a more relaxed level.”
More relaxed means low-key Middle Eastern wine bar Maha East, set to open in June. Coming to the old Biggie Smalls Windsor space, it’ll seat 40, with a wine list featuring new and old-world wines from Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco alongside a few locals, all selected by sommelier and restaurant manager Ross Frame.
“It’s the Maha that I thought I was going to open when I opened Maha,” Delia says. “It's going to be a lot more fluid, a lot more relaxed. We can have a winemaker come in and say, ‘I've got this really cracking wine but I've only got four bottles. Want it?’ We'll crack it open, push it around and it'll be fun. And if we don't sell it, I'll drink it.”
Longtime Maha sous chef Simon Lillico will head up the kitchen at East, and Delia will be in and out. “I want to support him,” Delia says of Lillico. “I want to be the guy standing next to him showing his guys how to cook … I'll be able to just walk in and work side by side with the guys. And I need that. Because I'm missing it.”
A few old favourites coming across from Delia’s Bond Street flagship include the Turkish delight doughnuts and slow-roasted lamb shoulder, and while the East menu will balance spice, heat and flavours Delia remembers from his childhood, he’s adamant that East won’t be just another Maha. For one thing, it’ll be much more stripped back.
“We’re taking the Chanel approach,” he says. “Put it all on, take something off before we leave the house. You still want to cook and give it the full whack, but then pare it back a bit.”
There’ll be Moroccan-spiced French fries on the menu, with house-made za’atar (sesame seeds, sumac from Delia’s dad’s tree, pine nuts, thyme and oregano) and kefalograviera, which is like a “Greek salty parmesan”. Grass-fed beef steaks will be grilled, and brushed with garlic and olive oil; savoury doughnuts will be filled with taramasalata, deep-fried and topped with dill and caviar. A dish of burnt young corn is charred over coal, sautéed with a vinaigrette of smoked almonds, saffron and lemon, and served on almond skordalia and beneath a veil of salted ricotta.
Maha’s well-loved Pomegranate Sour will make the trip over to Windsor, too, but the cocktail list will mostly stick to the classics – Negroni, Old Fashioned etc.
The fit-out is by the design team at Studio Y, which is converting the original Technē-designed kebab shop into a more cosy, comfortable eatery where you can spend a few hours. Expect earthy tones with brass edging and dark wood finishes and, music-wise, anything from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Motown, hip hop and R’n’B.
“There may be a day when I'm pissed off and want to chuck on some Wu Tang or listen to something harder,” Delia says. “You want to surprise people.”
Maha East will open in late June at 36 Chapel Street, Windsor. Pre-book a table here