The first thing you’ll see when you step into Maha Bar is the cork-topped bar. It’s a nod to Shane Delia’s father’s home bar, which the chef-owner remembers from his childhood.
The version at Delia’s jazzy new Collingwood spot is made from champagne corks, its lightly lacquered surface shining in the gentle light from the oversized globes overhead.
You can pull up a stool here and peruse imported bottles of raki and arak (anise-flavoured spirits), or get one of the house infusions (cola, pickled celery, sour cherry, rosemary, lemon tart) served neat or on ice. Some of the raki and arak infusions are added to cocktails, such as the caramelised-pineapple-and-saffron granita, which the bartender douses in coconut arak in front of you.
There’s also the Turkish Delight Martini; a za’atar-infused Margarita; and the Pomegranate Sour, a signature carried over from Delia’s flagship Middle Eastern restaurant Maha (you’ll also find it at sibling wine bar Maha East).
“We’ve always founded our Maha pillars on my family’s coat of arms, Fortis et hospitalis, which means ‘strength through hospitality’,” Delia says. “It’s deep in my DNA.”
The kitchen is separated from the dining room by a wall of retro reeded glass. Inside, Delia and his team are making borek buns: sweet sesame doughnuts filled with braised beef or eggplant, with an intense toasted-coconut and harissa curry dotted on top.
“It’s pretty much a borek, which is a traditional Turkish baked pastry of crisp, fluffy bread filled with meat or eggplant or cheese,” Delia says. “But we’re doing them filled and frying them.”
Light and airy semolina crumpets come topped with saffron mayo, salmon caviar, garlic flowers and chives. And a plate of stuffed Portarlington mussels in a tomato and clove broth is a spin on a Turkish dish called midye dolma.
“You get it on the street in Turkey, it goes great with a cold beer,” Delia says. “We serve the mussels out of the shell, and stuff them with fragrant rice.”
Vine-ripened tomatoes are cut to order, served with a preserved-lemon dressing and macadamia cream. Rolls of thinly sliced Wagyu basturma (cured beef) arrive alongside spoonfuls of fresh ricotta. And hobz bil zejit, which roughly translates to “bread with oil”, is a Maltese classic: bread topped with tomato paste, anchovies, dehydrated olive, pickled onion, chives and salted ricotta.
“The more I look at the food here, even though it’s not traditional, it’s probably the most traditional we’ve done,” Delia says. “So many things have a direct relationship with Middle Eastern food.”
As at Maha, there’s a 12-hour lamb shoulder, here heavily spiced with baharat, a blend of coriander, cinnamon, clove, black pepper and paprika. It sits on a roasted eggplant salad, with makanek (lamb sausage) and a date-and-lamb-fat sauce.
Other large plates include duck – the breast roasted, the leg braised – with muhammara (a spicy roasted capsicum and walnut dip); chickpea and garlic dumplings with toum (garlic sauce) and sumac grown by Delia’s father (“it’s almost like a Barbecue Shapes flavour”); crinkle cut chips with taramasalata; and a pilaf made using five-year-aged Persian rice with little jewels of dried apricot, coriander seeds and crispy rice folded through. A soufra menu lets you try a few different things for $65 (there’s a vegan option, too).
If you’re not able to nab a spot at the bar, there are cosy, khaki-leather banquettes and bistro chairs set around cork-topped tables. Wood panelling on the walls is offset by vibrant artwork by French-Lebanese artist Raphaelle Macaron, whose brightly coloured pieces celebrate elements of Lebanese and Arabic cooking, and reference old Lebanese advertisements.
“The dining room is beautiful,” says Delia. “But it’s the people, the art and the music that bring the attitude."
From Friday to Sunday, inspired by bars Delia’s visited in Malta, there’ll be free meze (small plates) from 3pm to 5pm. The chef says that to him, offering a snack or two to people drinking at the bar is the pinnacle of hospitality. Think hand-made pastizzi (Maltese pastries) filled with ricotta, pumpkin or spiced peas.
“The people are in my venue and it’s my job to look after them and make them feel like they’re welcome,” he says. “If people are happy and smiling, that’s all I care about.”
86 Smith Street, Collingwood
(03) 9417 3531
Mon to Thu 5.30pm–1am
Fri to Sun 12pm–1am