Walking into Levanter feels a bit like coming home at the end of a long day to a family meal. In part because you’re greeted by members of the family that run it – Sam Dawod and his mother Marcelle Hanna, who also enlist the help of their siblings and cousins on weekends – and in part because of the home-style food on offer.
Dawod looks after the coffee. You can order the Turkish-style kahwa, a cardamom-spiked brew served in a pour-it-yourself set (the cardamom adds warming spice and takes the edge off the acidity), and he’s pretty handy behind the espresso machine too.
“I grew up with [Turkish] coffee and I’ve always had a love for it,” he says. “When I came to Melbourne and experienced the coffee culture, I decided I really wanted to be a part of it.”
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The cosy 27-seater feels warm and inviting, with wooden tables and an exposed-brick wall. It’s a welcome contrast to the sometimes sterile feeling of larger, more modern cafes.
Dawod and Hanna moved to Melbourne from Syria about three years ago, and decided to name their restaurant after the wind that blows across the western Mediterranean Sea.
“The [Levant] wind blows over the sea and brings rain; people consider it to be positive because it helps grow food and bring change,” says Dawod. “That’s what we’re doing – bringing food from the Middle East and blowing it over to Melbourne.”
Their siblings and cousins made the move, too, over the next two years. None of the family has a background in hospitality; they decided to open Levanter because of their love of socialising and sharing food.
“We wanted people here to have a different cultural experience, a Syrian experience,” says Dawod. “We were trying to break down the image where people associate Syria with the war, because that doesn’t define the country. We weren’t sure if they would love the food, but we at least thought people would like to try it.”
Hanna, who worked as an Arabic language teacher in Syria for more than 30 years, cooks every meal herself and makes the cafe’s cheese on-site.
“I love cooking for my whole family, so I thought I may as well cook for everyone else,” she says. “I really enjoy my time cooking here and meeting people. It’s a lot of fun working with my family.”
The Levantine Breakfast is a generous spread for two, served on a wooden board the width of your table. Expect hummus, falafel, olives, boiled eggs, pickled vegetables and three cheeses: haloumi, labneh and shanklish. Other morning fare includes a herby cheese omelette; shakshuka (baked eggs in a tomato and capsicum stew); and sujuk (spiced minced beef) scrambled eggs. Almost everything comes with pickles and pita on the side.
For lunch there are plenty of vegetarian options – ful medames (fava beans in a light broth made with lemon juice, garlic, parsley, tomatoes and cumin); grilled haloumi; and dolmades with hummus. Meat dishes include kibbeh meatballs and musakhan grilled chicken, which is served with hummus, muhammara (a spicy pepper dip) and pomegranate sauce.
At the end of a meal, order a serve of Hannah’s pistachio baklava, a little cube of her coconut Turkish delight, or some Medjool dates stuffed with chopped nuts. All go great with a cup of kahwa.
298 Carlisle Street, Balaclava
(03) 8589 3241
Mon to Thu 7am–3pm
Fri & Sat 7am–5pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on January 9, 2020. Menu items may have changed since publication.