Back in May, Shane Delia put Maha East, a Middle Eastern wine bar in the old Biggie Smalls Chapel Street shop, on our collective horizons. And its doors are set to open on Thursday, with a menu that plays with the versatility of Middle Eastern spices.
“There are no rules in the food at Maha East, but the DNA is still from Maha. We use the same spices and put a big emphasis on flavour. We don’t do subtle,” says the Maltese-Australian chef and television personality. “It’s like a snapshot of the flavours of the Middle East, but it’s still very untraditional. The flavours are really fun. It’s not pedestrian food – there’s some heat, there’s some zest.”
The menu is broken down into meze (small plates), larger plates, vegetables and sweets, with everything served family-style, to be shared.
“Food should be a shared experience, it brings people together, so you can have a conversation about what’s on the table,” Delia says. “We live in one of the best multicultural cities in the world, and [sharing food] is a great way to embrace that.”
To start, try the lamb borek – thin, flaky sheets of pastry filled with cumin-spiced lamb mince that are then rolled up like a spring roll, fried and topped with raisin jam and olive tapenade.
“We focus on singular spicing as opposed to using a multitude that can mask the flavour of the produce,” Delia says. “So, we might use saffron to unlock the flavour of chicken, or fennel to unlock the flavour of potato, or caraway for carrots. I like to try to use one spice for the dish, then if I need more heat, I can turn to Aleppo pepper or harissa to add heat.”
Poached chicken breast is served cold, diced and combined with roasted, soft cubes of eggplant, then rolled through a dressing of North African harissa and caramelised tahini, and topped with spring onions, coriander and toasted sesame seeds.
“It’s a weapon of a dish, and really sums up Maha East, because it’s more east than Middle East. [It] has its origins in a Sichuan-style cold chicken entree, but it shows the diversity of Middle Eastern flavours,” Delia says. “It’s spicy, sexy and salty. If anything on the menu has a bit of punch to it, it’s this.”
Turkish beef dumplings, or manti, are made in-house. Large sheets of thin pasta are filled with beef mince and hand-crimped into petite diamonds, boiled, tossed through a burnt butter and yoghurt sauce, then finished with fresh mint and a sprinkle of deep-red sumac, which is grown and prepared by Delia’s father, Ted.
Another fun snack is a plate of savoury doughnuts, filled with taramasalata, deep-fried and topped with dill and caviar. “To be fair I’ve probably eaten too many of them,” Delia says, laughing.
A Japanese hibachi charcoal grill has been brought in specifically for a charred octopus dish, simply served with a light saffron broth, chickpeas and silverbeet. Fennel seeds and harissa provide undertones of liquorice and spice.
Larger share plates include slow-roasted lamb shoulder (which has migrated across from Maha), rockling with pine mushrooms, grass-fed striploin with olive-oil-whipped garlic, and conchiglie (shell) pasta served with torn poached chicken, cavolo nero, saffron broth, a touch of preserved lemon and pork lardo. “It’s the most inauthentic pasta dish in the world,” Delia says.
Vegetable sides include burnt corn with salted ricotta, French fries with a kick of kefalograviera (a salty Greek hard cheese), and lightly sautéed zucchini with fiery green harissa, pine nuts, fresh mint and chickpeas. It’s a dish Delia prepared for himself while trying to eat more healthily. It ended up on the menu after he shared it with his chefs, who all agreed it was worthy.
Also making the trip over from Maha are the ever-popular Turkish delight doughnuts. The serving at East is a little larger, paired with walnut ice-cream. Chickpea ice-cream, which Delia developed in-house, is made by boiling chickpeas in almond milk, pureeing the mixture, then combining with a classic anglaise. It’s savoury and sweet at the same time, with a hint of nuttiness, served alongside a semolina and olive oil cake with saffron orange curd and poached dates.
There are roughly 120 wine varietals on the list, sourced from all over the world. Maha’s signature Pomegranate Sour headlines the cocktail list.
“We want to create an atmosphere where people can sit back, relax and enjoy some good Middle Eastern-ish food and booze.” Delia says. “We’re ready to rock.”
Fried bun, taramasalata, salmon caviar, dill
Pickled carrots, turmeric, shallots, yoghurt
Fried peanuts, Aleppo pepper, lime leaf, salt
Hummus, Persian saffron XO, our bread
Chemen-cured kingfish, kombu, pickled cucumber, urfa biber
Cold-cut white chicken, harissa, eggplant, spring onions, tahini
Spiced-lamb borek, raisin jam and olive
Coal-grilled octopus, chickpeas, silverbeet, fennel seed
Beef Turkish dumplings, Ted’s sumac, yoghurt, burnt butter, spinach
Swordfish sujuk, lentils, mussels, celery, smoked-turnip crème
Slow-roasted lamb shoulder, smashed radishes, harissa, mint
Conchiglie, torn chicken, cavolo nero, lardo, aleppo pepper, preserved lemon
Rockling and pine mushrooms, roast cumin, leeks, turnips
Grass-fed Rangers Valley striploin, olive-oil-whipped garlic, onions
French fries, za’atar, kefalograviera
Zucchini, harissa, chickpeas, pine nuts, mint
Kale, spinach, silver beet, muhammara
Burnt corn, salted ricotta, saffron, smoked almonds
Aged Persian rice, toasted noodles, pickled raisins, Baharat
Iceberg lettuce, buttermilk, orange blossom, pickled onion
Turkish delight doughnuts, rosewater honey, walnut ice-cream
Peanut-butter “baklava”, tahini caramel, chocolate ice-cream
Chickpea ice-cream, semolina and olive oil cake, burnt orange, cinnamon