17 years ago, Hana Assafiri opened the casual and colourful Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy. There was no written menu – just a handful of vegetarian dishes relayed by wait staff over the din of the restaurant in service.
But with constant customer demand and up to an hour’s wait for a table most evenings, Assafiri gave in to the inevitable.
“If you’d asked me a year ago I still wouldn’t have been interested in expanding,” she says. “But there was a demand that one venue just couldn’t satisfy anymore,” Assafiri says. “I had to think very hard about it because I didn’t just want to franchise it and lose the basic principles of the restaurant. I had to revisit our values and decide whether expanding could fit into who we are.”
Assafiri’s first book, Moroccan Soup Bar: Recipes of a Spoken Menu (due out in October), was also part of her drive to expand. She says it took her on “an unexpected emotional journey.” The book combines the story of the restaurant with recipes from the menu, including the coveted chickpea-yogurt bake.
While still working on the details, Assafiri is adamant the new business – Moroccan Soup Bar Deli-Cacy – will maintain the heart and soul of the original venue and continue to give customers a taste of North African culture.
“I want it to be like walking into the old Medina in Morocco, I want it to be a space where everybody feels comfortable and very similar to the Moroccan Soup Bar,” Assafiri says. “No matter what your gender, colour or culture, it feels like somewhere you can relax.”
When established, Moroccan Soup Bar Deli-Cacy will run quite differently to its restaurant counterpart. The front of the venue will be occupied by a deli where preserves, pickles, nuts, bread and cheeses – most of which will be made in-house – will be sold. The rear will be used as a cantina catering to the breakfast and lunch crowd. There will also be take-home meals available, an on-site nut roaster and a function room.
Assafiri says the cantina’s all-vegetarian menu will be creative, focusing on modern interpretations of traditional dishes.
“I’m so frustrated by all these cafes serving the same avocado smash and eggs on toast,” she says. “There’s no creativity there. I want to offer people a style of eating that’s consistent with how we eat in Morocco: lots of small plates shared between the table.”
The entire space will be fitted out with handmade Moroccan furnishings, including lanterns, etched doors and hand-painted crockery, which Assafiri collected on a recent five-day trip to Morocco.
During the trip she was also confronted by the loss of culinary traditions within younger generations. “At times I found myself quite nostalgic when revisiting how we learnt to cook,” she says. “Younger people don’t know how to preserve olives, lemons, pickles.” It’s these products and the way they are made that Assafiri is aiming to celebrate with the deli.
Moroccan Soup Bar Deli-Cacy is slated to open in East Brunswick in mid-to-late September.