It’s lunchtime on Friday, and Maha is bustling. Waiters circulate with heavily laden trays; the blue-suited somm flits between tables of 12 and two, while J Dilla bounces through the speakers. Shane Delia thinks it’s a blessing. “It’s busy; Insha'Allah, Insha'Allah,” he says. “We’re lucky. We’ve always been pretty lucky.”
The 35-year-old head chef – and now sole proprietor – is being modest: he’s put in the hard yards as well. Opening seven years ago with the support of George Calombaris’ MADE Group, Maha has just undergone a million-dollar refit to more closely resemble Delia’s vision for his Middle Eastern eatery. “I wanted to dust off the cobwebs of the past. I’m independent now; I’m master of my own domain,” he says, waving around the room. “Everything’s come out. Everything’s changed. This used to be red-leather walls. The high-gloss tables have been all stripped back. It’s more natural.”
Designed by Mills Gorman (in both its original and re-fitted iterations), the underground space is more open than it used to be, with the discrete dining spaces flowing into a communal dining room. A 12-seat communal table peers out onto the street, while a private dining room is set at the back. Expensive-looking carpentry ribbing runs from the fore to the aft. “I wanted a dining room that felt more Middle Eastern, without gold for the sake of gold and those bullshit mosaics,” Delia explains.
The menu’s been streamlined, too, introducing two new set menus: the “fresh”, which comes in at $35, and the slightly higher-end “clean” menu, which adds some extra protein for $45. Both are lighter options than Maha’s previous offerings, cutting down on superfluous bread and ghee.
This week’s menu, for instance, included slow-cooked lamb shoulder dressed in smashed radish and mint; cured scallops with orange blossoms; and a salad of iceberg lettuce and pumpkin seeds. For those who are after something a little more substantial, there’s still the lamb burger – which, for $18, comes with a beer. Dinner choices range from a four-course “soufra” menu to a six-course tour of the Middle East, both of which combine shared plates and individual servings.
By lightening up both the underground space, and the dishes on the table, Delia hopes to make Maha a little more approachable. “I want to encourage people to walk in, or have that last-minute booking,” he says. “I don’t want people to wait three months, that’s bullshit.”
Despite his newfound lighter touch, Delia insists he’s still keeping it real. “I’m conscious of health a little more these days. But I love to eat, too,” he admits. “I’m not going paleo. I’m no Pete Evans. I’m not fucking Weight Watchers.”
21 Bond Street, Melbourne
(03) 9629 5900
Sun to Fri noon–3pm