What seems like Arabic script is painted across the black walls of the newly reimagined and refurbished Maha. Go in close, though, and you’ll realise it’s names written in English.
“It’s actually just graffiti,” owner Shane Delia says laughing. The chef and television personality is also behind the rapidly expanding Biggie Smalls chain. “He [local artist Caleb Walmsley] has just come in, taken the names of the staff, tagged the shit out of the venue and created this beautiful piece.”
It might seem like a minor detail, but it encapsulates Maha and the way Delia views the place. Just like the writing on the wall it’s tempting to think of Maha as traditionally Middle Eastern, but closer examination will show it’s as Melburnian as restaurants get.
“Maha isn’t fusion food and it’s not modern Middle Eastern,” Delia says. “In the Middle East there’s a lot of restriction [on experimenting with food]. In some ways it’s good but people don’t get an opportunity to fully express themselves.”
To Delia, Maha is about expressing Middle Eastern flavours with the freedom afforded by Australia’s lack of rigid culinary customs and traditions. Since it opened 10 years ago, classics such as the slow-roasted lamb shoulder have ensconced themselves in Melbourne’s culinary canon. Newer dishes such as the saffron-poached chicken and the salt-baked beetroot speak to Delia and head chef Daniel Giraldo’s ability to keep their fingers on the city’s pulse.
Although the food has done that from the start, the original fit-out – and 2015 refurb – spoke the design language of a much more typical Middle Eastern experience (white walls, aquamarine upholstery, earthy tones). Not anymore. After a swift six-week refit during Maha’s residency at the Hotel Windsor the space is looking as “unrestricted” as its menu.
New mirrors are gilded and the tabletops are finished in jet-black, which brings out the furniture’s burnished-copper edges. Every furnishing has been reupholstered in darker tones. And acoustic panelling and a new sound system have changed the way things sound, too. The result is confidently opulent.
It’s an excellent way to celebrate a restaurant’s first decade. It’s done in a way, Delia says, that ensures it will stick around for another 10 years: “I was 28 when I started. Now I’m 38 and I’ve seen and learned more. My level of expectation is higher, so I needed to create a venue that encompassed that.”
21 Bond Street, Melbourne
(03) 9629 5900
Daily 12pm–3pm, 6pm–late