It’s safe to say that when it comes to Melbourne’s Armenian food scene, chef Garen Maskal (also Sezar, The Black Toro, and formerly of Ezard) has earned his seat at the table.

With his cousins Aret and Sasoon Arzadian, Maskal opened the sleek and dimly lit CBD fine diner Sezar in 2013. Their latest offering, the more paired-back Shukah (which means “marketplace” in Armenian) opened last May, on the Windsor end of Chapel Street.

“We wanted this to be the lighter and brighter version,” says Maskal, who now spends most of his time here, making sure things run smoothly.

The 52-seat space was designed with the help of Erika Lancini Design, with minor but characteristic flourishes such as the slightly cavernous white-paint brick walls.

While it’s all about the food at Shukah, it’s still helpful to know a bit of Armenian history before going in. Pull up a map and you’ll see a tiny former-Soviet country wedged between two regions, sharing borders with Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. During World War One, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Empire. This led to a mass exodus of displaced or deported Armenians, who ended up in countries like Lebanon, the United States and, in the case of Maskal’s mother, Egypt, and his father, Turkey.

It’s unsurprising, then, that modern iterations of Armenian food, outside of Armenia, are often literal melting pot of influences gathered across time and geography.

Maskal, who speaks Armenian but has never been to the country, has had a very modern relationship with Armenia, codified in his diverse approach to cooking. “What I grew up with is not what you’d find in Armenia now,” says Maskal.

He gathers flavours from all over Europe and the Middle East to create rustic, peasant-style tapas dishes that seem somehow new and recognisable at the same time.

His hummus, for example, is served with a volcanic oozing of sweet and nutty brown butter, which lends a warmth that Maskal says is similar to the fat you’d typically find in traditional Armenian dishes.

Or there’s the air-dried beef basturma, which originally comes from Turkey. Maskal coats it with paprika and cumin, serving it with garlic jam on toasted brioche and a quail egg, to make it, as he says, “a little bit more fun.”

More common Armenian offerings include the four-plate starter mezze, with coffee-roasted carrots and wheat berries; roasted beetroot with tahini and dill; tomatoes with stringy cheese and nigella, and a sort of eggplant ratatouille.

Manti dumplings are also a go-to on most Armenian tables, which Maskal prepares toasted and parcelled like crispy little wontons stuffed with spiced lamb, served with garlic yoghurt and sumac.

The tender charred octopus is a must. Maskal serves this with pistachio and olive salsa and a dollop of labne. The taste lingers with a question mark on the tip of your tongue. Greek? Turkish? Armenian? Who cares.

Larger feast-sized dishes include a pomegranate-glazed lamb shoulder; or the barbequed baby chicken with green harissa, yoghurt and flatbread.

Maskal’s liquor licence has just cleared and the drinks menu includes apt but odd options such as arak, Armenian brandy and Yan Yan Armenian larger, which is actually from Derrimut, in Melbourne’s west, but worthy of its namesake nonetheless.

Maskal went a little off script with one half of his two-option dessert menu: a salted-caramel baklava sundae with vanilla ice-cream, whipped cream and a cherry on top. The other option, however, is a more compliant roasted quince arrangement, slightly savoury and layered like a terrine with spices, served with brown butter and labne.

In fact, rogue and refined seems to be the mantra at Shukah. Different regions and styles and eras jump around in each dish with poise, comfort and excitement. Innovation and tradition might be contradictions in terms, but here it works just fine.

Shukah
104 Chapel Street, Windsor 3181

03 9521 3858

Hours:
Tue to Sun 5:30pm – late
Fri to Sun 12:00pm – 3:00pm