There’s a brooding handsomeness to Maha East, the south-side spin-off of Shane Delia’s Middle Eastern dining institution Maha.
There’s a splash of artful deception in the 40-seat space, which used to be Delia’s fancy kebab joint Biggie Smalls (the Collingwood outpost) is still going strong). The original Technē-designed shop has been re-jigged by design firm Studio Y, and it now feels more like a French bistro or Italian trattoria than a Middle Eastern diner. Black and white tiles checker across the floor, stretching back along a narrow, dimly lit room. There’s counter seating along the bar and larger chestnut tables along the way to Delia’s semi-open kitchen tucked away at the back. Delia says the brief was for a cosy, comfortable space where you can settle in and spend a few hours. Tunes-wise expect music to feature anything from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Motown, hip-hop and R’n’B.
The a la carte-driven menu was developed alongside long-time Maha sous chef Simon Lillico, who heads up the kitchen at East (Delia will be in and out). It riffs in a similar way to the fit-out, dancing between traditional and unexpected. To start, there are 10 small meze dishes. Delia’s spiced lamb borek with raisin jam comes out on a white paper doily and, at first glance, looks more like a spring roll. But the taste takes you straight to Turkey: the pastry is light and crispy so that the fragrant lamb mince shines through unencumbered. It does all the things a good borek should do.
The cold-cut white chicken is a little cheeky too. The first bite indicates something along the lines of a Sichuan dish, with a mild but present burst of spice. But, again, the other ingredients quickly re-establish the meal’s geography; there’s eggplant, almonds, spring onion and harissa on a velvety pool of rich tahini.Then there’s a taramasalata fried bun. It’s an instant classic. Creamy tarama oozes out with the familiarity of a custard doughnut, revitalised by juicy pearls of salmon caviar and a strong presence of dill on top. For the larger offerings, Delia goes big. There’s rockling and pine mushrooms with roast cumin, leeks and caramelised onion; grass-fed Rangers Valley striploin with olive oil whipped garlic and onions; and – of course – that lamb shoulder, which comes with smashed radishes, harissa and mint.
Drinks include a 120-strong wine list featuring new and old-world wines from Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco, and a few local drops, all selected by sommelier and restaurant manager Ross Frame. The enthusiastic cocktail list makes a big impression, too. And there’s beer from Dandenong South brewery Brick Lane on tap, which Delia is a partner in.