Matt Yazbek has spent the past 15 years working with Japanese cuisine. He’s opened Toko, Tokonoma, Toko Melbourne, Toko Dubai and others. Over that time he’s also been thinking about food closer to his heart.
Today Yazbek opens his first Lebanese restaurant, Cubby’s Kitchen; something he’s wanted to do for 10 years. “Lebanese is our heritage,” he says. Joining Yazbek in the venture are his sisters Amanda and Diala, his brother Richard and his mum, Cubby Mouna. “We couldn't do it in the past because we were all in different venues,” Matt says.
The concept has evolved since Matt wrote the initial menu with his brother Daniel (now passed away) more than a decade ago. “We would have done more of a traditional menu,” says Yazbek. What they’ve got is a 50-50 split between recipes by Mouna and Yazbek’s sisters, which are traditional Lebanese dishes, and new, mostly Japanese-fusion dishes.
At Cubby’s Kitchen the traditional Lebanese aspect is represented by charcoal-roasted, skewered meats; lady fingers; and homemade basturma (a Middle Eastern, air-dried beef). The Japanese influence shows in the chunky babaganoush with sweet miso and the hummus with edamame and Japanese chilli. Then there are entirely new dishes, such as Yazbek’s duck-fat-braised chicken legs with za’atar crumbs, shallots and black-garlic aioli. “I think Lebanese food was stale for a while,” says Yazbek. “This is a new style of Middle-Eastern-Arabic-Mediterranean … challenging and pushing new boundaries while retaining the tradition of the culture.” Yazbek mentions restaurants such as Bazaari and Pazar as part of the new wave.
It’s very casual; dishes are under $25, made to share and the drinks list is accessible. There are a handful of wines and three vaguely Lebanese-themed cocktails; the Negroni with drunken apricot is the best of them. The fit-out, while more embellished than the Crown Street Fish Shop site it shares, is equally laid-back.
How long they’ll continue trading next to Fish Shop is still up in the air. “We're going to try for a year. We’ll go through the four seasons and depending on the outcome, see whether we stay; go to a to bigger site Matt owns nearby; or keep this one and open another one,” Yazbek says.