Roti bread and jasmine rice, pomelo and nam jim dressing, harissa sauce – on first glance you might be forgiven for thinking the menu at Federation’s Square quiet achiever is suffering some kind of identity crisis – is it Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, pan-Asian? Does it matter? With no single cuisine taking centre stage, head chef Martin Horsley’s accomplished (and downright delicious) cooking is free to draw on influences from around the world. Never overbearing, but always subtly there, his clever use of global flavours makes for a surprisingly exciting restaurant surprisingly situated in the middle of tourist-trap hell. Yes, it’s true, while we love Fed Sq for its cracked-concrete design and big-screen singalong carol sessions on Christmas Eve, we usually give its eateries a wide berth.
How wrong we were. Now, instead of dashing from some inner suburb restaurant to the ACMI while still digesting our food, we can buy our tickets, head to Arintji for a stunning feed and saunter back to the big screen at leisure. On our first (and certainly not our last) visit, we started off by feasting on a range of ‘starters’ (like the grilled Turkish bread and homemade beetroot and feta dip, which was an amazing colour) and ‘light meals or share plates’ – uniformly generous serves and punchy flavours.
A colourful watermelon salad with tomato, strawberries and marinated feta was scattered with large leaves of mint, adding to the refreshing Middle East-inspired offering.
Stewed octopus with tomato chilli came in a terracotta bowl, sucker-covered tentacles weaving together and falling over the edges. Tender and tangy it was the kind of thing you might devour in some dusty Greek fishing village, where white houses cling to the hillsides and the air is fresh and salty… you get the idea.
Sashimi tuna, tosa-zu sauce (Japanese-style vinegar), large flakes of fried garlic, sliced green onions and pickled seaweed came out next – firm and fresh fish (would have been nice to know the variety to appease / confirm our ethical-eating fears) with great Asian dressings and accompaniments.
One of the real highlights – a big melting heap of indulgence – was the fried haloumi with pear, candied walnuts, mizuna and sticky honey dressing. Eat it while it’s hot kids, this is gooey, tangy and dreamy.
Then the influences move to Eastern Europe and a Polish style apple-smoked csabai sausage with pickled cabbage, mustard and hot chilli.
The visual delight of the night award goes to the garden vegetables crudites, served in a plant pot filled with ‘edible’ soil – dehydrated olives and hazelnut meal. With a goats’ cheese mayo for dipping it was the most fun way of eating tasty, just-cooked seasonal produce we have ever encountered.
From the charcoal grill we opted for a smoky-sweet Moroccan-style dish – lamb shashlik with wholegrain freekeh, golden raisins, roasted almonds and red onions. Refined comfort food, could happily pass an evening eating this falling-apart meat with a spoon and a glass of pinot.
From the ‘main’ section – the most expensive of which was the slow-braised lamb shoulder with polenta, peas and basil at $35 – we ordered penne pasta in a zucchini cream with seasonal greens and pretty yellow zucchini flowers. A surprise option that was spring-fresh and healthy tasting, but with enough cream to make this substantial vegetarian dish feel like a real treat.
To finish it all off we had vanilla creme brulee and shortbread sable, and pavlova – which more resembled the Brit dessert Eton Mess with broken up shards of meringue (crunchy on the outside, sticky on the inside) and berries and fruit tumbled all over the place, the whole thing held together by smooth and not too sickly sweet vanilla chantilly.
No huge surprises on the beer list, but eight cocktails all priced at $18 and a good mix of wines means this place is also worth stopping by for a pre- or post-cinema drink. Although we really do urge you to linger a little longer and check out the menu.
Can’t sign off without a shout out to the staff – who were extremely welcoming and capable, and just like the cooking, exceeded all misguided preconceptions we might have had about this strangely overlooked CBD gem.
corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets
(03) 9663 9900