As usual, I turned up with one other in the bowels of the Bond Street basement location with no reservation and was happily escorted to a table. I quickly became accustomed to the beautiful smell of spice and was seated in the back dining room amongst the gentle purr of the other patrons.
Before ordering the six-course "Latifa" tasting menu with matching wines ($130 p/p) we tasted two iterations of Raki, which is a Turkish national drink - an unsweetened, anise-flavoured alcoholic delight. After adding some water and a cube of ice to dilute it, the taste reminded me of absinthe with a strong taste of licorice. Not to be confused with ouzo or sambuca, it was a nice way to set mood.
I didn't proclaim to be an aficianado in Middle Eastern-inspired cuisine and that did not surprise the very helpful and attentive floor staff. They were not only happy to explain and educate, which for us was a curiosity regarding the origins of the food and the inspiration behind Shane Delia's menu along with the resulting wine matches which I would ultimately find quite stimulating and intriguing.
Chicken kibbeh matched with a 2007 Marsovin (sparkling wine from Malta) made its appearance first and foremost and what an impression it made. Perhaps because I have visited too many "Modern Australian" and "Mexican-inspired" restaurants as of late but both the smell and texture of the chicken matched with a wine from a region that I had never drank from - ever - left me feeling like a randy teenager seeing his first "R" rated movie. If this was setting the tempo for what was to come, my expectations were effectively in the clouds.
My favourite dish came out next with a familiar wine, the 2011 Tamellini Soave Classico, Soave from Veneto DOC, Italy. It recently made its appearance when I had the Melbourne Onion Soup at Vue de Monde and thought that it paired nicely then and once again, it was a winning match at Maha with the prawn and octopus tagine. What a flavour explosion. Once again the smell and texture made me giddy and I intend on going on the hunt for Shane Delia's cookbook in the hope of being able to replicate this dish in some way at home. I know that I would not be able to do it justice, but the smell still haunts me and if I could make my residence smell like this dish for a few days, I would be in a perpetual state of bliss. The 2011 Tamellini has proven to be an easy drinking wine and flexible enough to effectively match with a variety of tastes.
The "boat smugglers stew" which consists of prawn, red mullet, pork belly, tamarind, saffron and tomato was another taste sensation and when matched with the simple 2010 Domain de Bieville chablis, I found it quite robust yet pleasant. It was obvious that the wine was taking a trip around the world showcasing not only the scope of the list but also demonstrating that many regional varietals pair well with food inspired from the Middle East. The stew, was a cornucopia of tastes and I found the combination of the mullet, belly and especially the tamarind to take centre stage. Yet another dish that I want to try to attempt at home, especially in the winter with the mighty Magpies on television on a Friday night.
Perhaps because my palate was overwhelmed by this time, but the next dish, the seven spiced angus short rib did not make the same impression on me that the previous offerings did. I was rather indifferent to this, most likely because the 2012 Eldridge Estate Gamay was big and earthy and the beetroot that was fused into the ribs just seemed to overwhelm the dish. I have 2012 Eldridge Estate Gamay in my personal cellar so it was good to see such good representation from Mornington Peninsula.
The 12 hour roasted Mt. Leura lamb shoulder was tender and easily was pulled apart. The green olive tabouleh was a great complement and this time a 2007 Colognole Chianti (district east of Florence) matched it but it did not do the lamb justice. In my humble opinion the wine was not bold enough (and actually is quite a cheap and cheerful wine) but I really did enjoy the dish.
Strangely the crescendo for this meal was achieved with the single dessert. A beetroot sponge and beetroot ganache with milk chocolate peppermint crisp ice cream all hidden inside a watermelon rosewater ice. Matched with an Israeli wine - the 2010 Yarden muscat from Galilee, the smell of citris combined with the easy drinking nature of this muscat made the ganache just awesome.
Maha turned out to be a great experience, not just highlighted by the plethora of new flavours and tastes, but it was also an adventure, which dining really should be. Every dish and wine match I was excited for which then encouraged conversation that had nothing to do with work or anything too serious which resulted in a relaxed experience. Throughout the journey, service remained very attentive and cheerful, happily refilling the unlimited supply of Aqua Penna water and were genuinely regaling with us in our brave new world with a certain sense of satisfaction.
When you finally decide to break away from the warm bosom of the restaurant and pay the bill, you are provided with some literature about the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation and if you are keen, you can doate $1 p/p to support this worthy foundation which invests in research and education programs to help food allergy sufferers. They also sponsor research to develop the world's first nut allergy vaccine.
Maha Restaurant received one chefs hat in the 2013 Age Good Food Guide.
Link to review
21 Bond St Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9629 5900
My Rating: 15.5/20
Value For Money: 4/5
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com
At the time of this post, 86% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also like Maha Restaurant.