The idea of a rustic, homely, Middle Eastern feast appealed to us and the fact that Abla's has been around for as long as I have means it is the Melbourne place to go to for just that!
Abla's is the 33 year old baby of Abla Amad and was always intended to be a simple but homely place for traditional family style Lebanese cuisine.
So this rainy Friday evening Steve and I headed to Carlton for a second sitting dinner. The place was very busy and no table was left empty. There was a buzz in the air as people came together to eat, drink and enjoy each other's company. There were large tables and families and couples - a real mix. We were shown up the rickety narrow staircase to the second floor where we sat at a table in the middle of the dining room.
We'd always intended to feast so it didn't take us long to decide on the banquet and we'd brought a couple of bottles of wine with us to wash it all down.
We started with some delicious flatbread which was warm and doughy and three dips:
Labnee - homemade naturally thickened yoghurt
Hummous bi Tahini - chickpeas blended with tahini, garlic and lemon juice
Baba Ghannooj - smoky eggplant blended with tahini, garlic and lemon juice
My favourite was the eggplant which was smoky and rich with a sweet aftertaste and Steve enjoyed the hummous. The labnee was creamy with a sharp tang and although cleansing didn't have the flavour of the other dips.
Makaneek - grilled homemade spiced lamb and beef sausages. These were flavoursome and meaty.
Ladies' Fingers - filo pastry cigars filled with minced lamb, pine nuts and spices. Pretty yummy with a sweet flavour which contrasted with the other dishes.
Silverbeet Rolls - silverbeet leaves stuffed with rice, chickpeas, tomato, herbs and spices. Sharper in flavour and again tasty.
Loubyeh - green beans cooked in a tangy tomato sauce. These were the best! So simple but the beans must have been braised in stock as they had a real deep savoury flavour and the tomato sauce was sweet and yummy.
Kibbee - casing of minced lamb and cracked wheat stuffed with spiced meat and pine nuts and served with labna. These were quite dry and were made better with a dollop of the leftover yoghurt dip we had. The minced lamb casing didn't really taste of much and the filling similar to the stuff in the ladies' fingers. The whole thing just didn't come together as well as some of the other dishes.
Falafel - patties of chick pea, broad bean, parsley, coriander and spices served with tahini tarator. Good falafel, soft and moreish with a great balance of spices.
Chicken Wings - tender chicken wings baked with garlic and lemon juice. These were very tender and the meat fell off the bone. I'm a great chicken wing fan but I think they're better roasted or fried rather than baked and braised like this. Although tender the meat was a bit dry.
Tabbouleh - Lebanese salad of parsley, tomato, mint, spring onion and cracked wheat. I'm not a huge fan of parsley or mint so have never been a great tabbouleh eater. I prefer a cracked wheat or bulger / couscous salad.
Lahem Mishwee - pieces of lamb fillet, marinated and grilled. Admittedly the lamb wasn't premium tender backstrap but it was pleasant enough. There was not gristle nor was it too tough. Nicely flavoured and we enjoyed it.
Chicken and Rice - exquisitely flavoured rice pilaff with minced lamb, chicken and almonds. This was a lovely dish with chicken breast meat and a slightly sweet rice mixture. The rice was moist and almost sticky.
Steve enjoyed the baklawa and Turkish Delight. I'm not a fan of either and was too full to enjoy anyway.
Overall we enjoyed our meal. As I've mentioned previously we're not huge Middle Eastern cuisine fans so some of the dishes don't suit our palettes. I've never liked tabbouleh or Turkish Delight and I don't think it makes a difference whether it's made by a home cook like Abla or a Middle Easter expert and executive chef like Greg Malouf; it's just not my thing. Having said that there was a lot about this meal I did enjoy and I also really liked trying new things.
Service was efficent and prompt if not the friendliest and we enjoyed the busy ambience. This restaurant is full of character and we appreciated Abla's little visit to our table!