We met up with Andrew’s parents for lunch today. They live in Glen Waverley, which is not terribly close to Coburg, and given Andrew’s current homework load, and my current tiredness load, I suggested meeting somewhere between the two suburbs to save everyone driving and cooking time. Ivanhoe looked like a good compromise location, so I went a-Googling and suggested Sabas.
I haven’t eaten Lebanese food in years. We used to go out for Lebanese reasonably often when I was little, but when we moved to Adelaide there was a distinct lack of Lebanese restaurants, so we’d go Greek instead. The part of Coburg I now live in is known as Little Turkey for its very large Turkish population and commensurate number of Turkish restaurants, and there’s a somewhat dodgy Greek place on our corner, but not a Lebanese restaurant in sight. So I was pretty excited at going back to my childhood in this way! And also at going to a new restaurant, something we don’t do very often.
Sabas is a family-run restaurant – mum and dad do the cooking, the sons do the serving, and the ambience is very friendly and cosy. It’s not a big restaurant – which is probably a good thing, as we were the only ones there when we arrived, and there was only one other table for lunch (though they were gearing up for a big First Communion party in the evening) – and it has been decorated in a very homely, comfortable sort of way. I liked the stained glass lanterns hanging from the ceilings, and the carpety-tapestry-pictures on the walls. And they had Lebanese music playing quietly in the background (which, I might add, is a huge difference from Turkish restaurants in our area, which invariably have the music turned up to ear-splitting levels). As soon as I walked in the door I was looking forward to coming back – it’s the sort of place where you know the food will be unassumingly good and the people friendly. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but I really, really liked how the place felt.
My mother in law had never eaten Lebanese food before, and was a bit worried about it, and about eating a big lunch, whereas I was determined that she had to try more than one item on the menu (you can’t just have a single main and not so much as some bread and dips when you go to a middle eastern restaurant, even if it is lunchtime!) so our poor waiter had to come back about five times before we were ready to order. Which meant that by the time we did order, we were practically friends and had been comparing notes on how our lemon trees were doing this year. Speaking of lemons, we started by ordering their homemade lemon drink, which is made from lemons from the tree out the back – actually, from our waiter’s brother-in-law’s tree, because their tree wasn’t bearing so well this year, but his brother-in-law, who lives practically next door, has a lot of lemons. The lemon drink had just a touch of orange flower water in it, which gave it this incredibly heady, perfumed taste, that somehow made it more lemony without quite being overpowering. I’ve made the Abla’s rosewater lemonade and liked it, but I think this was better (which is astonishing, because I am generally less fond of orange flower water).
Since I couldn’t persuade my mother-in-law to order an entree, Andrew and I ordered entrees, labneh for me and sambousik for Andrew, which of course we then had to share with Andrew’s parents! The labneh (a drained yoghurt dip) was very fresh and minty, and the pita bread was lovely, but the sambousik (filo pastry filled with feta, spring onions, mint and spices) was incredible – I think they must make their own filo pastry, because that definitely did not come from a packet, and I think they must have deep-fried it to make it crisp and bubbly. Lovely. The sambousek came in five two-bite portions, just right for sharing.
For a main, I had Djaj al Shish, which was grilled marinated chicken with rice and almonds and a green salad. The chicken was very good – tender and juicy and garlicky – but the rice was amazing – I think it had just a hint of cardamom in it to lift it, and it made me realise just how little subtlety I have with spices. Or anything, really. Incidentally, this is the thing that really distinguishes Lebanese from Turkish cooking, in my view – Lebanese cooking is subtler in its use of spices, and generally just a little less elaborate. A Turkish chicken shish would have had bolder flavours, more spices and almost certainly a garlicky yoghurt sauce across it, and the rice would have been plain. (Greek food, on the other hand, seems to go in the opposite direction, and is fresher and brighter in flavour than Lebanese food, with hardly any spices at all. There’s no room to hide poor ingredients in Greek cooking.)
For dessert, I ordered baklava, which I did not need, but Andrew’s mother had never had it, and I’m a terribly bossy daughter-in-law, so when my baklava arrived as three little fingers I did my level best to get her to eat one of them. She ate half of one, but decided it wasn’t really her thing. Their baklava was scented with rosewater, something I haven’t run across before. Incidentally, I’m finding that every single time I try baklava, it tastes completely different, and has a different texture, too – I don’t think any two cooks make it the same way. Mine tasted of honey and cloves and was quite sticky and chewy; the Bedouin lady‘s bakalava tasted of honey and was crisp and somehow melted in the mouth; this one had a texture closer to mine, and was sticky and roseish. The one at my local Turkish restaurant tastes of walnuts and I don’t care for it at all. Fascinating. I think I may have to do a Sydney Road Baklava Survey.
There is a lot to choose from on the menu for vegetarians. Most of the starters are vegetarian, and about eight are vegan (and not just dips and tabouli, either – there’s felafel, silverbeet rolls, mushrooms sautéed with pomegranate essence, and a broad bean salad), and I’d happily make an entire meal of starters. There are a couple of vegetarian mains (actually, from the descriptions, I’d say they were both vegan), and I think one of the daily specials was also vegetarian. Quite a bit is gluten-free, too – most of the mains are served with rice, and if you avoid the pastry and bread-based mezze, you still have a fair bit to choose from.
I’m getting hungry again just thinking about it all, actually.
Frankly, I can hardly wait to go back. I want to try their banquet, because that was a whole menu full of things I am just itching to taste. Also, I like what they have to say about it on their website:
“A banquet is the traditional way to enjoy our Middle Eastern Cuisine. We will serve a selection of entrees, main courses, desserts and coffee or tea. (Most of our customers find the banquet menu quite copious but if you still have room for more, we will be happy to provide extra dishes at no additional cost)”
It’s not that I imagine I would have room for more. It’s that they clearly understand about feeding people. That last paragraph is obviously restaurant-speak for “What if there isn’t enough food?”
I think I’ve found a whole restaurant of people who think just like me…