When we first walked through glass doors at Aalia over a year ago something changed. Our fine dining experiences in Sydney were about to be ruined forever. That’s the thing about greatness, as Sinead O’Connor sang, ‘Nothing Compares to you’…
I remember the moment we first met, Waraq Simsim (not a man) but a single glossy perilla leaf which is host to a nigiri-style oblong of cumin-flavored aged rice, topped with an indulgence of sea urchin. Fold the sides in, burrito style and roll up. Waraq is still here, now it’s my second date and its still mind blowingly great.
Great restaurants and chefs constantly evolve and you can’t narrow executive chef Paul Farag’s creativity to simply Levantine and Middle Eastern favours. His Egyptian heritage underpins the attitude to push the boundaries further, as he invites new chef icons to join him in a series of kitchen takeovers.
The final one will be with Alan Geeam, the only Lebanese chef to earn a Michelin star in Paris. Alan is renowned for his Lebanese heritage dishes in a sophisticated French style. The collaboration marks the bittersweet farewell of AALIA’s 2023 Chef Series taking place over two nights, Tuesday 24th and Wednesday 25th of October.
If you haven’t yet been to what I consider Sydney’s best restaurant right now. Do yourself a favour and book. The interior is crafted by the talented Matt Darwon, known for his work at Automata, Toko, and Pony, is nothing short of breathtaking.
We take our seats and are dining beneath a polished tree canopy. Hundreds of steamed, forged, rounded strands of wood reach from the ground to the ceiling, creating an urban forest-like atmosphere that complements the restaurant’s artistry. Our menus arrive and it’s a journey through raw, mezze, seafood, meat, and sides, promising an adventure that transcends traditional dining boundaries.
We start with Eggplant mes ‘a’ aha, spiced tomato and Persion puffy bread (more on that in a second). This is the godfather of eggplants dips. It’s salted, washed, fried then mixed and laid to rest with an hour long reduced sundried tomato pulp and touch of allspice. My dining partner doesn’t like eggplant, so it’s rather annoying that after deflating the hot buttery bread he’s going in again in an inappropriate and slightly crazed way. It’s like a threesome where I am pushed to one side like chopped liver.
I know everyone marvels at Totti’s bread. Mweh! It’s totally outclassed by this orb of salted, golden, and glossy-ness. Slice it open, or if you dare rip with bare hands. It’s steamy inner glory reveals stretchy, chewy, steamy strands of dough, delivering a perfect balance of flavour, texture, and fun. We order one more.
“Is Eleanor still here?”, ‘Oh yes, I will bring her over”. She appears moments later – bubbly, fun she is the genie of all som’s. It’s not just her extensive knowledge and captivating storytelling which sets her apart but her refreshingly unpretentious approach. After an Almaza Lebanese Pilsner, we skip a tempting House of Arras Brut and are steared to something not quite as funky as natural wine and more challenging than a Chardonnay – It’s a half bottle of The Other Wine Co. Savagnin, a grape typically found in the Jura region of France. I am trying to work out if i like it. Creamy, oily viscosity, nutty cornflakes and peaches? Kinda weird but kinda great considering we are chatting about all the places it is taking us.
The mezze party continues with thinly sliced cuttlefish resembling spaghetti twinned with mak huriyya couscous pairs perfectly with a classic blend of finely chopped carrots, harissa, and herbs. The stretched halloumi, is juicy but its the golden skewered king prawns, cooked over Iron bark wood sustainably sourced from the Blue Mountains over a charcoal grill which wins our hearts. The prawn is brushed with a buttery glaze, lanced with an ornate golden skewer. The flesh is sweet and slightly sour from the tamarid but ahoy! Grab one of the heads and squeeze them (or suck them) and juicy tarama adds theatre and dining participation to what is the perfect fork full.
Mains arrive next. The Masgouf, Iraq’s national dish, is reimagined with Murray cod, bathed in a rich apple jus with leek and saffron vinegar. It’s a majestic dish with pearly white flesh and crispy crackling skin. The aged duck fesenjan is slow-roasted and served in a sumptuous walnut and spice sauce, complemented by burnt cabbage with toum butter and heirloom carrots.
It’s a treat revisit ahead of the next dinner series (keep your eyes peeled on their website). Aalia transcends the ordinary, it’s a truly magical dining experience where every element, human, design, service, sustainability, originality and care is executed with precision. It’s more than a restaurant. It’s the memory which will haunt you till you go back again (and again).