Have you ever eaten cured ocean trout? Ever taken the soft, springy flesh in your mouth and really savoured the lightness and freshness of the flavour? Now imagine that with the crunch of shaved fennel, lashings of house made almond cream and a sprinkling of sumac. Salivating yet? This week my foodie friend and I visited Sezar, one of Melbourne’s newest eating establishments. Making its home in the old Canary Club (remember the bar with the beds up top?), Sezar is the only restaurant serving up Armenian fare in this city. I have zero experience when it comes to Armenian cuisine. Ask me to describe an authentic Armenian meal and I would have to introduce you to my good friend Google. It’s a virtual unknown and was the perfect excuse to indulge in an eight course food frenzy – all in the name of research.
The banquet or ‘food party’ is a leap of culinary faith. With no menu and absolutely no diner choice you place your evening into the chef’s capable hands. Our feasting began with two plump Hervey Bay scallops perched on a bed of cauliflower puree and finished off with the citrusy middle eastern spice, zaatar.
The scallops were luxury on a plate. Tender and sweet, they had that perfect flavour and springiness you get from quality scallops that are cooked well. The hit of creaminess from the cauliflower was nice enough but it was the brilliance of the produce, the added glug of oil and the zing of the zaatar at the end that really kicked it up a notch. A promising start.
I have enjoyed the classic middle eastern dish borek many times before (check out my review of Rumi). Sezar’s Armenian version (or boreg) is a flakey, buttery filo pastry filled with spinach and fetta cheese and served with an Aleppo mayonnaise. Golden and crisp, the boreg were little fingers of heaven. The classic spinach and fetta filling was thick and luscious with so much spinach it almost tasted healthy (almost). The creaminess of the fetta was a beautiful balance to the crunchy, buttery pastry.
Next up was a plate of cured ocean trout with house made almond cream, curls of crunchy fennel and a good dash of sumac. One mouthful and we were beside ourselves. The fantastically crisp fennel with that strong aniseed flavour worked perfectly coupled with the luxurious cured fish and a slick of that gorgeous almond cream. We were told that the trout is cured in salt, cardamom, cumin and black sesame for four hours. Cure the fish for any longer and the spices become bitter. Our trout was beautifully soft and plump with no sign of bitterness or overwhelming salt. It was a truly magnificent dish. I could eat that trout all day, every day, for pretty much the rest of my life.
The skewered options were good but not the peak of our Armenian affair. The lamb kebab had a nice punch of spice but I thought the meat was a little dry, even with a smear of the super sweet cherry sauce. The BBQ shiitake mushrooms were better. Skewered with slices of red onion and balanced with huge chunks of super salty haloumi they so were fat and meaty I forgot I was eating vegetables.
My dinner partner was super excited by Sezar’s choice of mains. The plate of braised beef cheek was superbly cooked with the beef almost melt in the mouth tender. It was served in a light tomato sauce which was a little plain for my taste. After all the spice and excitement of the earlier dishes I was prepared to be knocked off my feet and this dish fell a little short for me – but my dining partner loved it.
I was surprised when we were presented with not one but two gorgeous desserts. First up was the deconstructed baklava, a delectable sandwich of filo pastry, hazelnut, ice cream and a salted caramel sauce.
This dessert was divine. The immediate smack of sweet, salt and sticky almost had us falling off our chairs in ecstasy. The filo was so flakey, so buttery, it was perhaps the most intensely satisfying pastry to ever cross my lips. My friend, a crazy dessert lady, closed her eyes and raised her head to the Gods at first bite – it was emotional. To be straight, it wasn’t baklava, I don’t even think it was deconstructed baklava, but my God whatever it was I need more and I need it now.
Lastly we hit the vanilla parfait. A feast for the eyes, the parfait comes covered in crunchy pistachio and dressed up with a sprinkling of colourful edible flowers. It was definitely the prettiest plate of the night. The addition of the fragrant rosewater, which was thick, almost like syrupy, gave the dish a middle eastern flair and took me back to evenings at Abla’s nibbling on Turkish delight and sipping peppermint tea. We had to use it sparingly so as not to overpower the wonderful creaminess of the dessert.
Our night was a mix of intense highs and a couple of less impressive moments but overall Sezar was fantastic. Am I any closer to understanding authentic Armenian cuisine? I’m not sure. It seemed like we were enjoying modern dishes with a middle eastern influence rather than an Armenian grandmother’s home cooking. But I don’t think that’s what this restaurant is about. The food was great, the fit-out was modern and there were some interesting twists on the menu. I will be back to try some of the other dishes, and of course to get me some more of that cured ocean trout.