“I’m not sure Middle Eastern food should do the fine dining route,” is my paraphrasing of what a notable food journalist was saying to me recently over lunch in St Kilda. “It’s a peasant food and I think it tastes much better that way.”
I was sceptical, saying that I was a big fan of the food at Brunswick East’s funky and always-buzzing Rumi, not to mention the pan-Turkish delights at Sydney’s Ottoman. (Whether Turkish food qualifies as Middle Eastern is up for debate, but as it’s generally lumped into the current mod-Mid wave rampaging through Melbourne, I’m taking liberties.)
But after disappointing experiences at two of Melbourne’s hottest hospitality spots – Greg Malouf’s CBD Spice Market and Collingwood’s Gigibaba, I’m wondering whether I’d be better off sticking to the more traditional and always-pleasing establishments on Melbourne’s Sydney Road or Sydney’s Western Suburbs.
We had friends in from New York, who were looking for a special Melbourne experience, so I chose Spice Market having read so much about its luxe décor and ultra-expensive fit-out, not to mention it being the first part of triumphant return of Middle Eastern cooking great, Greg Malouf (the other is his new, adjoining Momo restaurant). And upon entering via its Beaney Lane entryway, Spice Market is indeed a fantastic space, with an army of Thai statues, decadent lounges, Moorish-curved passageway and more mood lighting than a Satanic ritual. The extravagance is more New York Meatpacking District supper club than bespoke Melbourne bar.
The room was busy but not busting, but even so all of the coveted couch outposts were taken or reserved. Fair enough, so I roamed the room until we finally found an intimate table in clear sight of the bar. We looked around for a waitress, and kept trying to catch the eye of one of the tall young blondes that languidly strolled around the room. All of them failed to look in our general direction, and there seemed to be more people welcoming guests at the entrance than there were on the floor, so I finally got up and hailed one of them with the desperation one gets while trying to find a CBD taxi at 3am on a Saturday.
We ordered our drinks and a host of mezze plates. The cocktails were interesting enough, mine nicely infused with star anise syrup, and all we needed was some food to soak up the alcohol. So we waited for our food, and waited, and waited, finally said something to the waitress, and then waited some more. We nearly decided to cancel our order, but we were starving, so we wait until it took a whopping hour and fifteen minutes to get our food. And it was cold. And we ate it because we were starving.
These things happen, but the obvious lack of training of the floor staff made it worse. They were unattentive, unkowledgeable about the food or drink, and walked the floor with the urgency of a surf lifesaver during ski season. We got a weak apology about crowds due to the Coldplay concert that night, but the bar was only at modest capacity. And when we finally complained to the manager, he merely asked us to point out the waitress at fault. But the kitchen was surely equally to blame, as was the person training the staff, and a decent host would have thrown in something to make up for the poor form – a complimentary drink, a couple of items off the bill, some incentive to return. And lastly, the food was simply good enough with little to thrill. So to make sure we ended the evening on a positive note, we left Spice Market and diverted to the always-rewarding Bar Lourinha for a token tapas, dessert and the terrific selection of wines by the glass.
I had a somewhat better food experience the week before at Gigibaba, the super-hyped mod-Turkish restaurant on Smith Street, but again the service was painful and the food merely good. The dishes certainly weren’t mind-blowing and a bit lacking in value. Our waiter acted like we were street beggars pleading for a bit of bread, which we did beg for and received in the form a two miserly thin slices with no thought of bringing more. And when one of us asked for water, we were given one glass, even though the other one clearly had nothing to drink. Our waiter seemed more interested in being discovered in his starring role by a casting agent, even going so far so as to do a little jiggy dance behind the bar as he shook some kind of concoction.
I didn’t take notes that night, so I can’t detail everything we had, but after all the buzz and even an apparent visit by Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain, I expected more. We left thoroughly impressed by the cool, quirky (and what seemed to be as inexpensive as it is impactful) design: from the thundershower of chord-hanging lightbulbs to the kitchen entryway cut out from a Turkish rug. But the food was just interesting, in the same way Chinese Opera is interesting – I can appreciate it, but I’m not sure how much I really dig it. The most memorable dish was a claypot of deconstructed moussaka, but the crunchy dryness of the dish had me pining for reconstruction.
Maybe I’m sounding a bit harsh here, and I’m admittedly intrigued enough by Gigibaba to try it again and check out other dishes. Spice Market I’ve got less time for. Why spend all that cold-hearted cash on the space and skimp out on service with rank amateurs is beyond me. These guys have to get their act together before I think about giving them any more of my hard-earned money. In the midst of a Global Financial Crisis, I’m going to put my personal stimulus package into the venues that deserve it the most.
Spice Market, Beaney Ln (near Russell St), Melbourne, (03) 9660 3777, http://www.spicemarket.net.au