COlunching. Feed your network, says the website. Have you ever heard of COlunching or COdining before? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago. The concept started in France a couple of years ago, by word of mouth on Facebook. Lunches are organised on the internet via the COlunch website and like-minded strangers gather together to break bread and connect over food. It’s also an interesting way to meet online friends or acquaintances (if you have a desire to connect in person), in a group environment where you get to dine at a restaurant you otherwise may not have visited. In my case I’d always wanted to visit the COlunching restaurant in question, so it didn’t take much consideration before I signed up to be one of fourteen diners originally sought for lunch with Shane Delia of Maha.
One of my Facebook and ‘real life’ friends had registered for the same COlunch I was attending but had to pull out at the last minute because of illness. We hadn’t signed up together, so I’d initially made peace with the idea of experiencing COlunching alone. Then admittedly I felt a sense of relief when my friend said “I’m up for it” and registered too. That quickly reverted back to “Uh-Oh, I’m really doing this alone aren’t I”? (…when she fell sick). Just the thought of showing up at a restaurant, where people who don’t know me are expecting me. It was kind of crazy.
Wednesday, June 6th, I caught a train and a tram to Maha (Bar and Grill) and arrived too early rather than too late. Something that never happens in my day-to-day life. I’d seen executive chef Shane Delia in person before at various food festivals but we’d never actually met. I’d eaten Shane’s food before too, but had never actually been to his restaurant. I ate lamb ribs and Turkish delight-filled doughnuts at Taste of Melbourne 2009 which were the best dishes for me on the day. The Maha/Press Club/Hellenic Republic stall was the most popular on the day. No-one else in the building needed a ticketing system for food orders. I still wish I’d tried the souvlaki with lamb and chips.
Before that COlunching Wednesday, the last time I’d ’seen’ Shane Delia was on channel ten’s ‘Ready Steady Cook’ where he’s a regular celebrity chef. A very down to earth guy. And as George Calombaris writes in the foreword of ”Maha”, Shane’s cookbook, “ …there is one thing you must understand about Shane: he tells it like it is and wears his heart on his sleeve. In a world that makes furniture polish with fresh lemons, and lemonade with artificial lemon extracts, Shane keeps it simple and real, and I love him for it”.As I entered Maha from the street, thoughts of Turkish coffee and smoking pipes enveloped me, deliberately delivered by the belly dancing music (thankfully with no shrieking I-Dream-of Jeannie dancers.. I’ve heard they can be ear-piercingly noisy). I wasn’t near any tables yet but I loved that the atmosphere was being set even before descending the stairs towards soft-glowing light and the real restaurant door.I’ve changed my cooking/baking music on the righthand sidebar of my blog to reflect my recent ‘Middle Eastern’ gastronomic experience. Maybe you might play it as you read this post so you know what I was hearing while experiencing my very first COlunch?
I had a choice of grabbing a coffee somewhere else before heading over to Maha OR arriving early and being bold enough to ask “Can I just have a coffee while I wait”? I wasn’t sure if this was an option, but the “yes, yes” I received actually implied ”Of course, we’d be insulted if you didn’t”.
I’m not normally a meringue person.. even a teeny-tiny meringue, but I ate this little surprise resting on my teaspoon and I imagine it was like putting those sounds-of-the-sea headphones on at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England. Seagull squawks and the ocean-lapping-the-shore sounds as you eat seafood. That mini-meringue, almost like a Middle Eastern Tic Tac, further transported me to smoking-pipe and Turkish-coffee-land with it’s subtle rosewater hit. No-one troubled me for money either, so I asked about paying and the staff had already planned to add it to my total bill at the end of lunch.
The dining room and bar area were beautifully decorated with mood lighting and colourful glassware. The captivating colours are a main feature throughout the restaurant.
Shane was seated to my right and ABC Radio National’s Michael Mackenzie (sitting in my chair in the above photo) was on my left. Shane spread himself around though, read: “limped” because of his broken leg. After initial ‘drinks’ and first course chatter he moved himself to the other end of the table to share the final two courses with the rest of the table. Bottled still and sparkling water were free-flowing throughout the event.
Once Shane had moved, I really only had the two diners sitting directly in front of me to chat to because the ABC journalist also mingled for the purposes of grabbing some COlunching interviews. The two girls in front of me were foodies, best friends and newlyweds.
A few diners asked Shane about his famous doughnuts. Most of us there on the day had made them but with varying success. Shane’s ever-efficient staff brought out some doughnut batter within the blink of an eye so he could demonstrate his technique for squeezing out each individual doughnut (golf-ball shape & size).
We all shared plates and enjoyed delights such as perfectly cooked swordfish, slow roasted lamb, Turkish potato salad and the salad above being ’fattoush’ which had its own kind of croutons being fried pita bread. Full of flavour. I could have eaten ten pieces. The cigar-like dish you see in the above photo was not a share-dish but a seafood replacement for a diner that didn’t eat seafood.
The slow cooked lamb by the way.. barely needed teasing with any utensil, it just fell off the bone which was clean, clean, clean. Sweet with Middle-Eastern spices, it was gorgeous.
Again, that pita bread in the fattoush salad (almost resting on the lamb) was divine. I would have preferred sweeter, riper tomatoes but it isn’t exactly the season for them.
Interesting toothpick dispensers. Press down and another one comes up.
From back to front we have the famous doughnuts with rosewater honey. I’d take a salad-bowl full of those thanks. Little shot glasses of pannacotta with a broken baklava topping. And then we have some iced desserts.. chocolate and ? (I forget) icecream on top of rice pudding, kind of done creme-brulee style. The pudding wasn’t sweet enough for me. The pannacotta was brilliant but seeing I can’t eat full fat dairy desserts, I forced myself to stop half way. Naughty me for even trying it. The doughnuts reigned supreme.
Because of the amount of ‘mood lighting’ it wasn’t easy to take photo’s, but I appreciated the ambience it created. The glassware above was beautiful but the photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s what you see as you head to the bathrooms.
The COlunching Soufra menu at Maha, three courses was $40 plus any drinks purchased on the day. I had a mocha which was $5. Shane’s signed cookbooks are available for purchase at the restaurant for $50 a pop. Any dietary requirements? Not a problem, the staff were only too happy to relay your requests to the very obliging kitchen. It was an interesting experience and most definitely fun meeting Shane Delia himself. I’m glad I went and I will probably COlunch again one day. I’d love to take my family to Maha for them to experience the atmosphere, food and service for themselves. Probably the best service I’ve had in any Melbourne restaurant.
(Above) That’s my head on the right, both Shane and I are listening to a fellow diner talk about how she received her place at lunch as a birthday present. Shane signed a copy of his cookbook for her.
Maha Bar & Grill, 21 Bond Street, Melbourne. 03 9629 5900.