6 Melbourne Place, Melbourne (map)
Open for dinner Monday-Saturday 5:30-10:30pm, lunch Thursday-Friday 12-3pm
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Melbourne doesn't get much exposure to Armenian cuisine. At Sezar, the Armenian restaurant that opened late last year, the front of house staff describe it as a blend of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine (if you'd like some geographic indicators, Armenia borders Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia). Judging from the menu, the food at Sezar skews more towards the Middle Eastern than the Med, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients rather than going overboard on spices. The menu also features lots of khorovadz - Armenian barbecue - dishes cooked on a custom charcoal pit.
Chef and co-owner Garen Maskal (head chef at The Black Toro in Glen Waverley and former sous at Ezard) has drawn on his Armenian heritage in adapting some of his grandmother's recipes for contemporary Melbourne diners, and he's installed fellow Ezard alum Franc Bakkes in the kitchen. The restaurant site (previously Saint Peter's Trattoria and the Canary Club) is tucked down an alleyway in which a street art mural of Haik Nahapet, warrior-founder of Armenia, points the way.
As is so often the way these days, the menu is split into small, large and side sharing dishes, with a $65 banquet option. My dinner date and I started with the substantial falafel with spanner crab, iceberg tabbouleh and a drizzle of tahini, served on a spongey Armenian flatbread ($17 for two). We highly recommend this dish.
We ordered a trio of khorovadz dishes to see what this charcoal pit could do: shiitake mushrooms with haloumi and onion on shashlik skewers with grape leaf wraps ($14 for two), lamb kebab with baby gem lettuce and a sour cherry sauce ($19 for two), and eggplant with buttermilk yoghurt, barberries and a fistful of fresh herbs including mint and parsley ($22). We loved the first two (especially with the accompanying grape leaf wraps and the sour cherry sauce) but felt let down by the rather bland eggplant, which needed a salty punch to balance out the buttermilk yoghurt.
Dessert was a pide (the Armenian version is bread-ier than your usual pide, and pre-baked then warmed rather than cooked to a crisp), covered with a terrific combination of Nutella ganache, hazelnuts, freeze dried berries, white chocolate jelly and fresh basil ($14).
The licensed restaurant has the advantage of being open on a Monday night, and on the Monday my date and I visited the joint was buzzing. We enjoyed Sezar's fresh take on Middle Eastern dining and I look forward to their upstairs cocktail bar opening in March.