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The grand dame of Lebanese dining proves once again that home cooking is hard to beat
When young Abla Amad came to Melbourne in 1954 she brought the love of cooking developed while watching her mother in their north Lebanese village. Later, she sharpened her culinary skills with the Lebanese women who would meet in each other’s kitchens to exchange recipes. Abla loved feeding people so much that meal-making for her family turned into hosting Sunday feasts for the community – and then came the restaurant.
Abla’s opened in 1979 in the same location it’s in today and upon entry you experience a pleasant time warp. The décor – white tablecloths, simple chairs and extravagantly framed paintings – hasn’t changed much since those early days, and the hospitality is instant: a warm welcome, olives and pita crisps already on your table, your wine whisked away for uncorking (it’s BYO for $10).
This is one of those places where it's worth considering the banquet. In the first event, charry baba ghanoush jostles for attention with creamy yet firm labne and chunky hummus. Next up, ladies’ fingers are so fine and buttery that the filo pastry barely contains the pine nuts and minced lamb spiked with cumin, allspice and sumac – you won’t be able to stop licking your fingers. The baked chicken wings in garlic and lemon are fall-off-the-bone tender, and in these days of 1,001 spices, such a simple dish is refreshing.
Abla does two versions of the Middle East’s beloved stuffed vegetables: one with silverbeet, the other with cabbage. Don’t leave without trying the former (it's not part of the banquet but consider tacking it on), which deserves a spot in the ‘Melbourne’s best dishes’ hall of fame: bittersweet silverbeet leaves hug rice and chickpeas flavoured with onion, tomato, baharat, parsley, mint, and lots of lemon for a sour bang.
From here the banquet progresses into mains: kibbe, lamb skewers and Abla’s signature pillaf, which is a majestic dome of rice flecked with minced spiced lamb and topped with cinnamon-pepped chicken and slivers of toasted almonds and pine nuts.
Freshen up with tabouleh that’s heavy on herbs and light on cracked wheat before the sweets arrive. Cashews and pistachio are abundant in the chewy, sticky baklava, and they keep a tight rein on the sugar in the almond-flavoured Turkish delight.
It’s easy to see why this has been a Carlton institution for 40 years. There’s no pomp or pretence here – it's so authentic it should come with a certificate. Sneak a peek at the kitchen on your way past, where Abla’s army of women are busy talking and laughing as they bake, baste and grill while the now 82-year-old Abla still oversees proceedings. Places like Abla’s are not just about a good feed. They are part of the fabric of our city, and in these days of hyped new openings it's important to celebrate this rare breed of restaurant.
109 Elgin St
|Opening hours:||Mon–Wed 6–10pm; Thu, Fri noon–3pm, 6–10pm; Sat 6–10pm|