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Windsor’s Middle Eastern credentials just got a serious upgrade
For all its Pan-Asian eateries, hip chicken joints and even a sandwich shop moonlighting as a tiki bar, Windsor has been bereft of Middle Eastern options. Enter Shukah, the latest venture from Garen Maskal (of Ezard pedigree). The name translates as ‘marketplace’ in Armenian, and the establishment is a lighter, brighter, more playful sibling of Maskal’s CBD restaurant Sezar. The menus of both pay homage to the owner’s Armenian heritage, but while Sezar is all about an intimate dining experience, at Shukah, it’s about having fun. Spice jars rub shoulders with wine bottles on the bar, and there are bursts of floral stencil art and neon lights on the walls, set to a soundtrack of blaring neo-soul. Imagine a night bazaar without the frenzy. As for the food, Shukah isn’t wedded to tradition – it’s definitely Middle Eastern food by way of Melbourne.
To start, order the hummus. Boring, you say? Not a chance. It arrives immersed in brown butter, accompanied by a giant fire-baked lavash. Bread is king in Middle Eastern cuisine and this one hits the mark: it’s just the right kind of greasy, with a healthy sprinkling of za’atar providing that body-tingling zing. Or begin with a meze selection, a kaleidoscopic display of beetroot smashed and mixed with tahini; cherry tomatoes enlivened with sheep’s milk string cheese; and silky, oily grilled eggplant to be mopped up with lavash.
The seared octopus comes on a bed of labne with a pistachio and olive salsa, an irresistible mixture of creamy, nutty and sour – this is as hearty as seafood mezes come. For something lighter, try the kingfish sashimi, dressed with cucumber and red caviar, and tasting of summer by the Black Sea. Shukah’s kofte are a version of the Middle East’s beloved dolma (stuffed vegetables) with two grilled beef meatballs cooked in vine leaves and served with a parsley and radish salad. The meat is lean and tender with a fragrant charred flavour, and the veg parts of the dish add tang.
Make some room by slamming down a glass or two of arak, the anise-flavoured Levantine digestive, and then dive into the larger plates. Half a succulent barbecue chicken arrives atop a lavash smeared with green harissa and tahini, a dream condiment duo of smoky and spicy. The pickled onion garnish provides salty zest and when you wrap everything up together, it feels like a comforting Sunday dinner with a Middle Eastern accent. The persimmon amba (chutney) adds sweet, gooey richness to the fillet of roasted barramundi paired with crunchy green pea tabouleh – the fish’s skin is charred to perfection in a Mibrasa charcoal oven imported all the way from Spain.
Shukah’s casual attitude means you can stop on your way to the cinema for a few mezes or feast late into the night. It’s not a cheap eat but it is a great date option. Get conversation flowing with Middle Eastern wines like a peppery Syrah from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco by the glass, or there’s an Armenian Zorah 'Karasi' Areni Noir by the bottle, which is a dry, medium-bodied, lingering red made using one of the oldest grape varieties in the world.
To finish, you have two choices: the calorific baklava sundae or the lighter poached quince. In the latter, Maskal uses brown butter, labne and dill to lift what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill stewed fruit dessert to a worthy finale.
On the front page of the menu, an Armenian proverb greets us: “A mouthful more does not pierce the belly.” Clearly these guys haven’t seen The Meaning of Life, but if we’re going out like Mr Creosote, this is the place to do it.
104 Chapel St
|Opening hours:||Tue-Thu 5.30pm-late; Fri-Sun noon– 3pm, 5.30pm-late|