Sezar – Dani Valent

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6 Melbourne Place, Melbourne, 9663 9882

My score: 4/5 

It’s got to be a good sign when everyone at my table downs cutlery and dips a finger in the sweet, tart pomegranate caramel that’s the too-delicious-to-leave remains of Sezar’s chicken wings. The dish says a lot about this unsung but fabulous laneway restaurant, open a year and hitting its stride after a mini-reno which means owner-chef Garen Maskel now has the welcoming, expansive, two-level premises to match his ambitions.

Sezar is nominally Armenian, that being the food of Maskel’s forebears, but like many diaspora cuisines the notion of Armenian food is slippery and it’s simplest to think of Sezar as influenced by the Middle East, eastern Europe and the fertile food culture of Melbourne. Back to the chicken: it’s a crunchy, juicy, vaguely Armenian version of the pork hock with chilli caramel that’s a signature at contemporary Asian restaurant Ezard. Maskel was Ezard’s sous chef and his light-hearted version of an iconic dish features the lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar that give the sticky, smoky sauce its character, along with rather more Armenian pomegranate molasses. You get the idea: the food is bigger on flavour than authenticity and that’s why we’re face down on the plate by the end of it.

I enjoyed everything and was still jealous of food on other tables. Soft lavash flatbread comes with roast pumpkin puree, heady with orange blossom water, rounded by cinnamon. A canapé of brioche, garlic jam, quail egg and bastourma (air-dried beef) is a cheffy version of a homely Maskel family fry-up. Crab manti (dumplings) are luxurious and silky. Barramundi with chopped prawns, spiced chickpeas and butter seems like a clever way of upcycling falafel. Reworked baklava is an icecream sandwich with obligatory salted caramel. The room is comfortable, the service upbeat and the food surprisingly wonderful. If you’re wondering where to book an end-of-year feast do consider Sezar.

See their website.

More laneways:

Monk Bodhi Dharma, rear 202 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, 9534 7250
Mostly gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free but delightfully caffeinated and happily buzzy, Monk is hidden behind a carpark down a bluestone laneway.

Rosa’s Kitchen, 22 Punch Lane, Melbourne, 9662 2883
Rosa Mitchell’s generous Sicilian approach to hospitality shines through in produce-inspired dishes like orecchiette pasta with cauliflower, saffron and anchovies. Ask about December’s feasting menus.

Nieuw Amsterdam, 106-112 Hardware Street, Melbourne, 9602 2111
If I think back to everywhere I’ve eaten this year, Nieuw Amsterdam stands out for its singular vision (classy-meets-crazy drinks, and American barbecue with a Melbourne twist) and inspired execution. Christmas party bookings open now.

First published in The Age, November 16, 2014.


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