Aalia, the group’s new CBD restaurant behind Nour and Henrietta, dives deep into Middle Eastern flavors

For a city with such a large Middle Eastern population, there are only a handful of Middle Eastern restaurants in Sydney – most are still found in the western suburbs. So when the group behind Nour, Henrietta and Lilymu were approached by Dexus, the real estate group that owns and operates Harry Seidler’s iconic MLC center, they decided to open a new Middle Eastern restaurant as part of the $170 million transformation of the building.

What they came up with was Aalia (“highlight” in Arabic), a restaurant that showcases techniques, ingredients and dishes from lesser-known parts of the Middle East and North Africa, including Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and the Emirates. At the helm, chef Paul Farag (head chef at Nour, ex-Poissonnage and Monopole), who unearthed some of the dishes by studying cookbooks dating from the 10th century.

“We thought it was about time someone brought and showcased Middle Eastern food to the city in an exciting way,” says co-founder Ibby Moubadder. “When everyone thinks of Middle Eastern food, they think of tabbouleh, falafel, meat skewers, hummus and baba ganoush, but Middle Eastern food is so much more than that… So Paul Farag, who is of Egyptian descent, thought if we want to do this then we want to push the boundaries and do something that’s never been done before – not just in Sydney, but anywhere.

Take, for example, masgouf which is considered the national dish of Iraq. As a rule, the dish is cooked using a freshwater fish (with scales) on a charcoal grill. At Aalia, the fish of choice is a Murray cod, which is cooked with the scales to “respect tradition”, before being glazed with garlic, turmeric, tamarind and apple and pineapple juice to create a sweet and sour flavor.

Foie gras served with pickled grapes and fava beans is another dish on the menu, which Moubadder says has been discovered to have Middle Eastern origins. “When we think foie gras, we think French. But if you read the cookbooks, it is actually mentioned that foie gras originated from the Nile in Egypt.

The kitchen has also recreated a popular 10th century Iraqi condiment called murri which is traditionally made from fermented barley using anchovy molasses served with raw tuna.

A sophisticated cocktail list uses ingredients from the kitchen such as halva, turmeric, and tamarind to complement restaurant dishes. There are also wines from Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco, as well as a bunch of Australian female wine producers, including Petaluma and Bellwether from South Australia and Dormilona from Western Australia.

Like its menu, the layout is deliberately different from any other restaurant in the Middle East. Instead, designer Matt Darwon (Automata) created the 150-seat venue in a way that perfectly mimics the architecture of Seidler’s iconic “mushroom” building, which the restaurant overlooks. This was created with a curvaceous wooden ceiling and bar and using the same gray concave concrete pattern for the kitchen walls.

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