29 March, 2009


102 High St Northcote; (03) 9482 1168

When I mentioned to a couple of Westgarthians that I'd been to 'that new Turkish place' on High St, their responses seemed strangely understated. That may have been because my description of Najla was a little skewed by the wine I'd been drinking across the road at Bar Nancy (Crittenden Pinot Gris - lovely to see by the glass). Najla has in fact been on High St for about four years, and before that had a ten-year stint on Brunswick St. Its cuisine has been described as Moroccan, Lebanese and East Mediterranean, and it's now most firmly rooted as Syrian, since a stint on SBS' Food Safari.

In that excerpt, chef Najla Atmaja prepares Syrian national dish kibbeh, based on bulghur wheat and finely ground lamb mince, served in multitudinous ways. The Najla menu features several similar highlights from Atmaja's native cuisine.

The menu breaks down into dips and bread, mezze, entrees and mains (most also available in an entree size). Some prices might look like a bit much individually, but I think there's enough choice there to order astutely. Remember, too, that this is a cuisine big on protein and carb - beans, rice, cous cous etc - so you'll fill up.

Ful medames was a non-negotiable choice, a north-African dish eaten by riders at dawn to sustain them through a day in the desert. In our case we only required enough sustenance to carry us through another drink at the bar, so we were there for the flavours more than the fillingness!

Traditionally, dried fava (broad) beans are cooked slowly and then set awash in a mix of lemon juice, olive oil and cumin. Broad beans are, of course, a particular favourite of mine, but ful is traditionally made with dried beans. The result is a nuttier flavour. Using the fresh variety would produce something more in line with a risi e bisi, since they wouldn't hold their shape during the long cooking time. At Najla, the ful also includes tomato, radish, spring onion and a yoghurt dressing. Pita bread soaks up the liquid and cups the beans, soft but still holding their shape. Restorative food indeed.

A similar mix of beans and liquid - this time wonderfully pliant chickpeas in a lemon-yoghurt sauce - was the highlight dish of the evening.
Less of a standout was the babaganoush - although rich and creamy it was altogether too smoky. I know that when cooked authentically it should retain that charred flavour - when making baba I cook each eggplant for 10 minutes over the open flame on a gas stove - but in this case the smokiness was too dominant.

The only main we tried was lamb kebabs. Three skewers of sumptiously spiced meat atop a pilaf style rice with almonds, and a dipping sauce topped with pomegranate seeds. At around $25, this was perhaps a little pricey. It is available in an entree size, however, and one skewer less would be sufficient after you've worked your way through a dip or two, bread and some mezze.

Pomegranate features strongly on the menu, either with its seeds scatted jewel-like over dishes, or with the wonderful sweet tang of pomegranate molasses enriching marinades and dips.

Almost as jewel-like in colour was the mint cordial with mineral water I chose as beverage: Very mentholly, but far less irradiating on the palate than it looks!

Credit to the kitchen and floor staff on this occasion too, for taking in three hungry wanderers at 10pm and feeding them promptly and cheerily.

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