Take a look at the diverse team behind Balagan Kitchen, a new Israeli and Middle Eastern restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of Windsor, and you’ll understand why they didn't take the traditional route.
Luca Lorusso has run Italian restaurant Cafe Latte for almost 30 years in Toorak. His son, Sacha Lorusso-Zyskind, grew up in Australia between two cultures. His dad is Italian and his mum is Jewish, Russian, Polish.
They've enlisted Iraqi-born head chef Akad Al-Guepa (Rockpool, Rosetta, Spice Temple), who has worked for Lorusso for several years. He spent most of his childhood in Lebanon before moving to Australia.
"What makes this place function well is that it's built on a family ethos."
"What makes this place function well is that it's built on a family ethos," says Lorusso-Zyskind. "Aside from the fact that my dad and I run the business together as father and son, I think everybody here brings the best out of each other."
Balagan started taking form after Lorusso came back from a trip to Israel. He had the cuisine: Israeli/Middle Eastern, the chef: Al-Guepa, and the name: Balagan, which means chaos in Yiddish and all that was left was the menu, and the doors to open.
Lorusso-Zyskind jokes that opening the restaurant earlier this year is one of the few times he and his dad have agreed on something: "It's very rare that my dad and I agree on something right away, but we did for Balagan. Usually, it needs a bit of arguing and fighting and tussling. We're both very passionate people."
A new twist on old favourites
The menu includes a few Middle Eastern classics, but most of them have been reimagined by Al-Guepa. Instead of an eggplant-based baba ganoush, you'll find 'mama ganoush' made with smoked zucchini, and ingredients like grilled corn and shanklish (a Middle Eastern cheese) find their way into the tabbouleh.
Al Guepa's falafel recipe is partly inspired by the flavours he grew up with. "In Israel, the falafels are bright green, but they don't have much spice. In Lebanon, it's the opposite; they put lots of dry spices, but not enough fresh herbs. I thought I'd just bring them together and do both; put lots of spices and fresh herbs," he explains.
The haloumi cigars shine with the addition of spinach and shanklish. "To make the shanklish, yoghurt is hung for about a month, seasoned with dry chilli and herbs, and turned into a ball. The salty and cured flavour is perfect in the mix for the cigars," says Al-Guepa.
While there are meat and fish dishes on the menu like beef brisket and snapper shakshuka, it's the colourful vegetable dishes that catch the eye. Think pumpkin with tahini and za'atar or baked cauliflower with labneh and pomegranate.
You can come to the Balagan Kitchen for a quick falafel or lamb shawarma pita, or stay for a multiple-course affair. If you pick the latter, make sure to end your meal with the halva semifreddo.
"We were thinking that we had to do something with halva, but in Australia people usually think it's too sweet, so I thought we could do an halva ice cream, like a semifreddo, with Persian fairy floss," says Al-Guepa.
"It's one of our best-selling dishes, not dessert – dishes – full stop," says Lorusso-Zyskind.
"What was exciting for us is that semifreddo is an Italian dessert. My dad and I have an Italian background and Akad cooked in predominantly Italian kitchens. Bringing that influence into a Middle Eastern restaurant is very different."
184 High St, Windsor
Tue-Sun 12 pm - 4 pm and 5:30 pm - 10:30 pm
These chewy halva-like cookies are truly the business. A taste of these will transport you to Turkey or Morocco or somewhere in the incredible Middle East. Make a double batch. You’ll thank me.
The addition of more herbs in this version gives it a vibrant green colour, as well as a grassier flavour and fragrance that works well with many dishes. The Chefs' Line
This simple eggplant appetiser is slightly smoky, chunky and perfect paired alongside hummus and pita bread.
This semifreddo is sublime. You must make it and you must try it. Tonight. Each bite – honeyed and sweet – reminds me of a honeycomb ice-cream my mother used to make when I was a child. When we lived in a sleepy town in Australia, a town called Broome. My recipe is cold like ice-cream, but softer in texture, like melted ice-cream. The salted almonds give it an irresistible crunch and the stem ginger a peppery kick. Part of what I love most about this recipe is that you don’t need an ice-cream machine.