Arman Uz was 20 years old when he tasted his first McDonald's burger. Rather, the head chef of Sydney's new Middle Eastern behemoth, Babylon, grew up eating "fast foods" like lahm bi ajin, a Syrian lamb pizza, or hummus from street vendors.
Raised in Tarsus, a southern city in Turkey that straddles the Syrian border and Mediterranean Sea, Uz was introduced to Syrian, Mediterranean and Turkish flavours early. He's based Babylon's Levantine-leaning menu on these hearty, spice-showered memories.
"My father always said there are two type of people in the world: some eat to live, some live to eat," Uz tells SBS Food. "We are the second kind – food was always the centre of my family."
Uz moved to the Turkish tourist town of Cappadocia when he was 16, which is where he formally learned to cook. In 2004, he headed to Australia, settling on the south coast of NSW where he ran Kiama's waterfront hotspot, Cargo's Wharf Restaurant. Two years later, he uprooted to Sydney to help Somer Sivrioglu launch his touted Turkish diner, Efendy.
"My father always said there are two type of people in the world: some eat to live, some live to eat."
Fast-forward to 2019 and Uz is charged with running the 800-seat Babylon on the rooftop of Westfield Sydney. Sprawled over 1,200 square metres, it's an eyesore for aesthetes up here. Italian beige travertine archways, Herringbone parquetry, Orazia gold marble-topped tables and a tailormade Ege carpet are just some of the features brought in to transport diners to the ancient metropolis.
Out on the terrace, a trail of vertical plants pays homage to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The bar is a focal point of the venue, occupying two-thirds of the space. Drinks are by David Nutting of Restaurant Hubert and Eau de Vie, who offers all the favourite cocktails, some with a Middle Eastern spin thanks to ingredients like pomegranate and a baklava caramel syrup. There's also more than 250 whiskeys and a 400-strong wine list.
Uz's bar menu is no ho-hum snack list – it might just be the star of the Babylon show. Dolmas are swollen with Port Lincoln sardines, black garlic, and salmon roe. Pide is stuffed with house-made sucuk, kasari cheese and roasted peppers. An Adana kebab is equal parts sizzle and scorch thanks to a three-metre Mangal grill, which is used alongside three rotisseries to cook most things. There's even a dedicated gozleme menu.
Things get a bit fancier at the more substantial end of the menu, which is split into flora, fauna and ocean. Sure, there's borek filled with homemade basturma, veggies and mozzarella but there's also a dolled-up version of the 15th-century dish cilbir, where a dukkah-crumbed duck egg arrives on garlic yoghurt under a deluge of chilli butter.
Hummus comes studded with wattleseed dukkah and leblebija (chickpeas) with a puddle of olive oil, and there’s a take on Turkish wedding soup with a two-hour braised lamb neck with manti (lamb dumplings), yoghurt, mint and chilli butter again.
For dessert, go the house-made baklavas with kadaifi and a not-too-sweet Arabic ice-cream, or the kazandibi, which Uz describes as Turkey’s answer to crème caramel.
"Everything I collected growing up, I put together on the menu. It [Babylon] was a good opportunity for me to showcase this."
The suburbs are not scant on Levantine flavours but central Sydney is experiencing a Middle Eastern dining boom with Tayim, Nour and Shuk Elizabeth Bay peddling the flavours nearby.
"I think people are bored with having salt and pepper calamari, barramundi and steak. This is something interesting. It’s original. The flavours are unbelievable. It makes sense why Middle Eastern cuisine is in high demand."
Daily, 10am – midnight
Level 7, Westfield Pitt Street, Sydney
The pie crust is made with olive oil and wholemeal flour, resulting in a nutty flavour that anchors the vegetables in this pie.