Levanter café in Melbourne, Victoria, is technically closed at the end of the day, but people seem to be still strolling in. Owner Sam Dawod is greeting them like friends. It's part of the homely feel he has cultivated in the café where black and white photos hang on the walls and there's Arabic music playing faintly in the background. "This café is like an extension of our home kitchen," he says.
Dawod and his mum, Marcelle Hanna, moved from Syria to Melbourne in 2016, and together they opened Levanter in July 2017 despite having no experience in running a café. Their menu reflects their Syrian background. Hummus, kibbeh and falafel are popular dishes along with freshly made dips and salads.
He credits his mum for the recipes, who gives the food its 'homemade' taste. As she's currently overseas, it's up to him to manage the café and stay true to the recipes in which she has entrusted him. "She never wrote anything down though, so we SMS a lot to make sure I can make her falafel. At least now there's some documentation of her food!"
Dawod and Hanna are no strangers to trial-and-error as they refine their menu, décor and recipes in a new country.
"Some of our dishes worked well, but others did not. I think the people here, they like food that is rich or has a variety of flavours. We have sujuk and eggs on our menu, and that does quite well. Usually, sujuk is a sausage, but since we make it ourselves, we make it with beef mince and spices," he says.
Dawod is a bit disappointed that one of his favourite dishes hasn't yet gained traction with customers, so it's not on the menu. It's called fatteh and is popular throughout the Levant region. It's assembled or layered with chickpeas, yoghurt and pita bread. "It's not a stew, not a dip like hummus. It's just a delicious and flavourful snack and I can eat spoonfuls of it. The fancier versions might have some nuts."
Dawod says one notable difference between Syrian and Australian food culture is that in Syria, people eat breakfast at home. They may go out for lunch or dinner, but they rarely have 'brunch' out. In comparison, brunch - especially featuring coffee - is an institution in Australia. Dawod has adapted to this and has leaned into the coffee culture with his own take: cardamom-laced Turkish coffee. He sourced ornate copper coffee pots to serve customers and enjoys educating customers on how to enjoy the brew in espresso sized cups.
"In Syrian culture, all people care about is the food."
From Dawod's point of view, another difference is that Melburnians value ambience and décor when dining out, just as much as they care about the food. "In Syrian culture, all people care about is the food. If you came to my house, I would cook a feast and freshly make all the salads." He applied this principle of abundance in Levanter but it did not go too well. Some customers could not finish the large portions so Dawod tweaked or reduced them.
Dawod thinks that Lebanese or Turkish food dominate in the Middle Eastern cuisine served in Melbourne. Still, he has branded his café as a Syrian one.
"Syrians have our own version of spice mix and there's more use of nutmeg. Syrian food is also drier compared to other Middle Eastern food. Sometimes people eat our medamas (bean and lentil stew) and ask how come it doesn't taste like the food they had in Egypt, so we have to explain it a bit," he explains.
As hospitality reopens in Melbourne, Dawod is ready to pick up where they left off, including beautifully plating the traditional Syrian breakfast of egg, haloumi, pickled eggplant, shanklish and walnut.
"In Syria, we would just dump everything on the plate. But in Melbourne, it needs to look pretty too."
- 4 pita breads
- 2 cups plain yoghurt
- 2-3 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp tahini
- 400 g canned chickpeas or 1½ cup dried chickpeas, soaked and boiled in salted water
- Handful toasted pine nuts
- Pinch of dukkah (optional)
- 1 tsp salt
1. Preheat oven to 180°C.
2. Grill or toast pita bread for 7-8 minutes in the oven until it is crisp. Tear into squares.
3. Whisk yoghurt, lemon juice, garlic, tahini, salt. Add water from boiled chickpeas if it's too thick.
4. Use a large serving dish. Layer pita bread at the bottom, top with chickpeas followed by yoghurt mix.
5. Sprinkle pine nuts and dukkah.
298 Carlisle St