The one thing I find most gratifying regarding my passion for food is the experience of sitting around a table with friends and loved ones sharing from common dishes of wonderful food. It’s central to many of the cuisines I love, from my native Korean to Middle Eastern food.
While Middle Eastern food in Sydney is generally a very casual affair, one veteran and well-respected Sydney food blogger has taken his knowledge and passion for his native cuisine and has opened Chic Pea – a restaurant with a modern and elegant take on Middle Eastern dishes while remaining respectful to its roots.
If you have a passion for good food and shared dining experiences, Chic Pea is the restaurant for you.
Chic Pea is the brainchild of veteran food blogger, food writer, food reviewer, radio host on Middle Eastern food, one-time olive oil purveyor, organiser and chef for a number of special food events, and all round nice guy Fouad Kassab.
That’s just a list of his accomplishments with his food hobby. His day job is in IT. Sheesh!
Along with his business partner and owner of Plunge cafe Hesham El Masry, the duo have brought a contemporary, classy and, dare I say, chic edge to Middle Eastern food to an otherwise casual and chill dining experience. The venue, the same premises as Plunge cafe in Summer Hill albeit dressed in smart-casual evening ware, is an intimate space with a capacity for forty. Chic Pea is fully licensed with a modest beer and wine menu and the option of BYO wine only for a $5 pp corkage.
The food is served on small plates intended to be shared at the table. All the food on the menu is gluten free, which should come as good news to those that are proponents of a gluten-free diet, whether by medical diagnosis or by lifestyle choice. However if you don’t suffer from such issues, don’t let this dissuade you. You probably would not even notice, let alone care, once you’ve tried it. It’s just good food.
Before we continue, I just wanted to get some disclosures out of the way. I consider Fouad to be a friend, so the following comes from a somewhat biased point of view. Also, the desserts we had ordered were comped i.e. complimentary, on the house, free of charge. I wasn’t invited to do PR and was only made aware of the cost of the desserts being complimentary after we had finished our meal. Everything else was paid for with our own money.
Almond & Potato Bread ($2.50 each) with Pepe Saya Dukkah Butter ($1) – When dining out, I tend to skip bread whenever it’s offered out of habit. In part due to it generally not being anything special, its stomach-filling empty calories and just out of principle.
Yes, principle. For those that remember the day when bread use to be offered as complimentary starter and were given a rude shock upon receipt of the bill when you found out it no longer was so, you’ll understand why. It’s also because I’m cheap.
I’m watching you Chinese restaurants with your watered-down, not-always-complimentary jasmin tea.
Anyhow, getting back to the almond and potato bread. A word of advice – order the bread.
These single-serve, coaster-sized loaves (served warm) are by far and away the best gluten free bread that I’ve ever had. Unlike a lot of gluten-free bread, rather than being dense and cake-like in texture, these were considerably lighter. The closest thing that I can associate the texture to is that of a scone. A flat, freshly baked scone. With a generous swipe of some well renowned Pepe Saya cultured butter, the fragrance of earthy spices from the dukkah as the butter melts along with the texture of the bread makes for a wonderful starter.
The bread is also great for mopping up dips such as hommus or labnah.
Roasted Beetroot with Labnah, Maple & Black Sesame ($14) – A great dish of roasted beetroot that still quite firm to the bite, tartness from the labnah (also spelled labne; po-tae-to, po-tar-to) which has the consistency of thick yoghurt, maple syrup for a little sweetness and za’atar spice powder that lifts everything with a nice citrus zing.
Siyyadieh Fish Pilaf ($20) – This is the first time I’ve come across siyyadieh (or sayadieh; to-may-to, to-mar-to), which is a Lebanese fish and rice dish cooked with spices and finished with toasted almonds and fried onions (thank you Interwebs).
It’s a good hearty dish. It has a lot of nice flavours, fragrant earthy aromas and various textures with a bit of a tart finish to the rice. The fish on the other hand was on the bland side and seemed oddly out of place given that this is a fish and rice dish. The fish was like a third wheel to the interplay between the fragrant rice and toasted almonds.
I feel for you fish. Been there before. There, there.
It’s still a good dish even with this small issue. I’m sure that this will be something that they’ll address with future refinements.
Chicken Shish Tawook with Toum ($14) – I’ve had chicken tawook plenty of times before but never this flavourful. The chicken, marinated in yoghurt and spices before being cooked over a grill, is really good. Unfortunately the photo doesn’t do it justice as it isn’t as dry as it appears.
The toum garlic sauce is also very good. If you’re familiar with the legendary garlic sauce from El Jannah, it’s less rich and buttery than that. This has a looser, more sauce-like consistency with a nice, mellow garlic flavour to it.
Laban Immo – Slow-roasted Lamb with Chickpeas and Goat’s Milk Yoghurt ($22) – This dish was an interesting one and was a favourite of the godfather of contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine Greg Malouf, who happened to be dining there that night.
The dish has a spectrum of textures from the very tender slow-roasted lamb shoulder to the chickpeas which were cooked much firmer than what I’m use. The caramelised onion sat somewhere in between. Tender but with a little bite to them. The goat’s yoghurt sauce with burnt butter and sage helped to cut through the rich lamb and meaty chickpeas. While not my personal favourite, it’s still a good dish all the same.
Charcoal-grilled Beef & Pistachio Kafta with Baba Ghanouj, Pickles & Pomegranate ($18) – Speaking of favourite dishes, this would probably be the one for me. The beef and pistachio kafta (or kofta; let’s call the whole thing off) is by far and away the best of its kind I’ve ever had. Intensely flavourful and smoky from the charcoal grill, it pairs well with the rich and smoky baba ghanouj eggplant dip (yes, another one with alternate spelling) as well as the sourness from the pickle and tartness from the pomegranate to cut through them both.
Atayef with Date Butterscotch & Walnuts ($8) – Pockets of pastry with a smooth ricotta filling, fried in coconut oil until crunchy (normally two per serve) are finished with a thick and rich date butterscotch and crushed toasted walnuts. It’s a nice dessert that isn’t as sweet as you might expect and is good value for $8. However, I would have really liked a side of ice cream to go with this.
Pistachio Ashta & Rose Ice Cream with Fig, Persimmon, Currants and Summer Hill Honey ($14) – Another dish I tend to skip along with bread are fruit plate desserts. If you tend to think the same way, resist the urge to skip this dish as this is by far and away the best dessert on the menu for one reason. Not the creamy ashta clotted cream which is made in-house, not the in-season fruits of fig, persimmon and fresh currents picked from local farms at their very best and not the fragrant local Summer Hill honey, but the rose ice cream.
If the menu were written to reflect how I feel about this dessert it would read:
Smooth Homemade Essence of Rose Ice Cream and some other stuff.
To be fair to the other stuff, they are all great in their own right and all the elements work well with each other. However, the rose ice cream is a scene-stealing showstopper. It’s light and smooth with an intense flavour of rose unlike anything I’ve had before. Certainly more so than drinking rose water straight from the bottle (I’ve tried it).
The roster of fruits will vary depending on seasonal availability so if you love figs and persimmons, make sure to get in there as soon as you can before the season for these fruits end.
Fouad along with Hesham and the rest of the team are off to a fabulous start given the high standard of the food and the fact that Fouad isn’t formally trained as a chef. It’s not cheap at around $50-$70 per person but it’s very good food and the service was great. It’s still very much early days for this fledgling restaurant and the menu at the moment is in a constant state of flux, with dishes either being replaced, revised or refined almost on a weekly basis. Given the intimate size of the restaurant, it’s increasing popularity and that it’s only open Friday and Saturday evenings, it would be wise to book ahead to avoid any disappointment.
I hope you enjoy the food and dining experience as much as I did. If you do, make sure to let the staff know. I’m sure that they’ll appreciate any compliments and feedback that you have.
Chic Pea @ Plunge
46 Lackey St, Summer Hill
(02) 9799 9666
Fri-Sat from 6:30pm