ARAX Fine Lebanese Cuisine & Wood Fire Pizza, or just simply ARAX, holds a special place in my heart. It’s a restaurant that I’d first been introduced to more than 15 years ago and is pretty much the only place on the North Shore I’d make the approximately 40 minute drive to on a whim.
I find the woodfire oven at ARAX somewhat enthralling. A magic transformation portal that turns often simple ingredients into palate-pleasing platters of pizza perfection. Nowadays for me, the term “woodfire pizza” holds the same sort of meaning as the word “organic” does; there’s an implication of superior quality over the standard variety, which unfortunately doesn’t always deliver. This is one of those places, I assure you, that delivers on that implied sense of superior quality.
Marcelle, owner/operator of ARAX runs the friendly front of house staff while her son Tony works his magic with the woodfire oven as pizza chef. Awards and news articles are displayed around the restaurant proudly show off their accolades in their over 30 years of operation. They’ve even received Heritage status from the local council, something that I’ve learned about only recently.
The restaurant itself is a testament to their achievement as this place was a humble takeaway pizza restaurant when I had my first pizza over 15 years ago.
The restaurant has a casual, almost homely feel to it, which carries through to its service. A beautiful mural of a countryside town adorns a feature wall giving the sense of a calm, relaxed environment. That is except for Saturdays.
On Saturdays, as seems tradition for a lot of Lebanese restaurants, the party engine red-lines as a belly dancer takes centre stage to entertain the diners. As with my experience at Rowda Ya Habibi, it’s sure to lift the spirits and have you keeling over in tearful laughter. As I’d also learned, if you want to avoid the attention and ensuing embarrassment, pick seating along the walls in an inaccessible spot that would make it difficult for you to participate.
If you decide that you want in on the belly dancing action, make sure to book well in advance. Saturdays are always booked out, often days prior.
The dining party of a couple of mates and I order up some drinks. A round of lemon, lime and bitters. All the elements are balanced nicely, unlike a lot of that I’ve had in the past, especially from some bars & pubs that should know better.
ARAX isn’t just about pizzas. They’re also quite a nice Lebanese restaurant as well. “The finest Lebanese food on the North Shore”, according to their signage. Having had a variety of their Lebanese dishes over the years, my favourites being the hommus (pictured above), fatoush salad and a wonderfully crunchy falafel that rivals the best that Sydney has to offer, I would have to agree. Though, to be fair, it’s the only Lebanese I’ve had on the North Shore and frankly the only Lebanese place I’m aware of in those parts.
Since we’re in a pizza sort of mood, our venture into the Lebanese menu only extends as far as hommus ($9), served with fresh and fried Lebanese bread. The hommus is smooth and very flavourful whilst the Lebanese breads offers a wonderful contrast in textures.
The Seafood Supreme pizza ($27) is the best of all the seafood pizzas I’ve had in Sydney hands down, and is one of my all-time favourite pizzas overall. The quality of the pizza does vary with the seasons but when it’s at its best, the scallops are large, plump & juicy, the prawns are likewise sizable with a nice springy bite to them and the cured salmon is flakey and deliciously smokey. At its least best, when the scallops and prawns are less generous in size, it’s still far better than most seafood pizzas you’d find anywhere else.
The friend who orders this pizza prefers to have it without cheese. He says that the pizza tastes fresher and the flavour of the seafood comes out more that way. I’m more of a traditionalist and prefer mine with the cheese.
Another favourite pizza of mine and THE favourite of the friend who ordered this pizza is the bastourma pizza with fresh tomato ($22). Bastourma is typically air-dried beef cured with salt and spices such as cumin, fenugreek, garlic and paprika. The thin slices of bastourma, when cooked, ends up being something akin to crispy bacon in texture with a sublime, smokey aroma. The fresh tomato in the pizza is essential to mellow out the saltiness of the bastourma.
If it isn’t the Seafood Supreme pizza, odds are I’ve purchased one of these instead.
In my case, I decide to go with something a little different today as my two favourite pizzas were already ordered. The sejouk & bastourma pizza with fresh tomato ($22) is very much like the bastourma pizza but finishes with a different texture and a little more spice to it. It’s normally served with onions, mushrooms, capsicums and black olives but I forego this option in favour for what I would normally have with the standard bastourma pizza.
There are various other pizzas in their arsenal, including various chicken, seafood, vegetarian, as well as your more traditional toppings. After recommending this place to a former work colleague, he’d recommended the Mediterranean pizza, which comprises of grilled lamb, sun dried tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, spanish onion and rocket. Might have to give that a go at some stage.
We finish the meal with some complementary Turkish delights, which are wonderfully sweet and gooey. These aren’t usually complementary but perhaps Marcelle was in a generous mood that evening. It’s happened from time to time when I dine there and I’ve never taken such generousity for granted.
Before my dining companions and I decide to call it a night, I put in for an order of a Seafood Supreme pizza with cheese to takeaway. I know how my family gets about missing out on some great food, especially my sister. Would never hear the end of it! Anyhow, it means I get a slice or two for breakfast the next day, so I can’t really complain :)
Of all the places that I’ve been to, this is one that I would have no hesitation recommending. Give it a go and let me know what you think of it. Oh, if you decide to name drop about how you’d come across this restaurant, just say that Caine sent you. Pretty much anyone I know who has eaten at ARAX was introduced by Caine, or through him in a Six Degrees sort of fashion :)
ARAX Fine Lebanese Cuisine & Wood Fire Pizza
670 Willoughby Rd, Willoughby
Open Tues to Sun – 5pm til late.