After opening to great applause in 2008, Maha has remained one of Melbourne's most popular restaurants, and its cuisine is so distinctive, it is said to be incomparable. Maha has received one Chef's Hat from The Age Good Food Guide every year since 2009, and chef and sole owner, Shane Delia, is a charity proponent and major sports fan as well as a cookbook author and television star of SBS TV's Shane Delia's Spice Journey. To enter the world of Maha is to be whisked away by a menu of unfamiliar words and dishes so complete they make you feel as though you've always known them.
Shane’s approach to cooking centres on bringing the traditional dishes of Malta, Morocco, Turkey, Israel, and the Middle East to Melbourne. These dishes involve complex spice combinations that take an experienced chef’s expertise to balance, and Maha adds modern techniques to raise the dishes to fine-dining status. Shane isn’t afraid of molecular inspiration, whether a sumac and pomegranate or orange blossom, but he doesn’t go overboard, either; the traditional core of the dishes is always kept intact.
“My tummy is my travel guide,” he said. “With that in mind, what better city to live in than Melbourne, the world’s best multicultural city. I have everything I want here – an amazing selection of food from all over the world, some of the world’s best chefs, restaurants and bars, and charming laneways and basements.”
To find Maha, head into the Melbourne CBD during lunch or dinner time. The semi-basement dining room is outfitted with dark-wood tables and chairs, Oriental rugs, and cushions in rich blues with golden designs. The scent of incense fills the air; waiters in all black provide professional service; chefs work in an open-air kitchen; and bartenders pour shots of raki and prepare cocktails using everything from Maltese sparkling wine and Turkish gazoz soda to sumac molasses.
Shane grew up in a large Maltese family, and you will find many of his family’s favourite flavours on the menu. In fact, Maha offers four, six, and eight-course tasting menus in addition to its a la carte menu, and the eight-course Sultan was once reserved only for Shane’s close friends and family.
A meal at Maha begins with an ever-evolving, complimentary aperitif, often of hibiscus or pomegranate. The expansive international award winning wine list includes wines from such unique regions as the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon and Galilee in Israel. For an appetiser, try the popular Chicken Kibbeh; it arrives in the form of a stuffed meatball atop Spanish-ham-infused butter with a mix of flowers and crest. A waiter then pours a corn and coconut broth over the dish, turning it into a soup.
Another standout dish is the Boat Smugglers Stew, a dish that Shane was inspired to create while dining with an alcohol smuggler in Iran during his travels. Additionally, no visit to Maha would be complete without its signature dish, the 12-Hour Slow-Cooked Lamb. The restaurant uses a special rub involving sumac and dry-roasted cumin seeds, and then it slow roasts the lamb at a low temperature on the bone until it easily flecks apart. The lamb is served with a green-olive tabouleh, heavy with roasted pistachios.
Maha’s desserts shouldn’t be missed either; they range from Rosewater and Rhubarb Faloodeh with shaved hazelnuts and lime pearls to Chocolate Fondant flavoured with salted caramel and Aleppo pepper and served with cardamom ice cream. Maintaining its traditional element to the end, Maha even offers the opportunity to sip a sweet Turkish coffee while smoking a shi-sha pipe in its lush lounge. Maha is truly one of Melbourne’s wonderfully unique opportunities.