Leanne Tolra reviews B'Stilla.


15:59:PM 26/04/2013
Leanne Tolra

Pigeon & Duck B'Stilla
Pigeon & Duck B'Stilla

Has Moroccan food been reborn in Melbourne? By the man who germinated a new species of Hispanic-themed restaurants across the city?

By all electronic and printed media accounts, yes. But given the background to Jason Jones’ six-week-old B’stilla, I’m surprised at how easy it has been to get a midweek table.

It could have something to do with the location – in a backstreet at the Prahran end of South Yarra. The queues might already be Mamasita-like (spanning a block or two) in the city, or perhaps further north. But in the space previously occupied by a pizza restaurant called Lost (which vanished rather quickly), Jason Jones’ new restaurant seems temporarily misplaced.

Note the qualifier. It won’t be long before you’ll have to take seven of your buddies to secure a table at B’stilla (bookings are for eight or more, as per Mamasita).

Jones says the location ticked every box on his list: 90-seater, close to a market, outdoor area, huge cool room, modern kitchen, liquor licence and environmental infrastructure – B’stilla is aiming for a minimal carbon footprint via Victorian wines on tap, house-made sparkling mineral water, hand-brewed coffee, handmade crockery and locally sourced produce.

Duck ham, grapes, crackling & honey
Duck ham, grapes, crackling & honey
As a chef, what do you do after a restaurant popular beyond your wildest imaginings? Jones says a note on his business plan said: “Greg Malouf has moved to London”. (Malouf’s MoMo spawned an extended Moroccan wave for the first 12 years of this century.)

Armed with an exclusive list of contacts, he headed off on a sabbatical, enrolling in Moroccan cooking courses and stirring pots at grandmothers’ stoves.

The result is food that borrows from tradition, but with a savvy understanding of what pleases Melbourne diners: robust flavours, new ingredients, imaginative combinations, elegant plating and dishes that can be eaten alone or shared without difficulty – all at Jones’ formulaic $45 per head. Drinks bill at your discretion.

If you are sharing, go for luscious slices of duck ham paired with red grapes, Tasmanian honey, baby herbs and a breathtaking duck-skin crackling. Sip cocktails with names like Sahara Skies (Aperol, rosewater, lemon) or a pomegranate martini (Zubrowka, Pama, orange blossom, lemon and apple juice) with a generous dark pottery dish filled with lightly flour-dusted school prawns and whitebait, served with a zesty herb and anchovy aioli, or a batbout – turmeric and oregano grilled flatbread, with a pungent tomato lemon jam.

There’s not quite enough in a plate of confit chicken wings served with a dressing of pistachio yoghurt and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds to share, and the harira – a fragrant offering of comfort-giving lamb, chickpeas, lentils and dates – is better savoured solo.

The signature b’stilla (bas-stee-ya) is a sensory full package, from its aromatic cinnamon-dusted layers of brik pastry to its salty and sweet centre of shredded pigeon and duck infused with egg, saffron and almond.

Lamb shoulder, ginger, cumquat, parsnip & sumac
Lamb shoulder, ginger, cumquat, parsnip & sumac
From the mains list, share a plate of jumbuck sourced from near the Grampians atop a creamy parsnip purée that’s given sharpness with preserved cumquats and an added edge with a nip of sumac. Or beef short ribs, with a memorable brown-sugar-sweet carrot jam that lifts the meat beyond its already long-cooked intensity.

There are three tagines: fig, goat’s cheese, vegetables and chickpeas; a seafood combo; and a goat version with quince, onion and almond. They all sound like ideal winter fare and were being enjoyed at nearby tables.

Sides and salads are a considered part of the menu, not a lazy adjunct to collect revenue. Case in point, a cauliflower salad spiced with ras el hanout (cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, chilli and more), drizzled with an extraordinary pine-nut paste and a sesame yoghurt dressing.

Switched-on staff with impressive memories (and effusive descriptions of almost everything) do make the experience a pleasant one. But I get the impression this could wear thin – on both sides.

The dessert list is short, but special. The chocolate mousse, flavoured with star anise and served with tiny cubes of coffee jelly, crème fraiche and pieces of sesame tuile is a good menu closer. I didn’t enjoy the use of chocolate mint leaves, which added an unexpected texture and competed with the crunch of the wafer.

Likewise a heavy hand of dried rose petals spoiled, for me, a judiciously balanced rosewater flan (something between a brulée and a crème caramel), with a silky date sauce and scattering of superb walnut nougatine.

It’s not as though the word isn’t out yet, but go to B’stilla soon – so you can witness the start of the next big thing.

Eat this

B’STILLA, 30b Bray Street, South Yarra

Cuisine Moroccan

Chef/owner Jason Jones

Prices Entrées $7-$15; mains $23-$29; desserts $11

Open Mon-Thurs 5.30pm-late; Fri-Sat noon-late; Sun noon-4pm

Phone 9826 2370

Bookings Eight or more

The Verdict Somewhere special


B'Stilla on Urbanspoon

Chocolate, star anise, creme fraiche & sesame
Chocolate, star anise, creme fraiche & sesame

The inside

Warm terracotta walls and curved blond timber furniture soften the sterility of this modern apartment-block bunker. Moorish intent is obvious in the symmetry of fretwork screens and tessellated tiles, but it’s subdued by low ceilings, soft lighting and modern touches, such as brightly lit white-slatted timber behind the lengthy bar. A broad patio area, warmed by robust heaters and enveloped by plastic blinds, adds substantially to seating options, which include booths, nooks and bar stools. Bamboo lightshades, rustic crockery, pot plants and jars of preserved fruits are homely additions.

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