An oasis of dreamy desserts and eye-boggling sized plates of saucy food. No evil djinns here.
South Yarra and its Chapel Street precinct is Melbourne’s Rodeo Drive – home to frenetic shopping, orange tanned bodies, boozy nights, big brands, big hair, bigger cars and cash. Located in a ground floor space of a sterile glass and steel building, B’stilla appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than yet another monotonous, clean, pan-world cuisine restaurant. Appearances can be deceiving. It doesn’t appear to be a large space, but the fortress-like table layout uses the available space to a maximum advantage. Narrow tables run parallel to trimmed hedging at the front verandah, with a second line-up in a corridor adjacent to the right hand side of the entrance. A third vanguard row perches at a bar that is wall-papered with a grey-white design resembling the undulating silhouettes of minarets at dawn. This is the first whispering reference to the Middle East (and therefore, to the venue’s cuisine focus). Further inside, you may or may not recognise the eight-sided stars stencilled on the doors as common motifs in Islamic architecture. You probably wouldn’t give a thought to the velvety, textured walls washed in rich carnelian red. Perhaps, it is more likely that your attention will be momentarily captured by the sun pouring through a latticework that evokes the courtyard garden balcony of a riad. It casts a Euclidean shadow of tessellated crosses and stars on a long communal table.
MoMo & Coco visited for a weekend lunch. Comparatively compact, B’stilla’s a la carte, Morrocan-inspired menu was divided into “share plates, tagines, sides and salads, and desserts.” We began with the B’stilla ($12), a pentagonal parcel of pigeon and duck stuffed into a crispy pastry and dusted with a lacy cloak of cinnamon, saffron and icing sugar. It was delicious, but we do happen to hold the now defunct MoMo‘s Besteeya as our benchmark — we recall its aromatic spicing as more pronounced. That said, it was close to the $50 mark, whereas Bstilla’s version was smaller and at $12, so we shouldn’t really cavil.
The Lamb Shoulder ($28) with ginger, cumquat and sumac proved to be very popular with preceding dining patrons. Such a pity. In any case, it meant that we were able to follow the waiter’s recommendation of the Beef Ribs ($25). These must have been extracted from an over-sized cow. We haven’t seen a serving size that generous in spirit for some time. Tender meat was easy to pull apart from the rib bone, without overtly neanderthal gnawing actions. It was served on a pool of sweet carrot jam that contrasted with the zing of the lemon components too. One of the best savoury dishes we have had in a l-o-n-g time. Please ensure that you order it. Indeed, after the ribs, the Fig and Goat’s Cheese Tagine ($21) paled in comparison. It arrived in a rather authentic manner with a typical cone-shaped lid that revealed a simmering stew of earthy fig quarters and dollops of goat’s cheese embedded in a pile of chickpeas, pumpkins and potatoes. It needed a less cautious hand at spicing to make the flavours really leap. Still excellent though.
B’stilla’s dessert menu featured four desserts, of which we bypassed boring ice cream and a yogurt-based dessert. Yogurt for dessert? Eh no. No matter, the two remaining desserts were quite simply, superb. If you can only fit in one dessert, make sure it is the “Rosewater Flan” ($10). Notwithstanding its European name, we think it may have been inspired by the typical Moroccan custard dessert, the “bourtaka muhallabieh.” Here, the “flan” was faultless – a firmly set mound with just enough wobble and a silky, smooth mouthfeel. It was perched on a thin bed of date puree, embellished with dried rose buds, sprinkled with little crunchy pebbles of walnut nougatine, and surrounded by a moat of slightly gritty, rosewater-flavoured sugar syrup. Like a stunning desert beauty rising from a rose-petalled bath. Positively dreamy.
The second dessert sampled was the “Chocolate, Star Anise, Creme Fraiche and Sesame” ($10). Beautifully presented, imagine a Lilliputian man stumbling across it after a long intrepid adventure. It looked like an oasis, tasted like a soft cloud. Hills of sweet chocolate mousse were swirled with just an echo of star anise, like a forgotten lover’s caress rather than a forceful grip. The mounds were interspersed with an assortment of little things — the sharp bitterness of coffee jelly cubes, savoury accents of the sesame and star anise, and the tang of the creme fraiche. There was also a hint of cinnamon, or something sweet that we detected but couldn’t quite identify.
Service was excellent — friendly, timely, knowledgeable, although inclined to somewhat overly lengthy descriptions of the food. On reflection, terrible service, in our experience, predominates in the Northside and the CBD.
When MoMo & Coco dine-out, we wish for three simple things: good food, good service, good setting. Not too hard, right? Wrong. Melbourne is convulsing in the advanced stages of a diseased definition of “hospitality” — a disease that manifests in symptoms of service staff who treat you as though you are asking them to change a colostomy bag, and don’t forget, Petri dish-styled food at vertiginous prices. B’stilla is that antidote, an oasis in a seemingly never-ending barren landscape of terrible restaurant ventures. At B’stilla, the meaning of true hospitality can be re-discovered. At B’stilla, “hospitality” means a space that is part-casual and part-dressy, a venue that permits both fun times and serious conversations… and the wait staff are not the evil djinns of Tahir Shah’s “The Caliph’s House” that time your stay and chase you out! At B’stilla, “hospitality” also means generosity in plate size, and thus, that long-forgotten concept, value for money. Yes, the chefs could perhaps be a little less cautious in the use of spices which although should never overpower, should at least resonate rather than murmur. Yes, they could also feature more traditional desserts (eg kaab el ghzal and m’hanncha pastries, muhallabia puddings etc). But, notwithstanding a little room for improvement, dinner or lunch at B’stilla while gazing at the sunset-streaked sky through its riad-esque lattice windows, is just one reason to delay that trip to Morocco.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: B’stilla Restaurant, 30b Bray Street, South Yarra, Vic 3141.
- ☑ Budget: $$-$$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Middle Eastern.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Rosewater Flan.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: An oasis where dreamy desserts and eye-boggling sized plates of saucy food are served with the warmest hospitality, rather than by evil djinns.