Address 104 Chapel Street, Windsor, 03 9521 3858, shukah.com.au
Open Tue-Sun 5.30pm-10pm; Fri-Sun noon-3pm
Cost Mains $20-$30; tasting menu $58
Vegetarian The tasting menu can be altered to cater for dietaries
Drinks Pomegranate-infused cocktails and some of the most off-piste wine regions represented
Armenian is a cuisine that owes as much to where it is now as where it’s from. Thank the diaspora. It’s a cuisine that’s travelled. It has lived.
At Shukah, your butter and sumac-tinted menu says less about the old country than it does about chef-owner Garen Maskal. He’s an Australian-born Armenian, whose mother was raised in Egypt and father was raised in Turkey, happily doing a form of Armenian for Chapel Street that his aunts don’t totally get.
“My family come in and tell me ‘everything tastes like home but nothing is’,” says Maskal. He’s OK with that. Shukah is about the flavours and feasting style of the homeland. But also about neon signs, Croatian plonk and tunes from Kanye West.
You might have experienced a more formal version of this at Maskal’s CBD restaurant, Sezar. Here you’re at the party end of Windsor, watching punters queue for Hawker Hall and trying to find the cocktail bar inside Boston Sub (it’s behind the fridge).
The room itself is more functional than pretty, a typical high street fitout with green banquettes, sturdy tables and a neon sign hoping for “Peace in the Middle East”. But for a casual operation you get some friendly service into the bargain. Here early? They get you started with a rich butter-ringed dish of hummus and flatbread – it’s not complimentary, they just don’t want you to be hungry.
On the drinks front, restaurant manager Anna Healy has pulled together one of the more eclectic wine lists around. Besides a rosé from Provence and McLaren Vale shiraz, it’s grippy South African chenin blancs, apple-y Georgian mtsvanes (not a typo) and slightly woody Croatian malvasias. It’s definitely an adventurer’s list, but they offer half glasses in case you’re not sure of the style, and a malty house beer that’s easy-drinking otherwise.
The smartest way to play this menu, which Maskal is co-piloting with head chef Sean Thomas, is to do the four-stage tasting menu for $58. Mezze arrive like a Middle Eastern version of Korean banchan – something to pick at but also designed to stay on table and balance everything to come. It might be cumin-laced beetroot dip, a fudgy eggplant, pepper and coriander seed situation that improves everything, and tart tomatoes sharpened with ricotta salata and the potpourri potency of fresh oregano.
It’s all fairly mild, but nicely punctuated. Aside from the kingfish crudo, a breath of fresh excellence dressed in cucumber, a little whipped avocado and a tangy black lime dressing, the menu can be rich. Curled sheets of bastourma (spiced, air-dried beef) piggyback with sunny-side-up quail eggs on fried brioche rafts. Phwoar.
Manti, those cross-topped meaty dumplings you might have tried in Turkish restaurants, are filled with cinnamon-spiced lamb and half-submerged in a butter and garlic yoghurt moat. Maskal lays it on thick, but a dusting of sharp sumac magically gives the dish balance.
The main perk of eating here is turning everything into Middle Eastern tacos. The flatbread, made off-site but oiled, grilled and finished with dukkah, is the flaky, chewy improver of anything. Find the olive tapenade with tender octopus overpowering? Nothing tastes bad in taco form. The flatbread also supports their ace-in-the-hole chicken main. Here a baby hen is butterflied, grilled to smoky tenderness and splayed on the bread with fistfuls of parsley, pickled red onions and a bright green harissa like a badly proportioned pizza. Big flavours in all the right places.
You might have blacked out in a hot buttered coma by the time pork belly arrives, but you’ll notice the sweet, braised cabbage with lots of mustard seeds supporting it is nice.
If you can do dessert after that, the quince and brown butter labna sounds fresher than the baklava parfait, but be warned: it is layers of almost candied fruit with your final scoop of dairy. But what’s hella rich food, when you won’t leave poor?
Pro tip: Maybe say no to that heavy dip to start if you’re feasting.
Go-to dish: Manti filled with spiced lamb in butter and garlic yoghurt ($17).