A good vegetarian banquet that is impressive across the board is a little less hard to find in veg-obsessed Melbourne these days, but it is always nicely surprising when an old school player can hit it out of the park on a consistent basis. I had been to Albert Park stalwart Kamel once years ago for a very well-remembered brunch (in fact I’m a little surprised that I didn’t appear to blog about it at the time), so I was very much looking forward to what they would be able to dish up in terms of a dinner banquet that Kim had organised for her birthday.
There’s a lot of food to get through here, so no time for digressions about decor and whatnot except to say that the service was very lovely and efficient. Right! Time to start things off with a pitcher of white peach sangria, which is a little bit more fun than her standard sangria cousin.
Being a Middle Eastern restaurant proceedings were essentially obligated to start off with bread and things to dip bread in, so out came the garlic and oil flatbread with hummus and baba ganoush. The bread was gorgeous enough that it could have been eaten without accompaniment, but with the bright magenta baba ganoush and the hummus screaming fresh-made-that-day-ness, you had to scoop up as much a possible and not feel bad at all about filling up with bread.
The next dish hit the table and my eyes turned as wide and round as hubcaps, because saganaki with lemon will always cause such ocular trouble. Hot fried cheese with tart hits of lemon juice, how could you not love this?
The sweet potato and sesame seed felafel with honey tahini was a nice turn on a staple, with the sweet potato base yielding a much softer felafel with sweet flavours that let the sesame and tahini take the front seat.
The quinoa tabbouleh with cucumber, grapefruit, mint and a pomegranate dressing was a smartly dressed up version of your standard tabbouleh, and while others weren’t so keen on the grapefruit segments doted throughout, there I was to scoop them up into my waiting maw. Grapefruit is underrated, guys, more grapefruit always.
Next came one of the special vegetarian dishes just for me – although may I say that I was impressed that the regular banquet had included solely vegetarian dishes up to this point. The zucchini, corn, feta and chickpea flour fritters with labne and salad (comprising cucumber, capsicum and cherry tomatoes dusted with sumac) were immensely hearty, thick and doted with corn and zucchini cubes, and the fresh, crisp nature of the salad vegetables cut through any sense of stodge.
The warm Egyptian quinoa salad with pinenuts, cauliflower, chickpeas and feta was my very favourite dish of the night, unusual considering it takes a lot for a bowl of grains to rate above fried starches in my book, so TAKE NOTE. What worked so well with this particular dish was that everything was wonderfully balanced both in terms of flavours and textures. Not too much quinoa, sweet bursts from the pinenuts, delightfully soft cooked chickpeas that needed only a touch of pressure to collapse, and just enough creamy feta to add a sense of decadence without overwhelming in richness.
For those longing for some starches, though, there are the patatas bravas with roast baby onions and aioli. They weren’t as crispy as one might possibly like, but were deliciously caramelised, most likely due in part to being roasted alongside onions.
By this point everyone was enormously full and probably slightly dreading the appearance of any sweets, but the share plates of Turkish delight, baklava, Persian fairy floss, halva ice cream and Turkish delight ice cream did indeed get heavily sampled. The baklava was maybe a little too pastry-based for my liking (MOAR PISTACHIOS, MOAR HONEY says my heart with all iterations of baklava), but I happily snuck more than one piece of the generous squares of Turkish delight, flush with rosewater, and the ice creams were both richly creamy and texturally interesting.
Kamel has lasted a long time in Melbourne’s ever fluctuating food scene for a reason – their food is damn good and consistently so, with enough experimentation with Middle Eastern staples to keep your interests and your eyes constantly wider than your stomach. Their vegetarian banquet was a delight to experience, and I can’t thank Kim enough for being so clever as to introduce me to it.
19 Victoria Street, Albert Park
Ph: 9696 1386