Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Middle East Crisis (aka Al Aseel, Greenacre)...

If you think Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho is intense, then you've probably never dropped in to the hallowed Greenacre 'Dining' Institute: Al Aseel. I say 'dining', because this is not one for tame Sydney Siders, this is hardcore, Roman Mess-esque eating. It doesn't matter how good your intentions are, nor how lofty your ambitions, this place will defeat your stomach in an epic battle of meat and garlic that even the most hardy of gluttons will be completely subsumed in. This is culinary warfare, it's intense, it's excessive, it's bloodthirsty, it's Paced In Your Faced, and it comes with a side of hot chips. For years now, people have been traveling from as afar as Bondi and Penrith to mix it with the locals in a true test of Tummy Tumble Mettle. This is loud, this is livid, this is Lebanese, this is BangBangBangBanquet Quick Meaty-Lemony-Garlicked-Creamy-Rich-Thicker-Than-Thick-Doused-In-Oil-Of-Olive-Baba-Beautiful-Smokey-Eggplant-Crisp-Hot-Burn-Lick-Sesame-Dip-Quick-Quick-Falafel-Breath-Coke-Cold-Cold-Down-Quick-Quick-Quick dining. This is the heartland of the Lebanese culinary experience, and just like the people, nothing is done by halves, and everything is done by triples. A place where, if there's not enough to feed you and everyone on your street for 3 days following, then there's just not enough. The heat of battle is a place where many young soldiers have gone down. The going is steep, the dangers are many, stay close to your captain, she knows the way.

Before I begin, I want you to remember that our hungry, exhausted group of 12 decided on the basic (ie, most cheapest) banquet setting of $25 a head, which we supplemented with only a few extra dishes. What ensued was the most elaborate, deep, rich, colourful crazy cadence of sizzling and spinning dishes. Lebanese Restaurant Mistake # 1 is the sorry saps who go ahead and O.D on Mezze, they ooh and they ahh at the sheer magnitude and frivolous and fancy flavours of all the pretty little dishes that spring up in front of them like daisies in a green meadow in December. They wrap warm pockets of willing and pliable bread around smothering layers and lascivious lashings of hummous with thick globs of lemony salad and devour bite after bite, always, always, always forgetting, that this, is just the beginning. But, my hungry little habibis, what a beginning it is...

It all starts innocently enough with little baskets of freshly baked Lebanese bread, still droopy with the softness of their teasing texture, and little bowls of baked, slightly oily, chip like squares of crispy fried bread. So crisp and crunchy, this bread is perfect for the creamy moistness of the hommous, baba ganoush and labnah. Forget the constellation in North America, this is the real big dipper. It's easy, peasey, Lebanesey from here, you take you bread, and you sully it sordidly any. way. you. like. with lashings of the dips for which we are famous. Personalities come out in full force, the architects and the scientist at the table constructed little pockets of gooey, salady delight, while the lawyers just got right in there and dashed torn bread like a suicide bomber into the creamy, oily embrace of hommous heaven.

Check it out. That is a molten mouth dream, light as a whisper, rich with good golden olive oiled delight, hommous. Most commercial hommous is disgusting, preservatives and a general tendency to be too creamy prevail, especially as they're too heavy on the tahini (sesame paste). Hommous should be rich and deeply satisfying, somewhere between light and heavy, the texture should never be completely smooth, but it shouldn't be too grainy either. They have it bang on here. You can eat a fair bit of it without it feeling like it's too rich, usually I only tolerate a couple of spoons, here I can do a decent sized bowl (not a good thing).

The Baba Ganoush (literally, 'spoilt father'), is just as mouthwatering. Baba Ganoush is generally too heavy on eggplant smokeiness for me, I find it too overpowering. Here, the dip has a solid, earthy eggplant taste but is tamed by the oil and creaminess, you can actually tell by its lighter colour that it has a more delicate flavour. Baba Ganoush generally has a deep greenish/purplish tinge to it, when it does, I never like it as much. This is beautiful, I mix it up with hommous and salad and put it on some bread and get in touch with the part of me that feels the most like a true Leb (my stomach).

All of these dips are beautiful to mix with the Tabouleh and the Fattoush. The Fattoush here is maddening, I never understood this Lebanese salad of fried bread, parsley, tomato and pomegranate juice until I tasted it at Al Aseel. The crunchiness of the bread gives an amazing crunch and texture to the parsley, it grounds the freshness of all that green with a baked-roasted bread taste, and the lemonishness of it cuts like a blade through the heaviness of all the meat and dips. Dan finds it a bit too heavy on the tartness, it is, but I think it really works in this dish and especially as respite from the richness of everything else. The Labneh, which we ordered as an extra to the banquet, at E.Bee's very cute request, is delicious: a thickened, subtle yoghurt laquered in lashings of deep olive oil, with a faint sprinkling of paprika aloft in a perfect whiteness. If you never tried it, it's so solid, dense and beautiful. I like it more than Greek Yoghurt, especially because it has a sharpness to it that I think is quite unique. Funny, that, first time I have evered described something Lebanese as subtle.

Are you ready to rumble? This is probably less vegan than Meat Stuffed Deep Fried Roadkill. The meat platters are as full on as you will ever find food. The Shish Tawook here, incendiary. I can never eat much of it, because it's so damn rich, but this grilled, marinated chicken (which comes with a relatively tame version of Lebanese Garlic sauce) is pure mad mouth bomb. Just like Japanese get fish, Lebanese get chicken. It's always juicy and tender and pale inside with little flickerings of chargrilled crispness on the edges, don't hesitate to squeeze some fresh lemon over it to cut the richness. It's such a robust way to eat chicken, it has none of the gentleness of roasting, this is a fired up f-you to dull meat, so, so good. Even if you don't order the meat platter, get this as a dish on its own, they don't claim it as such, but i'd say it's the signature dish.

Kafta (minced meat with parsley and onion) and lamb skewers also star in this MeatGoneMad platter. This is not light, lean, meat. This is old school, rich, deep, cut with fat flame grilled to carnivorous perfection, skewered scumptiousness. I can eat a bite or two just for the flavour before I give up. If you Mezzed more than you should have, this is where you start feeling it. Stuffed bastards among us were taking a little bite and pushing their plates away and sitting back. It's just so intense, you have to eat this stuff to know what I am talking about. But if you're on a moo-free, baa-free food thing, don't despair. My favourite thing on the menu doesn't involve the slaying of anything, except your expectations of How Good A Chickpea Can Be.

Oh, Baby. Forget that dull, microwaved, podgey, pokey, miserable-ball-o-mush crappified blobs of banal bite they call hummous every where else. This is snappy, sizzling, green bright crunchy delicious falafel that you must eat as soon as it hits the table and before the sizzling chickpea shell cools down. Quick fried, the browned edges are very thin, as they should be when made by someone who knows falafel very, very well. The insides are soft and heaving, gently touched by the oil and they are much more green than brown, this is beautiful, crispy, alive, singing, spiced falafel, dip it quickly with a little tahini, bite in, and release the steam inside. So, So, So good. So Good. So. Good. Of Such So Goodness it's just so good. They come with a side of vine leaves (which are nice) and some spring rolls, which are great, Chinese As, and pretty funny. Traditional Lebanese places always have spring rolls and hot chips. They're two standard aberrations from an otherwise uncompromised authenticity that always crack me up.

My other favourite, Kris' too, is the Shawarma Meat. This meat will make you groan. It involves deep, throaty, rich chunks of well cooked meat, grilled with onion, sumac and lashed with splatterings of tahini that lends a beautiful sesamed moistness to the dryness of the meat. I can not explain the sheer brilliance of this dish other than to deem it as more than the sum of its parts. It's fully sick, cuzzz. Beyond belief, it must be in the way it's cooked, it has flavour sinking into flavour bouncing of flavour, head butting other flavours, fighting other flavours, twisting around inside upside down other flavours. I die every time. Order it, brace yourself. Like Vince, you probably won't be able to eat breakfast the next day, but it will be very well worth your whetted while.

The Samka Harah here is an okay version of one of my favourite Lebanese meals, baked fish with tahini, pine nuts and coriander. The sauce here is thick and spiced exactly as it should be, but I find the fish just a bit too fishy, I think they use a Perch, which I don't like to begin with. If you're a fishophile (like Tats or Troy McClure), the fish itself may not be quite up to scratch.But others should enjoy the richness of this, it's a very different way to eat fish, beautiful and rich, great for sharing.

Al Aseel has a no drinking policy, but a comically abundant selection of soft drinks more than makes up for it. Baffled diners stand for aeons of gobsmacked time before 4 fridges as they try to decide whether to coke, ginger beer, juice or lemon lime bitter. Some of us had three sodas during the meal to wash all the heaviness of the food down with. The Burping, although very UnEnglish, is highly inevitable.

12 people eating to the point of abandon still could not demolish 1/3 of what was put down in front of us, and therein lies the crisis. Do you wait a few minutes and slay into a bit more, pacing yourself and getting there in the very eventual end? Do you ask a kind, darting waiter for 3 or 4 of the huge tinfoil take away boxes they have, to fill up as high as you can yourself with the stomach defying remnants of an excessively laid table? I personally like my boyfriend's approach of taking the food beyond the alimentary realm and discovering cute and comic alternatives for its use, such as fake meat eyes, but I am biased when it comes to Dan and his wonderful ways.

Still a cheap meal for how much you get, Old Schoolers reminisce about the days when it was even cheaper. They cook, They cater, They take away. Try it, at least one, and fast for several days, or as may be the case, weeks.

Al Aseel happens at Shop 4/173 Waterloo Road, Greenacre, Ph 9758 6744 to book, and book you should on any crazy busy night.

So good it hurts. Thanks to everyone for a debilitating dinner, especially Emma R, cause she's from Cronulla,
and she's a total riot.


spice and more said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I went there on Saturday and had an amazing meal. I tried the Fattoush salad (after reading your description) and it was amazing. I too have never "got" this salad before having this version. Great food...wish I could have some now!

amanda said...

hey! its a crazy place isnt it, were you too full to eat on sunday?