A modern Lebanese restaurant has opened in Surry Hills where a taste of the fresh, authentic mezze will transport you to the banks of the Bardouni River in the shadow of Mount Sannine. Zahli is named after a city in Lebanon famous for food and wine, and draws inspiration from the rich tradition of mezze (small dishes designed to share) popular in the region.
Owner Mohammad Issmail welcomes patrons like old friends, yet Zahli skips the overly casual banquet vibe. It retains the lively shared dining experience that comes naturally with mezze, but it's a bit more of a white tablecloth affair. The contemporary open-plan space is fitted with rendered concrete walls, stylish tiled floors, architectural lighting, hints of Scandinavian design and a grand marble bar. The acoustically designed ceiling muffles out the loud chatter at a nearby table and allows the Arabian chill-out music to quietly serenade our meal.
The marble bar may be chic, but the dated cocktail list is a little out of touch in a suburb where trendy watering holes pride themselves on bespoke cocktails and crafted beer. With a namesake derived from 'the city of wine', it would also have been nice to see a bottle from the region represented on the menu. Nevertheless, we weren't disappointed too long as a glass of the sharp Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($60 bottle) hit the spot.
The food, however, is arguably some of the best Lebanese in town. Issmail handpicked head chef Abdul Shams, whose international experience at some of Dubai's 5 star hotels aligned with the vision of a sleek inner east venue. Each dish has the authenticity of a Lebanese grandma's cooking, but with a sophisticated twist.
The menu has an abundance of appealing options; so plentiful, in fact, we had trouble deciding. To buy some time, we opted for the mixed dips ($20) and shortly afterwards were presented with a basket of crispy spiced pita and a serving of soft pitas along with an enticing trio of freshly made smokey baba ghanoush, nicely tart labne and hummus.
From the cold mezze offerings, the vine leaves ($14) come recommended. Served in an impressive Jenga-style stack, the soft pillows of rice-stuffed vines had a delicate flavour. We naturally progressed to the hot mezze. The entree-sized platter of the mixed finger food ($17) is the ultimate choice for the indecisive diner. It's an appetising selection of fried kibbeh (croquettes of minced meat and burghul), falafel and traditional pastries served with olives, imported Lebanese pickles and tahini sauce.
The signature mansaf lamb ($28) is a traditional rice dish often produced at family gatherings, with strips of meat that are succulent and fall apart on your fork and lightly toasted almonds, cashews and pine nuts giving a satisfying crunch. On the side, order the refreshing fattoush ($15), a salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, peppers, onions and toped with crunchy baked pita, dressed with pomegranate molasses.
The dessert menu is filled with alluring Middle Eastern sweets. The elegant mhalabiye ($10) is one of the prettiest desserts imaginable — a cold milk pudding scattered with fresh blueberries, edible flowers, juicy golden sultanas and speckles of pistachio and then drizzled with fragrant rose water.
Linger over the thick and earthy traditional coffee, simply brewed in a metal pot. Its bitter taste is not to everyone's liking but is nicely balanced with the sticky, gorgeously sweet Turkish delight ($8), and if you shut your eyes tight enough, you might forget you're in Surry Hills.