You probably best know chef Murat Ovaz for his part in opening Tulum – chef Coskun Uysal's semi-formal Turkish restaurant in Balaclava where plates are as often graced with melon as traditional mezze, and always come with a story about Uysal's upbringing.
But aside from some equally excellent pickles, a penchant for labna, smoky eggplant, fluffy cocktails and elegant tablewares, it's a different story playing out here at Ovaz's two-month old South Yarra restaurant, Yagiz.
For one thing, there's a little less of a thrust towards storytelling. Working at Tulum was actually the first time Ovaz had turned his cheffing skills towards the food of his homeland. Having run away from his religious boarding school at 15, Ovaz cut his teeth cooking in Turkey's French, Italian and Greek restaurants. "Turkish food is what you cooked at home." His runs on the board since coming to Australia in 2009 included Newcastle's Bacchus, and heading up the bistro of Colin Fassnidge's Four in Hand in Sydney.
Behold then, a mod-Turkish-ish restaurant that's beyond the straightforward baba ghanoush but is still solid for snacking, offers the fun of whole lambs to those with enough friends to share it and tasting menus for those who want to press Ovaz's credentials.
Unless you're rolling in with a group, your best bet is to go hard on the smaller plates, where a lot of the fun lies.
Sourdough cobs arrive with a soft quenelle of butter whipped light with smoked eggplant like the ghost of baba ghanoush. The pickles, carefully turned carrots and other veg stained lightly pink in their anis-driven liquor are essential and while the cigars, which were originally being billed with duck are currently being made with confit chicken, they're no less delicious for it. An incredibly rich farce is thyme-spiked, captured in fine yufka pastry, and crumbed at one end with a smoky, earthy and spicy isot pepper condiment that whips your palate to attention.
Pastirma, that spicy air-dried beef, comes wrapped around goat's cheese and grilled on skewers with sweet date slices like a Middle Eastern devils on horseback.
Lamb kofte is almost a Turkish, skinless chorizo. The fiery chilli oil from the meat stains dabs of yoghurt, and is cooled off with blackened cucumber and pickled onion. It probably nails the old-new world mentality of the menu better than any other.
Less essential, a burek of spinach in yufka pastry is a little austere, and might be better integrated with the sharp yoghurt foam and creamy labna balls it's dressed with.
A little more acid would take the (stunning) juicy Clarence River prawns swimming in butter, thyme and soft slices of chilli from fine to phwoar. The cauliflower main needs a little more time in the heat to find its groove too – the soft, charred lemony heads of Miznon have set the bar pretty high.
Aside from partitions in breeze blocks raggedly carved to look like ruins, the trappings are lovely. Cleaving the dining room down the middle is a huge brassy communal table for anyone with enough friends, while those who found negotiating between Tulum's tight set-up will appreciate the spaced out jade-tinged bronze tables around the rim. Everything comes on pretty earthenware. Banquettes are stuffed with bright cushions. Early evening light is perfect for shooting your food.
Service? It's efficient and friendly without going out of its way to educate diners, unless you have specific questions. Which will either disappoint or relieve. Wine advice could be a little more forthcoming, although the list, compiled by Christian Maier of the RACV club, has far reaching legs from Fairbank ancestral sparkling to start, with the odd chablis and flinty Mount Etna reds tied in with a handful of Turkish syrahs.
Is South Yarra the right 'hood? Gentle alarms sounded when, arriving in early February we found the initial December menu stripped of much adventurous stuff – sardine kofte and tripe bites. Braised tongue sandwiches, lamb livers, yabbies in saffron butter and duck with its heart on the plate.
It seemed that maybe Ovaz was having to play things a little too safe. Sadly it's true that Toorak Road didn't bite on the tongue sandwich front. Thankfully, Ovaz says it's just a matter of his offal dealers still being at the beach and its full steam ahead again in a few weeks.
For now, a burnished-skinned chicken crown with fiery chickpeas and grilled cos is nothing to sneeze at. Nor is the nutty dessert playing delicate, chewy baklava off against a praline ice-cream and silky chestnut cream. If this is the straighter summer menu, I'm excited to see Ovaz really bring the fun.
Address 22 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9821 4758, yagiz.com.au
Open Tue-Thu 6pm-10pm; Fri-Sun noon-3pm; 6pm-10pm
Vegetarian pickles, labna balls, spinach borek, cauliflower and two side dishes.
Drinks a few interesting Turkish wines slipped between a good old-new world mix.
Cost chef selection $75; small plates $5-$20; large plates $29-$52.
Go-to dish: Confit chicken cigars ($6); pastirma 'devils on horseback' ($6).
Pro tip: With 10 mates and 24 hours' notice you can get a whole roasted saltbush lamb bracketed with snacks and dessert.
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