B’Stilla: a touch of Marrakesh in South Yarra
Address: 30b Bray Street, South Yarra
Phone: (03) 9826 2370
Open: Monday, 5.30pm until late
Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm until late
The powerful perfume of turmeric. The saltiness of snail soup. The brassy tune of a snake charmers’ serenade. The dry heat of the Sahara. Men in fezzes, boys in Bob Marley. This is what I think of when someone says ‘Morocco’.
Out of every country I’ve visited, Morocco left the strongest impression on me. From the goats’ heads and whole dead pigs sweating in the heat, to lamb tagines loaded with juicy figs, dates and apricots, authentic Moroccan fare is like nothing I’ve ever tasted. This continues to be the case after dining at B’Stilla (pronounced bas-tee-ya), South Yarra’s latest trophy restaurant. It opened quietly a couple of weeks ago under the experienced eye of Mamasita’s Jason Jones, alongside Scott Cunliffe and Martin Finnigan. GRAM Magazine invited Poppet's Window to try it out with I'm So Hungree and Consider the Sauce.
It’s unreasonable to compare Moroccan food in Melbourne with Moroccan food in Marrakesh, so I won’t. Many of the flavours in Morocco would be too challenging for Melbourne mouths, which seem to be trained for quinoa, salted caramel and tacos. Regardless, B’stilla has done a standing-ovation-worthy job of Melbournising Moroccan cuisine without bastardising its origins.
B’Stilla won’t cost you all your dirham, either. Dishes are made to share with small tastes around the $6 to $8 mark, medium dishes from $12 to $16 and large plates around the mid $20s. Nothing is over $28. Like Mamasita, bookings are only available for groups of eight or more.
The best way to start at B’Stilla is with a cocktail. Martini lovers will be drawn to the pomegranate martini with Zubrowka, Pama, orange blossom, apple juice and lemon; while the spiciness of the ‘Bloody Marrakesh’ with 666 Vodka, red wine, harissa and Amontillado will be the go-to drink for those with a soft spot for savoury. Personally, I enjoyed the potent Fig Remydy, made with Remy VSOP, Maidenii Aperitif, fig syrup and lemon juice.
Before we ordered, a complimentary iced Moroccan mint tea and a nibble of date filled with pumpkin purée and a splinter of pumpkin seed biscuit arrived at the raised communal table where we sat. After staring blankly at the menu for a few minutes, we asked the chef to choose dinner for us.
Dishes like the crispy-fried school prawns and whitebait were given an Arabian touch with a mild chermoula aioli, while starters such as the grilled batbout flatbread made with turmeric and oregano and served with sweet tomato and lemon jam came across more traditional.
The confit chicken wings with pistachio yoghurt and pomegranate looked suspiciously unlike chicken wings, but were moreish nonetheless.
You can’t eat at B’Stilla and not order their signature dish. The b’stilla pie was stuffed with tender pigeon, duck, egg, saffron and almond, wrapped in paper-thin brik pastry and generously sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. The combination of sweet and salty will win anyone over, even if the thought of munching on pigeon makes you shudder.
A colourful dish of avocado, soft egg, greens, syrupy beet molasses and a few different varieties of beetroot was next on our edible agenda. It balanced the richness of the b’stilla and provided some much needed fibre before continuing onto the lamb shoulder.
Seasoned with ginger and sumac and served on a silky smooth parsnip purée surrounded by sweet cumquat skins, the lamb shoulder was a sure sign that the chef was only warming up.
Despite feeling full at this point, ‘mains’ followed. Two white tagines emerged from the kitchen, one with seafood and the other vegetarian. Fresh mussels, cod and squid swam in a shallow saffron broth next to spinach and fennel. The flavours were divine but the squid was tougher than it should have been.
The vegetarian tagine of figs, goats cheese, chickpeas and root vegetables was enough to make a carnivore weep with delight, while the couscous ensured none of the fragrant juices went to waste.
A side of cauliflower with pine nut paste and flavoured with ras el hanout was flavoursome but bland in comparison to the freekeh salad with julienned apple, crunchy celeriac, chard, chopped almonds and a serious tastebud attack from a liberal dose of green chilli.
But my favourite side, and perhaps the unsuspected best dish of the evening, was the smoky eggplant. Served on a plate with crispy garlic, sesame and coriander, it was more chunky dip than dish. I had no reservations shamelessly double dipping, cleaning the communal saucer with my fork, and bypassing my own plate to reach my mouth more quickly.
We were stuffed by the time we had eaten all of the above, but five words kept replaying in my head: “there’s always room for dessert, there’s always room for dessert, there’s always room for dessert.” Sure enough, we had room for dessert. The sweets at B’Stilla, with the exception of the lacklustre ice cream—the flavourless duo of pumpkin seed and fig leaf were not saved by a third scoop of standard lemon sorbet—were as innovative as they were delectable.
‘Fig, yoghurt, lime splice’ was an understated menu description for this icy, textural delight. The semifreddo yoghurt base was topped with plump figs and a zesty lime granita, ideal on a warm Arabia night.
For chocolate lovers, creamy chocolate mousse quenelles were scattered with sesame seeds and prettily plated beside spots of crème fraiche, subtle star anise smears, and tiny cubes of coffee jelly.
The standout dessert was the rosewater flan. The silky mould arrived barely wobbling and decorated with dried rose petals. A sticky date paste—mildly flavoured with rosewater—steadied the flan on the plate, while shards of walnut nougatine brought some crunch to the party.
Interestingly, B'Stilla has a strong coffee focus. They offer French press and cold drip, both African varietals roasted by Proud Mary Coffee in Melbourne. French press was a wonderful way to bring our dinner to a close with delicate, floral notes reminiscent of fruity black tea.
Despite the exciting food, the 96-seater had a slight, sterile feel left over from its previous life as a failed tapas bar. This may be because B’Stilla is about to become the first restaurant in Australia to undergo a carbon audit, which will recognise the restaurant’s efforts to offset the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in the build.
While there may not be any camels in sight or date palms taller than mosques nearby, there is now a touch of North Africa in South Yarra that was never there before. So when the sun shines through the iron lattice at B’Stilla and casts a decorative shadow inside the restaurant, turn to Mecca, close your eyes, and imagine the heartfelt wail of Islamic prayer wafting across the Sahara sky from rusty speakers.
PLEASE NOTE: Poppet's Window was invited to dine at B'Stilla by GRAM Magazine. This was a complimentary meal, however all reports are written based purely on the experience at the time.