Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Arabian nights at Yalla Sawa

When restaurateur Jad Nakhle told his friends and family that he was going to open an eatery serving refined Arabian cuisine in Cronulla they all told him he was crazy. And that it would never work.

Yalla Sawa is the sum of all its parts and such a welcome addition to the Cronulla dining scene.
A riot of colour
Yalla Sawa means 'come together' in Arabic. And since it swung open its doors 18 months ago, the restaurant perched on a corner of Monro Park opposite the railway station has been embraced by the local community and then some. In my mind, it also sits as a glittering example of just how far Cronulla has come.

Colourful pointy-hatted tagines tell a story about age-old Arabic culinary traditions.

Location, location
While the exterior of the restaurant is not especially lovely, its proximity to the park and ocean is. Step inside the tiny space and you will also be charmed by the distressed walls, the bifold windows that pull in the sea breeze, the metal lanterns, the wall of wines, moody lighting, distressed timbers, earthy Moroccan tiling and staff that mostly sit on branches of the family tree.

Yalla Sawa packs in the punters every night it is open.

Chargrilled octopus with zhoug ... it's enough to build a dream on.
Sharing is caring
As for the food? While it looks deceptively simple, the dishes on the menu also reach heights of greatness largely because of head chef and co-owner Walid Karam's skill in the cupboard-sized kitchen, but also because the dishes are all based on time-worn recipes that have been passed down through the generations. The food is rustic and earthy, with boisterous flavours that marry Middle Eastern and Mediterranean themes with Moroccan flavours and place the emphasis on fresh herbs and salads that add lightness to the equation.

Sharing is caring at Yalla Sawa, with the dips made by owner Jad Nakhle's mum, Amal.

Sam Kekovich would be proud of this luscious lamb shish dish with tabouli, hommus and saj bread at Yalla Sawa. 
Mama's Mezze
From the mezze made by Jad's mum Amal - silky smooth hommus, vivid beetroot dip and smoky baba ghanoush - to the insane falafels that are crisp and nutty and benefit from a blast of fresh herbs - to the stonkingly good side dishes of chargrilled occy to roasted vegetables and fatoush, the food is an exercise in loveliness.

Yalla Sawa is on fire and a family affair both in the kitchen and on the floor.  
Breeze blocks
While the mains do deserve their own belly dance, it's that cumulative effect that makes Yalla Sawa sing. Great food: Tick. Attentive service: Tick. Sea breeze: Tick. Good vibes: Tick. I tried and failed to procure the head chef's recipe for the fresh tagine of kafta, quail eggs, spicy Moroccan red sauce or the slow-cooked lamb shank, with honey, raisin and toasted almonds. But, on reflection, I don't want to learn how to cook these dishes. I want to stroll 3km along the Esplanade with family and friends to enjoy these dishes at Yalla Sawa.

Food for the soul: Yalla Sawa is no longer just a local secret.

Neighbourhood gem
A quick straw poll of all those I've urged to try this restaurant suggests I'm not the only one who dreams of  diving headfirst into Amal's dips, which are served with fluffy warm Lebanese bread. And, despite not being a dessert queen, I admire the gusto with which sweet tooths tackle the pistachio ice cream, halawa and pinenut brittle or orange blossom tart with ashta and toasted almonds. The drinks menu is also decidedly grown-up as is the demographic that mobs this neighbourhood gem.

Pistachio ice-cream with halawa and pine nut brittle.
It's summer. So what better time to share the good times and #cometogether at Yalla Sawa? Out-of-area peeps need to know that you can't expect to lob and get a table as the place is permanently rammed. Also worth mentioning is that Jad and his wife Hayley also have a stake in the Brass Monkey and El Sol, which are two firm local favourites to hear live music and enjoy a bite to eat.

Shop 8, Beach Park Arcade. 138-142 Cronulla St, Cronulla. e: bookings@yallasawa.comm.au. Open Wed-Sun 6pm-11pm. Phone: (02) 8544 0614. If you'd like to receive new posts and links to my latest articles, please subscribe via my website @ www.carlagrossetti.com. 

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