In the 4 months that I’ve been away from writing proper, I’ve been violently sucked into a whirlwind of events, bludgeoned with massive amounts of food, met the incredible people behind food establishments, harvested an insane amount of food photographs, and got tossed into the world of publishing – all in the name of Urban Relish. What was supposed to be a small-scaled summer food publication almost immediately blew out of proportion and there went 4 months.
But that’s not the point of this post.
The point is: Meet my latest obsession.
Moorish Cuisine – a melange of cuisines from the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean countries. Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, and more, Moorish cuisine is best summed up as probably the best thing that the rampaging Ottomans left behind before the empire was broken up into what we know today as Turkey, Arabia, Syria, and the like.
In a nutshell, you’re supposed to be feasting at a table with friends whom you love enough to share the bounty with. You order up a storm, and dive right in. And there’s so much to love about such a philosophy that I’ve been back about a total of 5 times now, with a handful or so of returns in the planning.
As part of the mammoth food guide, Urban Relish, that I was slaving away for, I had the opportunity to visit Artichoke for a tasting session. All I’d heard about them was their brunch. And if you’re like me and have only heard about their brunch, well I have just one thing to say: Stop hearing it, because I’m going to tell you about their dinners.
Of course, it’s chef Bjorn Shen who has crafted this contagious culture in his restaurant, and all I needed was just a little chat with him for it to start infecting (in the best way possible). If you need an example of his kitchen philosophy, just have a look at that chalk-scrawled wall in the picture on the right. He’s great with his meats, just in case you can’t tell.
It’s all about great food, colour, texture, boisterous groups of people, passing around a Forgotten Grain Salad to share, mopping up plates of dips with flat breads, and perhaps a meat platter if you’re so inclined. Although I must say that if you do order a meat platter, chances are, Chef Bjorn himself might just come right up to your table in the midst of grilling some haloumi and try to convince you to order a Beetroot Tzatziki instead.
When at Artichoke, if something on the menu looks foreign to you, order it. Don’t know what’s blackened Turkish butter? Or the aforementioned haloumi? Only one way to find out. If you’re still insecure, I’m telling you they’re all good. Details in a while.
Here he is, orchestrating the photoshoot as I was perched atop a high stool. He admitted to having dabbled in food photography a while back before starting Artichoke, and burst out of the restaurant arms full with cups, bottles of cider, cutlery, napkins – anything and everything that could be a prop.
In true Middle Eastern fashion, we started off with the Moorish Dips ($15) of chickpea hummus, roasted carrot and cumin, and cucumber tzatziki and za’atar, served with Turkish pide and crispbread. There might be freshly baked pide now though, since the last time I was at Artichoke Bjorn showed me an adorable round of dough to be baked.
The hummus is earthy, with a hint of garlic and an aromatic pool of olive oil, while the cucumber tzatziki is tart with homemade pickled cucumbers and za’atar (a mixture of middle eastern spices). My favourite was the roasted carrot and cumin though – sweet, creamy, with just that kick of smokey cumin and crunchy (I think this shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore) walnuts. It is just perfect with fluffy pide.
So here’s the Haloumi ($16), a cheese used in Grecian (mostly in Cyprus), and Middle Eastern cooking. It’s made from a combination of goats’ and sheep milk, and sometimes cows’ milk. It has a meaty texture, and is perfect for grilling or frying, and at Artichoke, it’s grilled to a crisp golden-brown on the outside. It is important to eat it in under 5 minutes for the best textural experience of that outer crust and soft, yet chewy, milky interior. Haloumi is also known as Squeaky Cheese. Just cut into it with a knife or chew it in your mouth and you’ll experience the sensation of the cheese ‘squeaking’ or rubbing against your teeth.
Do note that the presentation of this dish has been changed from what is featured above. Just a reminder of how long overdue this post is.
This funky neon pink mound is the Beetroot Tzatziki ($15), a yummy mess of boiled beetroot tossed in tangy homemade labneh (yoghurt cheese) so the rich, natural red from the beetroots imparts a wacky pink hue to the whole dish. It’s creamy, and topped with garlic breadcrumbs and pistachio dukka. Crunchy.
This is a vegetable dish that will convert even the most stubborn of meat-lovers. To date, it’s converted two friends of mine, both of whom I gave the go-ahead to wipe the entire bowl clean. This is an artful creation, again playing wholely on texture and flavour. And if the pink amuses you, that’s just a bonus.
I can’t think of a more aptly named dish than this – the Forgotten Grain Salad ($15). This isn’t something I would have ordered if I had waltzed into Artichoke the first time round on my own. I would have gone for the meats. You know, the big guns.
But I will never walk in without ordering this again.
Here’s why: It’s made with a stunning blend of 12 ingredients that all work so inconceivably well together. Bulgar, Quinoa, Wild Rice, Onions, Almond slivers, Pomegranate seeds, Capers, Sunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Black Currants, garlicky Labneh, and Cilantro.
Just a couple of spoonfuls and you get the burst of sweetness from both the pomegranate seeds and black currants, the chew of the grains, the crunch of the toasted seeds, the bite of the onions, and a good hard kick from that creamy garlic labneh.
It’s a salad. But so what? There’s nothing leafy about it. It’s another dish that will convert, although I must say that not everyone will love it, but most will. It’s fascinating, and is such a kaleidoscope of colours. I’ve done the unthinkable and ordered it to take-away a few weeks back because I had crazy cravings. A friend of mine followed suit.
The twiced-cooked Lamb Ribs ($28) was but a teaser, the epilogue, to the Lambgasm. They’re prepared differently, for sure, but if Artichoke’s preparation of meats is anything to go by, the Lambgasm will be promising. Glazed with a coca cola pomegranate finish, these were tender, sweet, sticky, and tangy from more of that labneh.
This date pudding is TO DIE FOR. I rarely capitalize letters, so when I do, pay attention.
There’s probably nothing Moorish about it, but I don’t care. It’s not a sticky date pudding. It’s soft and fragrant Date Pudding ($14) with crushed peanuts, caramelized sugar bits, sea salt flakes, surrounded by a moat of smoked milk. I mean, what genius is that?!
It takes around 5 hours to prepare the smoked milk with wood chips in the oven, and the result is a creamy, smokey, sweet, lush brown sauce that the pudding just soaks up greedily. I could just inhale it. Just look at that. It’s the stuff of dreams. The best date pudding to date (har har har).
In contrast, the Galaktoboureko ($16) is milder, but no less delightful. It’s a Greek dessert made with semolina custard dotted with vanilla beans and a top layer of phyllo pastry. It looks dense, but isn’t. Not too sweet as well. The Orange Blossom Honey gelato is incredibly floral and smooth, and pairs excellently with this dessert.
The gelato that Artichoke uses is sourced from Latte e Miele, a small artisanal gelato shop with promising flavours. The Orange Blossom Honey ($7) is beautiful and created specially for Artichoke, and can be ordered on its own, as with other flavours.
It’s perhaps apt that Bjorn shoved that pig in my hands, because that’s how I feel recalling all my meals at Artichoke.
This post is threatening to run way too long, and although I have been back to Artichoke many times already and tried many other dishes, that’ll have to wait. The pides sounds amazing, and that Lambgasm too. Their brunches are fantastic, but they’re less Moorish and more towards pleasing the general weekend crowd. I’m not complaining. There’s something about candied bacon slabs, fluffy scrambled eggs, and hearty Lamb Shakshouka that renders me torn between their Dinners and Brunches.
[Update] Artichoke’s here to stay! Chef Bjorn will be opening another restaurant of a different cuisine instead of revamping Artichoke. That’s probably the best thing I’ve heard in a while.
161 Middle Road
Inside Sculpture Square
Tel: 6336 6949
Sat & Sun: 11.30am, last orders at 2.45pm, doors close at 4pm
Tues – Sat: 6.30pm, last food orders 9.45pm, doors close at 11pm
Closed on Mon