It’s not often I’m blindsided by a restaurant. Coya had me struggling to untangle just how a gun chef like Ashraf Saleh ended up cooking French Arabic dishes in a suburban strip mall deep within the Northern Beaches.
It’s actually my first visit to the leafy green, ute-lined streets of Cromer, home to a host of successful tradies. The joy of Google Maps makes it easy to locate, so I'm soon taking an exploratory stroll along the short strip mall. You'll find a hairdresser-come-fashion-boutique; a wood-panelled curry house that looks straight from the 1970s; a bottle shop; and this surprisingly attractive, modern restaurant.
“We live locally, our kids go to school locally, there was a vacancy, so we took it,” owner Kit Saleh explains, as she gets me drinking the well-priced 2013 Pinnaroo Chardonnay ($11/glass, $40/bottle). That was almost nineteen months ago.
What you’ll find on the plate is a bizarre and inventive collection of dishes that take French techniques and integrate them seamlessly with Arabic flavours. Tasmanian Salmon Nayeh ($26) keeps the delicate raw fish centralised against lime, thinly sliced cucumber, coriander and a sumac vinaigrette; with lemon gel providing some textural interest, and just the right amount of red chilli keeping it lively on the palate.
You’ll find the same five-star hotel symmetry and elegance in the King Prawns ($26). Five sumac-crusted crustaceans sit in an orange pool of piquillo pepper puree on a vivid magenta web of raspberry vinaigrette. While the colours are definitely eye-catching, I’m delighted to report the well-integrated flavours - tangy, fruity and sweet - are the point.
While entrée and main prices do seem steep, there’s a trick to dining at Coya that I’m going to clue you in on: they’re not expecting you to order à la carte. While half-price deal scalping forces Coya to keep their listed menu prices high, better value can be achieved by opting to pay full price on their multi-course menus. Choose from Three-Course ($49/person); Four-Course ($59/person) or the whole Six-Course ($66/person) shebang. They can do them as vegetarian too, including dishes like Fried Cauliflower ($26) with seven well-handled fried cauliflower florets decked out with lemon, chilli, tahini and radish salad. Dusted with salt and spice, these little brown trees are all too easy to keep popping in your gob.
Peeking out from under wafer thin sheets of fermented pumpkin, Grilled Eggplant ($26) is even more exciting.
The blocks of eggplant are prepared and cooked beautifully, like blocks of tofu, then adorned with dates and grilled haloumi, then drizzled with herb oil and tangy pomegranate molasses. It is full-flavoured vegetarian, and a really inventive and original dish.
Shish Barak ($38) proved the menu highlight with seven toothsome, well-formed duck dumplings arranged in a syrupy cauliflower velouté.
The elegant simplicity sees it edge out a more intense Angus Short Rib ($38) that peeks out from under a veritable vegetable garden of romanesco broccoli, flash fried kale, squash and carrots. The well-cooked, premium quality beef does have a particularly appealing bite.
Desserts are also colourful, quirky and idiosyncratic, running from a simple Rhubarb Vacherin ($19) with mascarpone, fenced in by bright meringue shards, to an airy Passionfruit Souffle Mousse ($19) that eats like tangy, flavoured air.
With enough acidity to keep it from being cloying, it's arranged under a lightly chewy pillow of passionfruit marshmallow.
Under colourful tuile sails draped in Persian fairy floss, the Halawa Marquise ($19) drizzled with green pistachio crème anglaise is so over the top it could be a children’s party dish. Why is it then, I can't stop eating it? I eventually drag my spoon away and leave the restaurant chuckling to myself about finding this Saudi Arabian chef who marches to the beat of his own drum in the wilds of Cromer. Yes, Coya is worth the trip.
Thanks to AGFG for arranging my visit.
1/61-63 Carawa Road, Cromer
Ph: (02) 9981 7053