Themed dinners give chefs an opportunity to bust outside the mundane repetition of reproducing their regular menu, and flex their creativity and skills. They’re a chance to woo diners onto the dark side of eating things they’re not familiar with; dishes that might not sell on an everyday menu. At Coya, on the back streets of Cromer (part of Sydney’s Northern Beaches), Chef Ashraf Saleh is flexing his formidable skills with a well-priced, six-course Game Dinner ($69/person).
Before you turn up your nose and tell me you don’t eat camel, in Saleh’s capable hands, the intensity of game is gentled into easy-to-like, approachable creations.
Dishes, like our opening venison nayeh, meld strong French technique with Arabic influences to come up with harmonious cross-cultural collisions. Seasoned raw venison is turned from a mould then topped with horseradish cream and chilli pearls that burst on the tongue with bright capsaicin. It’s surrounded by fluffy wasabi pea dust and garnished with a rice puff that reminds me of panipuri. What’s even better, this hybrid dish is as tasty as it is eye-catching.
Showing a remarkable knack for plating, Saleh’s three Southern fried quail tulips sit upon an organic looking rice cracker seasoned with kale dust. Quail tulips – in case you were wondering – are quail legs with the thigh bone removed, and the delicate poultry meat wrapped around the drumstick bone in a tulip formation. Dipped into a little pot of chilli aioli, they're finger-licking good. The green dust has a clever gunpowder note that reminds me of cracker night when I was a kid, and inclines me to eat the whole rice cracker.
Next Saleh shows the versatility of kangaroo by reimagining it as kangaroo brandade. Textbook crumbing and not even a hint of the iron-rich flavour that can be off-putting about ‘roo help to make these three well-sized croquettes impressive when you drag them through tangy raspberry and balance them with lemon.
A big, savoury hit of roasted rabbit runs though the hare parcels, which are basically a riff upon the manti (Turkish dumplings) I enjoyed last time I was at Coya. The textural, chewy dumplings are nestled in a fluffy cauliflower velouté so lovely I’d have been happy just to eat a bowl of it. Basil oil and edible flowers that actually have a flavour, pretty up this bowl of Turkish-inspired comfort food.
By the time we get to the camel that was probably making some diners nervous, the sunny little dining room is full of convivial good cheer. Holding court at the front table are Australian cooking legend, Janni Kyritsis and his former acolyte who cooked with him at MG Garage, Lauren Murdoch, now an award-winning chef in her own right.
Tucked between a soft mattress of potato puree and a delicate top sheet of daikon, the tagine braised camel sits somewhere between beef and lamb. Long fibres of spiced meat remind me of rendang, and are easy to like against gently employed preserved lemon.
We float back to the CBD on a super-tart passionfruit cloud that enveloped ice cream and tangy yoghurt. It’s perfect to clean up your palate after a game dinner that really belied my expectations about gamey intensity.
There’s still time to book in for Coya’s next fancy feast that is taking place this Sunday, 26 May, 2019. This time chef Saleh is doing an entirely Vegan Tasting Menu ($59/head) that kicks off with vegetarian tartare, and ends the five savoury courses on mushroom shawarma before an intriguing chickpea take on dairy free dessert.
NOTE: You can see my first review of Coya back HERE.
1/61-63 Carawa Road, Cromer
Ph: (02) 9981 7053