You’ll find the new Tarboosh in a small, low-rise development called The Ice Works, set on a leafy green, suburban street with plenty of architectural interest. The site was once the home of the Chatswood Ice Works, an ice plant established back in 1908. They manufactured blocks of ice that were delivered to local residences by the “ice man” and used for the preservation of food before houses had refrigerators.
A 2011 redevelopment morphed the site into a small hub of restaurants and boutiques, to which Tarboosh is the latest addition.
From the outside, the restaurant is a bit of a glass box, with a couple of outdoor tables; while inside exposed bricks, exposed rafters and aggregate floors are softened with an olive-green feature wall and dangling greenery. Woven wooden chairs and wooden tables help to make the space an accessible, everyday suburban eatery, helped along by a glass counter of cakes, salads and sweets running along the open kitchen.
Willoughby is a third outlet for owner and chef, Sam Matar, who kicked off his empire of Lebanese mezze and grill restaurants in Balmain, rapidly followed by Crows Nest.
I’m excited to see he hasn’t watered down the menu, presenting polarising dishes like Kebbeh Nayeh ($18) where premium raw minced lamb is presented with ground wheat, herbs, spices, Spanish onion, fresh chillies, sliced tomato, mint and extra virgin olive oil. Be warned, while delicious, it's a very generous portion size for a mezze.
We punctuate it with Falafel Chips ($12) dragged through runny labne. They’re a clever long, thin take on the same mix that is used to make everyone’s favourite kofta: falafel.
While I’m pretty sure Kushari ($23) is Egyptian, the porous shared border of the Mediterranean Sea has no doubt seen this vegetarian dish travel and be adopted into neighbouring cuisines. The Lebanese version is less soupy than other kushari I’ve tried, meaning the mix of rice, lentils, macaroni, chickpeas and spiced tomato sauce topped with sweet fried onions eats better against kebab.
We take our meats on the Tarboosh Mix Plate ($30) that presents marinated chicken, lamb and kafta skewers plus dips and salad. The quinoa tabouli is the standout, with more lemon juice than oil, combining very nicely with fresh tomatoes, spring onion and parsley. Your go-to dip is the hummus; the baba ghannouj is creamy and lemony but lacks the smoky depth I crave. Shishtawook, the marinated chicken skewer, eats best with garlic dip. I wanted a bit more of that big charcoal hit from all of the skewers, but it’s hard to complain when you’re eating good quality meat combined with tasty dips and fresh herbs, all rolled up in nicely pliable Lebanese bread.
Your meal is served by a friendly and handsome, all-male floor team who are clearly excited to be presenting the dishes they grew up eating to a new audience. While Tarboosh don’t serve alcohol, you’re welcome to bring it, with corkage set at two bucks. There’s even a Porter's Liquor (albeit with an uninspiring wine range) within walking distance. It’s great to see quality Lebanese food penetrate into areas that are better known for Chargrill Charlie's than they are El Jannah.
Tarboosh Lebanese Kitchen
The Ice Works, 183-191 High Street, North Willoughby
Ph: (02) 8384 3238