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Published January 26th 2014
Curious name, fresh and fabulous Middle Eastern food
Middle Eastern or Moroccan dining usually conjures up images of swathes of sumptuous curtains, burnished copper or brass lighting, piles of exotic cushions, and possibly some belly dancing. It's so often more about the atmosphere than the food; a victory of style over substance. Well, if it's a dark and mysterious atmosphere you're looking for then Ben's Alibi isn't for you.
Firstly, Ben's Alibi is located in a somewhat unlikely place - at the foot of the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law building, and on the edge of the city's legal precinct. That probably explains the restaurant's decidedly unMoroccan name. Secondly, Ben's Alibi is a bright cafe and bar resident in a narrow, glass annexe in unpretentious surroundings, unless you count all the lawyers in wigs and gowns scurrying around, trailing cases of court documents. There is a nod to Middle Eastern decor with groups of colourful, hanging lights, some chair cushions and a Moroccan street scene or two decorating some walls. Otherwise, it's all business with utilitarian chairs and melamine-topped tables. There is outside dining too, on bench seats or at high, umbrella-sheltered tables, which would be a pleasant option on a sunny day.
[ADVERT] I had come for a leisurely late lunch with Comedy Relief to celebrate his recent birthday. He had recommended Ben's Alibi after a pre-Christmas lunch with work colleagues and because he knows how much I love Middle Eastern food. Yes, I know it was HIS birthday, but it was my shout. If I left every dining out decision to him, we'd have a choice of steak, steak, or steak (see my review of Cha Cha Char here), so Ben's Alibi it was, and a great decision, too.
The 'what to eat' decision was a little harder. The menu presented a range of starters and mezzahs (appetisers), salads, gourmet sandwiches and Moroccan pizzas. For someone who loves that characteristic blend of spicy and sweet flavours it all sounded delicious and the meals being enjoyed by other diners looked inviting. We finally decided to share a tasting plate so that we could enjoy a little of everything. These come in vegetarian and lamb options, with the lamb option appealing to the carnivore in both of us. We placed our order with Ben himself, a larger-than-life dynamo, whose presence and friendly banter seemed to fill the cafe - in a good way. He delivered beautiful hand-painted plates to our table, and we waited with a glass of cider in hand.
Ben warned us about the size of the tasting plate but we laughed in the face of danger. Besides, I had come prepared. I had wisely changed my skirt at the last minute, ditching the plain denim skirt for the one with added lycra, so how hard could it be? It was when the platter arrived that we began to wonder if we had indeed bitten off more than we could chew.
The gorgeous green platter groaned with a cornucopia of lamb, salad, cheese, dips, and crispy, toasted Turkish bread. There wasn't a space anywhere. The room between each of the colourful serving bowls was filled with the fresh, mixed leaves, tomatoes, cucumber and pinenut salad with a sweet balsamic dressing, and around the edges were scattered crunchy, toasted bread triangles. Ben advised us not to begin with the dips, but to start with meats and salads. And it was good advice.
The Lebanese lamb cigars were a tasty mix of tender lamb and light pastry, and the roast Moroccan lamb mixed with organic lamb sausage was delicately spicy. A real highlight for me was the honey crumbled fetta; a perfect balance of salty and sweet flavours. The dips were subtle and satisfying and the sweet and spicy homemade chutney was delightful. Bliss.
We heroically gave the plate our best shot, but couldn't quite demolish it. The only shame was that we had no room left to indulge in one of the sweet pastries from the dessert counter. Needless to say, we didn't need dinner last night.
Ben's Alibi uses spices and oils imported from Morocco and the Middle East. Everything is handmade to their exclusive recipes and they use chemical-free, organic ingredients; it clearly shows in the freshness, quality and presentation. In addition to the food, you can also buy some of the striking tableware - plates, bowls and tajines that are on display in the restaurant. I've already placed an order with Comedy Relief for my upcoming birthday. As a guide the large plates sell for $69. I also must mention the service which was polite, accommodating and friendly throughout our dining experience.
Ben certainly doesn't need an alibi. Anyone would be pleased to be responsible for this wonderful, tasty food, relaxed atmosphere and impeccable, friendly service. We'll be coming back to check out the Moroccan pizza and sweet pastries.
Ben's Alibi is open from 7am to 4pm Mondays to Thursdays and from 7am until late on Fridays. They are not open on weekends, except for functions, and they also offer catering services. You can see the menu here and find out about their catering service here.