Lygon street, or "Little Italy", is famous for its Italian restaurants and gelato stalls. Venture a few brave steps up towards Carlton and Brunswick East, however, and you will discover a completely different realm. Once darkness falls, this end of Lygon street comes to life with exotic belly dancers, shisha bars and sinful fares hailing from all over the world.
Rumi stands out from this boisterous crowd, serving up contemporary Middle Eastern food with sincerity and tradition in every morsel.
The restaurant, which combines Levantine and Persian flavours, is owned by husband and wife Joseph and Natalie Abboud. Since I was a child, I have invariably preferred family-owned restaurants. The owners seem to almost always lend a touch of family warmth to the interior, resulting in cosy and homely dining spaces like one finds at Rumi. With its dim lighting, weathered brick walls and no nonsense table settings, one feels at ease immediately. Let go of the day's troubles and responsibilities further by sinking into the cushions provided.
The service was polite and efficient, and the staff knowledgeable about the menu. The menu was designed for sharing, hence it comprises mostly of small to medium-sized dishes. We decided to give the mains a miss in order to try a larger variety of food, since there were only two of us.
The water came in a beautiful jar that I was afraid to break, and the coke arrived with a small, slim glass. We only waited for a short while before the Hot Yoghurt Soup ($7) was served, despite it being a Friday night and the restaurant fully booked. A quick stir revealed persian noodles and chickpeas, and it was topped off with a generous serving of crispy onions. The flavours were extremely confronting - the yoghurt being sour and the onions biting. You will either love or hate this soup, but we did not particularly fancy it.
The rest of the dishes arrived in rapid succession. We were also given complementary flat bread (most likely store bought), that were rolled up neatly in a small metal tin. The Persian Meatballs ($12.50), sat in a tomato and saffron sauce and were crowned in labne, or yoghurt. The meat was moist and tender, and was perfectly complemented by the sauce and labne.
The Burnt Eggplant ($15.50) was a disappointment for the price we paid. Dressed in Persian buttermilk, mint and crispy onions, the taste was reminiscent of a certain yoghurt soup we had earlier in the night. We then cautiously prodded the Fried Cauliflower ($11.50), which were burnt beyond recognition. However all was redeemed when we tasted it, the cauliflower still wonderfully juicy despite its blackened shell. The caramelised onions, currants and pine nuts that studded the dish all melted together in a perfect harmony with the different textures and flavours.
Finally, we turned our hungry eyes to the Quail Kebab ($19.50). It came with a pair of intricately patterned skewers and divine notes of citrus, carrot, caraway and mint. The meat was still on the bone and had a mild gamey taste that was surprisingly pleasant. The sauce was so good that we ended up wiping the plate clean with our last bits of quail.
We finished our meal amidst the laughter and chatter of happy diners and it was definitely one of the more memorable dinners I have had this year. The intimate setting and sharing menu makes Rumi suitable for romantic dates as well as families and groups of friends, and surpasses expectations with its interesting yet modest pleasures.