B’Stilla (Bas-tee-ya) is the new restaurant from Jason Jones, chef and co-owner of Mexican hot-spot Mamasita, and has recently burst into life just off Chapel Street in South Yarra. Wanting to try something new, Jason has turned his attention to Morocco and, like Mamasita, aims to serve authentic yet approachable dishes. Moroccan food is all about the balance of savoury, sweet and spice, something that needs to be handled carefully, and it is safe to say that the food at B’Stilla is in good hands.
The space is modern and spacious, befitting its South Yarra location, with an open kitchen and outside seating. The drinks list is short and to the point, with mostly Australian wine and beer. The wines tend to be lighter to match the food, and the Crittenden house wines are very well priced and available in various sizes via eco keg. The service is friendly and casual, which fits the concept well, and staff are approachable when navigating a cuisine that may not be familiar to most people (a glossary as part of the menu also helps).
The menu is designed to share, with many of the dishes coming as entrée size, making it easier to cover more of the menu in one meal. Several larger dishes offer a more substantial choice, such as the beef short ribs and three different tagines. There are a large number of vegetarian dishes, which happily stay away from boring clichés, making it a perfect choice for non-carnivores and carnivores alike. The spicing is subtle in most dishes, with the freekah salad delivering the biggest chilli hit, but a housemade harissa is on hand if you want more of a kick to any dish.
The grilled batbout flat bread is light and fluffy, with a gentle warmth of tumeric, and served with a tomato and lemon jam, which was refreshingly tart. The restaurant’s namesake, the B’Stilla, is spot on (as it should be). Layers of crispy, flaky pastry (think filo, brik), encasing a slow-cooked and lightly spiced filling of pigeon and duck. The icing sugar and cinnamon dusted on top perfectly sums up Moroccan cuisine; that delicate balance between savoury, sweet and spice. Delicious.
Moving into main territory we opt for the goat tagine (there is also a vegetarian and seafood option), and the goat was cooked until it was falling off the bone (as there’s nothing worse than overcooked goat). The spicing is spot-on, and the sauce left at the bottom of the tagine is unbelievable (make sure you have couscous or bread to mop up every drop). The beef short ribs were rich and meltingly delicious, a carrot jam adding a rich sweetness with preserved lemon giving that salty acidity.
The sides and salads come in small and large sizes, making it easier to try as many as you want. The freekah salad with apple, celeriac, chard, green chilli and almond already seems to be a favourite and certainly has the necessary spike of heat to leave a good impression. The couscous with apricot, smoked chilli, coriander and preserved citrus has a wonderful perfumed flavour with a gentle smokiness.
The desserts sound simple, but are one of the highlights of the meal. The flan (crème caramel-style, not the pastry tart) is lightly scented of rosewater, rich without being heavy, with a sticky date puree and a crunchy and sticky walnut nougatine. The chocolate dish is spiced with star anise and dotted with sesame seeds, joining a strong espresso jelly which marries so well with the chocolate. The accompanying cinnamon crème fraiche is heavenly with the perfume of cinnamon playing off the sourness of the cream.
B’Stilla already looks like it is going to continue the Mamasita winning strike and I, for one, am so happy to see Moroccan food receiving the attention it deserves. It is a difficult cuisine to get right, with its tightrope of sweet, savoury and spice to balance just right, but B’Stilla has nailed it so far. It’s no-bookings for tables under 8, so get down there now before there are lines out the door.