Teta Mona Brunswick East is a restaurant on Lygon Street that aims to bring honest, home style soul food to those who visit. When I say soul food, I don’t mean the cornbread, grits and black eyed peas of the American South, but rather the Lebanese food that the owner’s Teta (grandmother) Mona cooked for them when they were growing up (and still cooks for them today).
The owners are brothers Antoine and Bechara Taouk, who after learning how to cook from their Teta Mona, and working at their grandfather’s bakery, the Preston institution Cedar Bakery, decided to open up a restaurant of their own. Bechara is in charge of the kitchen while Antoine takes care of the customer focused side of things.
Walking into Teta Mona, you can tell that Anotoine and Bechara have opened a venue that’s very much “them”. Family portraits and Lebanese bits and pieces dot the walls and the fitout itself it quite homely too, for example the white curtains at the front. It instantly feels very welcoming and the staff come across as genuinely friendly from the get go. The main dining area is very small, and the kitchen itself is in the same room.
When my wife and I arrived on Friday night the inside dining area was full so we were taken down the side of the restaurant to the courtyard area out the back.
The outdoor area is simple, with a large overhanging tree , a few covered tables and fairy light dotted around. Speakers play a mixture of traditional and more modern, dance/hip-hop oriented Lebanese music both inside and outside. It was a cold night however the gas stand heaters did an admirable job of keeping us warm.
The big change from when this used to be part of the neighbouring Alehoue Project’s courtyard is the giant street art mural on the dividing fence, painted by local artist Conrad “RAD”. Teta Mona was clearly a force to be reckoned with back in her younger days in the Lebanese town of Bcharre and word is that she’s still a force to be reckoned with today at the age of 78.
Drinks are a range of cool ice blended drinks, hot teas and the usual assortment of soft drinks and juices. There is no alcohol on the menu.
I ordered a refreshing ice blended rose syrup and mint drink and wy wife ordered a shal effe w haal (cinnamon bark and cardamom pod tea) which she really enjoyed. I keeping with the traditional theme, my drink was served in a glass tumbler, the kind of which would be instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up in a Mediterranean/Balkan household and the tea was served in a similarly recognisable tea/coffee pot.
Moving on to the food, the menu options are traditional Lebanese dishes, described by Antoine and Bechara as a “wholefoods take on traditional Lebanese village food”. In the mornings on the weekend, there’s a selection of breakfast dishes and pastries, with the pastries also being available during lunch. In the evening, a selection of small share plates, medium share plates, mains and desserts are offered. I always appreciate a no-nonsense menu that’s easy to follow and understand and at Teta Mona each menu item is listed with its Lebanese name first, followed by the breakdown of what the dish actually is in English.
Serving sizes are very generous. My wife and I ordered what we thought seemed like a reasonable amount for the two of us who both arrived with a healthy appetite and by the end of the meal (which we could not finish), we were in agreeance that what we ordered could have just about fed 3 people.
Shanklish Salata (Semi Dried Yoghurt,Tomato, Onion & Olive Salad) ($8.00)
I really enjoyed the Shaklish Salata, which in another nod to tradition was served in faux wooden plates again recognisable to anyone with a Mediterranean/Balkan background. It tasted very fresh and had a good level of saltiness which many places get wrong when they use feta cheese. Here, the balance of all the ingredients worked just right. The pita bread was delicious and light and did an admirable job of mopping up the salad sauces.
Felafel D.I.Y. (House Felafel With Pickles & Tahini) ($12.50)
My wife and I both really enjoyed the felafel. Again, the quality of the ingredients was evident and the flavours were great. The felafels were light and had a really good texture about them. The use of sweet green peas as well as yellow peas gives them a unique twist. They were very filling but not at all heavy. The only criticism we both had was that they were too soft on the outside – a little more crunch would have been perfect. This is due to the fact that they are oven baked rather than friend, so on the plus side it’s a much healthier felafel than usual.
Cigara Bi Lahem (Pastry Rolls Filled With Spiced Lamb, Onion, Walnuts & Pomegranate Molasses) ($12.50)
There were 4 of these cigara in the plate, however my wife was so eager to try them that she forgot that I hadn’t taken a photo yet. I got in quickly with a blurry shot before another one went missing and she had a chance to attack the labne and salad!
Due to my wife’s nut allergy we didn’t have walnuts in ours. Thankfully everything on the menu (apart from the baklava for obvious reasons) was able to be cooked without nuts.
The first cigara I tried was delicious – my favourite dish of the night. The balance of all the ingredients was spot on, with the pomegranate molasses adding a subtle sweetness. The pastry was perfectly light and flaky. My wife said that hers was “ok” which I found odd, however when I ate my second one I realised why. Whereas the first cigara was amazing, the second one had no discernible pomegranate molasses taste – it was literally missing something. My wife on the other hand had her second cigara and it was so full over pomegranate molasses that it overpowered the other ingredients. She said that she couldn’t taste any in her first one.
None of them were bad, but the inconsistency was a shame as the first one that I had was divine.
Kebet Arayet (Beef & Cracked Wheat Parcels Stuffed With Spinach & Feta) ($12.50)
Both my wife and I agreed that this dish was our least favourite of the night. It wasn’t bad, and I quite happily ate it all however compared to the flavours and textures of the other dishes this one didn’t compare and was just a bit too bland.
Baklawa (Traditional Layered Pastry Filled With Amonds, Pepita & Chia Seeds & Agave Necatar) ($6.50)
The disappointment of the kebet arayat was soon forgotten when my baklawa came out. I was very full by this stage but thankfully my dessert stomach kicked into gear. I was fully expecting to only be able to eat half of it (it was huge) however a normal baklawa this was not. It was a lot lighter than many baklawas that I have dried, with the pastry layers being discernible and not drowned in syrup as is often the case. The top layer and filling were dryer and less sweet than usual, with the super sweet and syrupy elements coming into play in the bottom layer. What this meant was that the baklawa was not overly sweet (in baklawa terms that is) and that it was very crispy and soft at the same time. I was very impressed.
At the front of the restaurant is a cabinet that contains a small range of Lebanese produce like spices, coffee and tahini for sale.
When it comes to service, Teta Mona had its ups and downs. When my wife and I were seated out the back we were the only ones there and we must have been forgotten about. Nobody came out to ask us if we wanted something to drink while we were looking at the menu and, when we were ready to order, which was quite a while after we had been seated, I had to go inside and find someone. I noticed that a few tables had become free that were not reserved and found it odd that nobody asked us if we would like to move inside given that it was quite a cold night. I imagine that if we were sitting inside or if the outside was full things would have been a lot smoother.
When we were being attended to, the service was top notch. The staff were really friendly and the homely vibe that you get when you walk inside the restaurant flows through to the attitude of the staff. Our waitress was really friendly, chatty and chirpy – a pleasure to be around. Whenever anyone did talk to us they seemed genuinely nice and wanted to know if we were enjoying the food and our night.
Food wise, the quality of the ingredients was great, and the lightness and freshness of the cooking was apparent in everything we ate. Serving sizes are generous and everything is well priced. It is evident that baking is in the blood of Teta Mona – the highlights of the night all came from dishes that involved pastry and pita bread.
The inconsistencies of some of the dishes combined with the service issues at the start preclude me from saying that I had an excellent experience at Teta Mona, but the positives of the night (plus the fact that it’s next door to my favourite bar in Melbourne, the Alehouse Project) mean that I’ll definitely be back again to try some of the other appealing sounding things on the menu.
To me Teta Mona is a work in progress. All of groundwork is there for it to become a Brunswick East institution however with Lebanese food being done consistently well at Brunswick East stalwart Rumi, literally a minute walk up the road, being good in this part of town isn’t enough. Antoine and Bechara seem like really nice guys and I hope that over the coming months that they can iron out the remaining kinks and elevate Teta Mona from good to excellent.
100A Lygon Street
Telephone: (03) 9380 6680
Tue – Fri: 11:00am to 10:30pm
Sat – Sun: 9:00am to 10:30pm