Dining is a sacred pastime with Italians. The familiar scene of extended families sitting around tables, eating, chatting, eating again – it’s not mere stereotype; it’s real. And on an individual note, every son will claim that no cooking is as good as Mamma’s, while every daughter will stash away secret recipes her Nonna passed onto her, as though they were the Holy Grail.
So, when a restaurant prides itself on fusing Italian classics with Australian fare, this is like messing with la cosa nostra. And if that phrase doesn’t mean anything to you, download The Godfather.
If anyone should dare tackle classic Italian cuisine and turn it into excellent examples of postmodern fusion, it’s chef Caleb Azuka, owner of Caleb Restaurant and Bar in Subiaco, Perth.
Tucked away on Railway Road, just around the corner from the famous Regal Theatre, is Caleb’s namesake establishment. The restaurant itself is fairly casual in décor and design; looking more like a simple café, but take one look at the blackboard menu and you know this venue means culinary business. Here, the dishes are the real stars.
Restaurant Caleb is renowned for its five-course degustation menu, so we thought we’d sample it. On the menu, chef Caleb has ensured to infuse at least one West Australian ingredient in every dish.
Says Caleb, “When I arrived in Western Australia, I travelled the south west and most coastal regions to understand the local produce so that I could fully utilise the local ingredients. I am all about fresh ingredients and what this fine state has to offer.”
His handcrafted burrata – which everyone raves about – boasts truffle cream sourced from Manjimup, drizzled with truffle honey from Margaret River, and topped with edible flowers from local gardens. One bite into this delectable cheese and you’ll want to start eating it like popcorn.
There’s more local cheese used in the next dish on the menu: arancini containing a six-hour oven-baked beetroot sauce and goat cheese camembert from Gingin.
An interesting dish called ‘Land and Sea’ follows, which is a three-tiered involtini packed with succulent chicken, rustic scallop and crispy pancetta. This sits on a pumpkin puree and red wine hollandaise which complement an already very colourful dish.
The fourth dish in the degustation is probably the most ‘main’ dish of all of them: slow-braised kangaroo and pork ragu on top of a thick handmade spaghetti, topped with bechamel for an even creamier finish.
And then there’s dessert: a limoncello curd tart topped with biscotti crumbs with a side of glazed vanilla gelato and the cutest baby apple you ever did munch on.
The boldness in Caleb’s cooking techniques stems from a chequered heritage. Born in the north of Africa and raised in Bologna, Italy, Caleb’s dishes are rooted in traditional Italian cooking, fused with rustic twists and peppered with local ingredients.
“I was lucky to grow up in a family that was all about food,” tells this genius in the kitchen. “The concept of sharing a meal is tradition to me. Moving to Italy at a young age and growing up surrounded by amazing ingredients and [constant] food preparation certainly enhanced my passion for cooking.”
Being African-born, Italian-bred chef, and with a Middle Eastern sounding surname, I wonder what the usual response is from patrons when they first hear of Caleb’s diverse background.
“Some patrons do second guess and I love it. To me, it’s all about the challenge and the theatre of describing the dish to the diner and watching them embrace good food. Most of my patrons return for another experience.”
Some might call Caleb’s take on multicultural cooking ‘new age Italian’. I’ll simply call it awe-inspiring and downright delicious.
Caleb Restaurant and Bar is situated at 23 Railway Road, Subiaco and is open for dinner from 5pm Wednesdays to Saturdays. Phone (08) 9382 2208 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit restaurantcaleb.com.au for more information. The venue also has an upstairs bar open from 4pm Wednesdays to Saturdays where patrons can enjoy cocktails while nibbling on samples from the menu.