Several weeks ago, heading home on a Deane’s bus, I noticed a beautiful olive grove just past Cooma.
“Oh, it’s not just olives,” the bus driver told me. “The Nassar family grows everything on that farm for their Lebanese restaurant in town.” Paddock-to-plate, farm-to-fork, whatever you call it, the Nassar family are doing it at Rose’s Restaurant.
“Mention that phrase to my dad,” owner Tony Nassar laughs, “and he’ll say, ‘we Phoenicians have been doing paddock-to-plate for 6000 years!’
“Dad has always run a seasonal garden, using traditional techniques passed on from his great grandfather. In summer, our restaurant gets nearly 100 per cent of its fresh produce from dad’s gardens. The rest of the year we supplement our fresh produce from local growers.”
It’s Friday night, and apparently, most of Cooma has opted for Lebanese cuisine. Rose’s is a hub, a hive of activity. Packed with family groups and couples, a steady stream of customers pop in to grab takeaway and snatch a chat with a member of the Nassar family. One man stops to thank Tony for a transformational change in his family. Tony explains that he is also a life coach and therapist in his spare time!
The Nassar family were not born into hospitality. After running a commercial laundry business, Tony’s parents took over a service station. His mum, Rose, opened a roadhouse restaurant there.
Tony started up a pizza business. ‘Then, one Friday night, mum phoned me in a panic, saying ‘there are people everywhere here, it’s too busy. I introduced Lebanese food to the menu and it has just gone nuts!’
“I went up to see her later and mum asked: ‘are you sick of doing pizza? Because I want to run a Lebanese restaurant’. I had been doing pizza for 13 years by that time and was ready for a change. Dad called out that he was sick of fuel. So we sold both our businesses and launched Rose’s Restaurant. That was in 2005. Now we’ve got the kids involved, there are three generations working here together.”
A group of 35 people is mid-feast next to us, but our entrées come out quickly.
A plate of Lady’s Fingers, fried filo pastry fingers stuffed with fragrant mince, pine nuts and herbs fan out around a pot of homemade labne. Tart and smooth, Rose’s labne is the most luxurious yoghurt you can imagine, perfected from many years of making it. And a dish of Shankleesh, smoked herb cheese, crumbly and sharp with a hint of heat from the chilli skin it has been infused with. Imagine unbrined feta. Scooped up in Lebanese bread with chopped red onion and tomato, I make myself stop eating it to leave room for other dishes.
Three wonderful mains follow.
The popular Mixed Plate is an immaculate plate of contrasts. Smooth, smokey Baba Ganouje made from scratch. Skewers of marinated chicken and lamb and grilled until just tender. Tabouli so fresh the parsley was growing in the gardens this morning. Lamb risotto steamed inside rolls of pickled cabbage, their delicate, sour exterior giving way to tender lamb and rice. Mellow green beans fragrant with whole cinnamon sticks and nutmeg. I am a sucker for a great bean dish and this one is excellent.
The kitchen’s veggie offcuts do not go to waste. They’re transformed into a delicately spiced fritter that goes on the mixed plate. It is nearly my favourite thing there.
Iraydis is garlic-infused prawns, plump and juicy on a bed of Lebanese rice that is buttery and run through with vermicelli. Several of the dishes come garnished with pickled turnips. Try them! Dyed scarlet from beetroot juice, they taste so good and a little radish-y. I eat every single one.
Many dishes come directly from Rose’s grandmother; treasured recipes she taught Rose as an 8-year-old girl.
We finish with two desserts. You cannot leave without sampling the Drunken Soldier, a tiramisu-like dish once featured on ABC news. Google it! Tony invented this dessert to immortalise the camaraderie his grandfather experienced among the Anzac soldiers he met in Lebanon. Its secret blend of five different liquors and spirits and an Anzac biscuit in the middle is heady and sumptuous.
Kineffe is a personal weakness of mine, and this version is particularly good. The texture of the lush semolina pudding/cake soaking up rose water and orange blossom syrup is a delight to my tastebuds.
Rose’s Restaurant is located at 69 Massie St in Cooma, opposite the town’s central park.
They are open from Monday to Saturday, 11:30 am to 2:00 pm for lunch, and from 6:00 pm to late for dinner.