It’s not often I come home from a restaurant puzzling over the receipt in order to figure out why it was all so affordable; a real mystery when the food is as inspiring as the food we had at Hellenic Republic last night. If this is the less expensive, populist taverna-style version of George Calombaris’ Greek food, then I’m ready to sell all of B and my Christmas presents plus a few bits of furniture to finance a trip to try the upmarket, gourmet version found at Press Club. It gets better than this?
Perhaps Hellenic Republic exceeded all expectations as the location of this restaurant didn’t thrill me – on the upper end of Lygon Street in a strip of shops which, though improving, don’t hold a lot of excitement. The restaurant itself is open and modern like a lot of the groovy cafes in the area, with a European-style bar where one can eat or have a drink and an open kitchen showcasing the chefs (presided over by George C himself on the evening we went). Although it was a near-capacity crowd and the décor, as I said, was trendy modern with hard surfaces, our group of eight could all actually hear each other talk and weren’t oppressed by the loud din so characteristic of many similarly designed places. The army of waiting staff were very professional and efficient with just the right amount of chatty friendliness and attentiveness; they really made us feel very welcome and well looked after.
The menu is made up of a large selection of ‘plates’, small portions of food such as you’ll find in tapas - I think in Greece they are called ‘mezze’ – plus main-size dishes and grills. We were lucky enough to have a Greek person who loves food in our party, who ordered for us and very well I thought. She chose a number of small plates and three grills which may have been enough, except we loved two of the plates so much we had to order more immediately. These stand-out plates were a very competent spanakopita ($9.50) and the dish of the evening, graviera saganaki ($11.50), the traditional fried salty saganaki cheese, this time topped with a sweet spicy fig relish (which I know as Syrian spiced figs). We agreed we could probably just eat these two dishes all night and go home happy. Other very satisfying plates we ordered were melizanosalata ($9.50), an eggplant dip, gemista ($12.50) vegetables stuffed with rice and the wonderfully named gigantes (giant beans) $7.50. These beans tasted slightly of rosewater to me which was confusing but not entirely unpleasant.
There was a bit of a wait after this for the grills, uncomfortable to no-one except me with my current pregnant wolfish appetite. We had kalamari ($16.00), lamb spit ($22.00) and grilled vegetables ($18.00). The kalamari was simple, delicious and not at all chewy or rubbery, the vegetables beautifully firm, fresh and naturally delicious, prompting a discussion about how none of our party could ever manage to coerce our grilled vegetables to such a state. Our resident Greek was disappointed with the lamb as she didn’t like the flavouring they’d used on it. I couldn’t identify this flavouring but found the lamb flavour quite strong which I liked but others may not and the lamb slightly overcooked. One of our party ordered her own main, pastitsio ($24.00) which she enjoyed; it seemed to be a hearty sized portion, more like the taverna food I’ve had before.
The dessert menu was full of the almost-sickly sweet traditional treats we all know and love, so we shared four between us – baklava ($12.50), galatktoboureko ($13.50), a hard semolina custard with cherries, loukamades ($12.50), fried round donuts with a honey syrup and kataifi ($14.50), a vermicelli dessert served with ice cream. A fifth, risogalo ($12.50), was quickly added by a rice-pudding lover. All were extremely sweet, as expected, but very well done. For drinks the others had wine served in karafaki ($20) and a sparkling water was $5. Many of us had tea and coffee which were decently priced ($3.50 for coffee and $4.50 for a small plunger of tea).
I must mention what seems to be the big issue facing Hellenic Republic. We were asked by the staff many times if we felt the portions were adequate as other diners have apparently complained they are too small; we replied we felt they were adequate. I’ll qualify this by saying we’d had a bit of bread before starting eating and it was an all-female table – perhaps a large hungry bloke used to big slabs of food found at the traditional Greek taverna might find otherwise. But with food that’s light but extremely flavoursome we generally found the portions fine and in the ones we didn’t, ordered more without it breaking the bank.
The wonderful surprise of the evening came with the bill, $335.50 for eight. We hadn’t held back in ordering extra dishes we particularly loved and quailed at some of the prices (I’d wondered about the $12.50 desserts until I realised there was no way even I could eat a whole one) so were expecting to pay $80 or more a head… and this was less than $50 each including a tip.
Before I’d discovered George Calombaris’ Greek food, I’d gone off this cuisine after having too many stodgy, overcooked meals in fusty old tavernas. Hellenic Republic breathes new life into a cuisine which sorely needs it and will hopefully do for Greek food in this country what Movida did for tapas. I’m heading over to The Press Club as soon as I can afford to, and definitely back to Hellenic Republic soon.