Some of you will know that I’m a HUGE fan of George Calombaris and his modern Greek restaurant The Press Club (and to a slightly lesser extent Maha, the Middle-Eastern inspired restaurant that he is a business partner of). So when I heard that he was opening up a casual Greek eatery last year, I was jumping up and down and squealing like those muzzas when the Greeks won Euro in 2004. This so-called taverna, Hellenic Republic, only opened a month ago and doesn’t even have a functioning website nor has it been reviewed by The Age yet it’s already popular with Melburnians. Despite mixed reviews, punters are still flocking up to Brunswick East to sample some simple Greek food branded with the George C brand and on Wednesday afternoon, I was told by the reservations lady that there was a waiting list for dinner on Thursday night (!!) but that she was able to squeeze me in because clearly I’m tres cool (though I’m guessing that HR and PC share the same database and the chick would’ve seen my name pop up along with the huge tip when I dined at the PC which probably worked in my favour).
With Martin and Adam in tow, I trammed a 25 min trip all the way past the cemetery and into the shabby end of Lygon Street (not that Lygon Street is really special these days anyway). The sunny restaurant was empty when we arrived except for a few diners and a huge table with George C (wearing rubber thongs, no less) and a few business partners, I presume. I was starting to think ‘pffft, what waiting list?’ () but the restaurant filled up quickly afterwards. The decor screamed out “Greek Islands”, “Aegean Sea” and “Pierce Brosnan singing” with its white walls, airy dining room and sunlit courtyard yet avoided all the tacky cliches that are often associated with suburban Greek tavernas. We were settled quickly in a table big enough for six by the open kitchen where you can watch the chefs burn dozens of pita breads before chucking them in the bin or laugh at kitchen hands getting told off for dropping classes of coke. If you’re on a blind date that going miserably, I guess watching some kitchen action would be a good enough distraction if you can’t be bothered with any more dull small talk.
Anyway, the menu items are divided up into mezedes (small dishes, not dissimilar to tapas), kyrio (large dishes), salads and glyka (sweets), all of which are designed to share with your fellow diners. Most items are between $5-20, which is very reasonable, but there is also the option of ordering one of two banquet menus which are cutely named “Alpha” and “Beta” respectively. Each banquet contains these parts: mezedes, fish course, meat off the spit and a fruit plate. The difference between Alpha and Beta is that the latter is about $10-15 dearer per head and includes a dessert sharing plate. Initially our plan was to order a bunch of dishes off the a la carte menu but none of us could really decide what to get so we went for the easy option and chose the “Alpha” banquet ($49.50 per head) plus a serving of loukoumades (Greek donuts) to share at the end ($12.50). We were instantly given some complimentary rye bread (nothing special) and instructed to dip them in some olive oil or balsamic vinegar, both of which were provided in little bottles on each table.
The first thing to come out was the grilled saganaki with figs that wasn’t actually on the banquet menu but the lovely waitress (in a god-awful uniform of jeans, sneakers and a blue BIC biro pen lid coloured police-lookalike uniform) was nice enough to add it to our repertoire in place of the dolmades at no extra charge. The only reason why I specifically asked for the saganaki was because I’ve heard good things about this supposedly awesome dish from other food bloggers and plus I’d been craving it all week (that and loukoumades). Although any type of sheep’s milk cheese can be used to make this dish, haloumi was used at HR because of George C’s Cypriot heritage which was what I would’ve preferred anyway. This dish might have been a simple one but I really enjoyed the contrasting tastes of the mildly salty cheese and the sweet figs, none of which overpowered each other at all. Highly recommended.
Then the mezzedes appeared.
- A-Horiatiki (Greek salad). No surprises there. A competent version though it’s hard for any restaurant really, to stuff up Greek salad. Put simply, if you can’t make Greek salad, then you shouldn’t be running at restaurant.
- B-Pretty pretty good tzatzkiki thanks in large to the rather liberal use of olive oil alongside the other standard ingredients of yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic, mint and dill.
- C-Pickled vegies. I have no idea what this dish is called and it certainly didn’t taste very “Greek” to me (then again, what DO I know about Greek cuisine?!), though Martin told me that his parents used to make this stuff all the time back when they were living in Serbia so it’s probably one of those inter-regional woggy dishes that each country can sort make without difficulties and claim it as their own.
- D-Kalamata olives. They’re olives, what am I supposed to say about them?!
- E-Beetroot and cumin. I’m not a fan of beetroot so suffice to say that I wasn’t heaping many beetroot cubes onto my plate. Nevertheless, they went down alright when eaten with my meat dishes (later to come).
- F-Mussels. We received 6 cooked mussels drizzled in some sort of lemon, olive oil and dill dressing. Very simple, loved it.
A very competent spanakopita which is like a Greek pie made with filo pastry. The traditional filling in spanakopita are spinach and feta cheese but HR’s version had tomatoes and loukaniko (Greek pork sausages) instead, which was a delightful change. The pork sausages, however, were shredded perhaps a bit too thinly for me to fully appreciate them and so the feta cheese overpowered any taste that the sausages had. Nevertheless, still a successful dish.
Remember how I was whinging about the loukanikos in the spanakopita? Well, whinge no more Libs because there they are, presented in a little dish! We all loved the pork sausages and wished that their brilliant flavours were more prominent in the spanakopita. They are very similar to chorizos except that the loukanikos seemed to be flavoured with orange peel or something as there was a slight citrus note as I bit into a piece. They had been cooked and then dressed in some sort of olive olive, capsicum and vinaigrette relish. Yum.
Although the food was not as rich nor were the portions as gigantic as the ones at Press Club, we were all pretty full and struggling to finish off all our dishes. I reckon we did well to finish pretty much everything except for a few stray olives and some of the vegie dishes. We could’ve attempted to clean up everything though had it weren’t for the loukoumades and the fruit platter coming up next…
The loukoumades. I fell in love with them when I had them for the first time at The Press Club and having them again at Hellenic Republic last night reconfirmed my love for them. Slightly crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, they are doused with honey … and are 10 billion times more nicer than your ordinary iced donuts and dare I say Krispy Kremes. I was especially delighted to see the addition of crushed walnuts and pistachios on top of the puffy balls. At $12.50, you got about 10 of them (four of which I ate) which I reckon is pretty good value.
Finally, the fruit plate. Nothing particularly special but it was the perfect ending to a great meal; most of the them, a light dessert is the best thing to have when you’ve had a particularly rich meal.