Following some very happy experiences at Maha and St Katherine’s, I eagerly anticipated my latest George Calombaris dining adventure at Hellenic Republic – and I wasn’t disappointed. Located in Brunswick in Melbourne, Hellenic Republic oozes warmth and hospitality the minute you peer into its light-filled windows.
Hellenic Republic is decked out in décor that reminds you of the Aegean Sea (even when you actually haven’t been anywhere near it). The feeling is authentic and the Greek-Australian staff are enthusiastic and charming as they laugh cheekily at patrons’ poorly pronounced Greek.
As is typical of my dining experiences, if there’s a banquet or a degustation menu on offer, I’m probably going to go for that option even though I feel like a pregnant whale after consuming its offerings. Myself and my dining companion went for the Athenian banquet – and although we wanted to cry because we were so full by the end of it, we certainly weren’t dissatisfied with the quality of the feast.
The overindulgence began with a bunch of “small tastes” – warmed olives, taramosalata, saganaki, whitebait, and char-grilled octopus. The taramosalata was fresh and lacking that hideous pink colour found in your standard roe dip around the traps. The whitebait came with a light ouzo mayonnaise and were crispy and golden without being overly fishy, and the barely-there flavour of the ouzo in the mayonnaise was the perfect accompaniment to the tiny fish. The octopus was also delicious, the vinegary capers working well with the tender and mild-flavoured squid.
But the piece de resistance of the “small tastes” was by far the saganaki – fried kefalograviera cheese – with peppered figs. The burnt sticky toffee of the caramelised figs with the salty golden fried cheese was one of the best food combinations I’ve ever tasted.
Then came the seafood – scallops, tiger prawns and mackerel fillets with a Cypriot grain salad accompaniment. As usual, the Calombaris genius was reflected in the balance of the salad accompaniment with the three seafood dishes – refreshing and light with the richness of the seafood. The prawns were super fresh and juicy and packed a punch with the garlic and star anise-flavoured salt it was doused in, but the skordalia-encrusted scallops were the best. Can’t really go wrong with potato and garlic and scallop topped with breadcrumbs in my books. I wasn’t really a fan of the mackerel, though – at this point in the meal I was popping buttons and the great big slab of dense fish didn’t come with enough of the delicious pickled beetroot that accompanied it when my poor intestine was screaming for vegetable matter.
Having not even got to the mains yet, I was near death and begging our waiter to stop bringing us food. After a short merciful break, we got right back into it with the meat component of the meal – chicken from the spit, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, potatoes and cabbage salad.
The salad was creamy and lacked that horrible bitterness I often associate with cabbage, so I was a happy camper. Garnished with some of that delicious kefalograviera cheese, it went exceptionally well with the meats which, true to Calombaris form, were perfectly crispy/salty-skinned with that melt-in-your-mouth texture. It was too bad I was utterly wrecked by this point, or I would have hoovered the entire plate; but as it was, I could barely ingest a teaspoonful. Same sadly went for the fried potatoes with oregano and salt and the dill-infused super-creamy tzatziki. So delicious and such a damned waste!
Even though I was at that Monty Python’s Meaning of Life point where I was about to explode (“just a wah-fer-thin mint, monsieur!”) The dessert was thankfully light… although I was a tad disappointed the Greek donuts weren’t part of this particular banquet. It consisted of the Ekmek Kataifi, which is a parfait of sour cherries, custard and mastic ice cream – a deliciously balanced dish. This was followed by the ultra light and refreshing orange and halva salad with brandy, ricotta and mint, which although cleansed the palate beautifully after such a marathon meal, had me hankering again for those donuts. Oh well.
So the verdict – Hellenic Republic is wonderful and warm and demonstrates what Calombaris seems to be all about – taking the best bits of authenticity and combining them with all that we can learn from modern cuisine. His notion of balance in flavour and texture is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else (except during some of my European fine dining experiences – see my archives) – but unless you have a death wish or you’ve been fasting for 48 hours, I strongly suggest not putting yourself through the banquet.
Even so, and despite my raw hatred of Masterchef, I will always feel safe in the hands of George Calombaris.