Greece is the word: Hellenic dishes from a MasterChef alum pull the crowds to this rustic setting on Swan St
The juggernaut that is Melbourne’s Greek food scene is powered in large part by MasterChef judge, George Calombaris (Gazi, the Press Club, Hellenic Republic), who knows only too well that Greek eateries pull serious crowds. And a season 2 contestant Philip Vakos has also hitched his wagon to the Hellenic express with Bahari on busy Swan Street in Richmond.
They embrace the stereotypes on the design front, with white chairs conjuring up images of sleepy Greek islands; a navy, white and timber palette; and the obligatory spice jars required in all modern Mediterranean restaurants in Melbourne. And the casual fit-out matches the pricing – dinner here won’t put too big a dent in your wallet.
Begin your Greek odyssey with the mixed olives, pickled in oil and lemon and spruced up with spices, including mouth-numbing fennel seeds. Next up, a trio of dips: the house-made tzatziki that keeps a tight leash on the garlic, tarama and melitzanosalata (smoky eggplant) scooped up with warm bread from Mr. Pitta.
Before you start getting too familiar with the tune of this meal, skip the saganaki and opt for vegetables loaded with cheeses – eggplant roasted down to caramely sweetness is offset by salty haloumi, feta and kefalograviera cheese (a hard cheese made from sheep and goat’s milk). There are delicate zucchini flowers stuffed with feta and mizithra cheese (a cousin of ricotta) and flecked with mint and lemon zest. Or move past the curds with pork meatballs jazzed up with chilli and fennel and bathing like gods in a green olive, tomato and roast capsicum sauce.
Greek food is synonymous with lamb and the organic, grass-fed lamb shoulder marinated in lemon, rosemary and garlic before being roasted for eight hours proves that less is more when your ingredients are this good. Eat it with the crunchy Greek salad made interesting with capers and velvety Australian feta, and rosemary and lemon roast potatoes. A pinch more salt on the lamb and the potatoes (and a smidgen more crispness) and we would have a faultless Mediterranean meal. But at this point we are nitpicking.
The Greek island vibe and share menu would suggest leisurely meals, languid service and being full to the brim. We hit two out of three: sadly, there were a few too many reminders (when booking and on arrival) that we only had the table for a certain time. If you get the chance to linger over dessert there is baklava, halva ice cream or a sweet pie filled with a lemon and vanilla semolina custard.
He might have been vying for MasterChef status on the show, but at his own restaurant Vakos is hanging up the livery collar in favour of good honest food and no pretensions. It’s keeping the punters piling in so who is the real winner here? It’s us. Definitely us.
179 Swan Street
|Opening hours:||Tue–Thu 5pm–10pm; Fri 5pm–11pm; Sat noon–3:30pm, 5pm–11pm; Sun noon–3.30pm, 5pm–10pm|