There are some hungers that can only be answered by a plate of mixed dips. Maybe some olives. Definitely slow cooked lamb and fried cheese, and while you're on the subject, some Retsina and ouzo wouldn't hurt either. Luckily when you're fanging for Hellenic eats, Melbourne's got your souvas wrapped up tight.
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Melbourne's best Greek food
The Press Club is still one of Melbourne’s premiere fine dining restaurants, a tight ten booths and all the glossy surfaces you could hope for. Staff who know how to food-flirt and a list of wines by the glass that manages a quorum of interesting Greek gear without having to venture near the travesty known as 'retsina' complete the package. It’s no great conceptual leap to apply the luxury label to the soft folds of the taramosalata, the Calombaris trademark that has none of the faux pinkness and all of the briny lilt of real cod roe.
The lamb. Oh god, the lamb – the best lamb we have ever tasted. After hitting a low-temperature oven for upwards of 10 hours, the meat is juicy, salty and finger-licking, the fat toffeed into a dark caramel chew and lifted by an underlying smoosh of oregano and garlic. On the side there are golden chips roasted in olive oil. This, here, is the brilliance of simplicity. And we’re in Camberwell. Lucky them.
The décor of paper tablecloths, Greek goddess statuettes and whitewashed walls may still be from the 80s, but Jim’s Greek Tavern is embracing the dining trends of the day by implementing set dining times – the first at 6.30pm and the second at 8pm. Not that it’s strictly adhered to, mind... The frenetic service at Jim’s is part of its charm, as is the absence of a menu. A waiter casually strolls up to us and reels off a list of dishes: “Dips, saganaki, calamari, gyros, Greek salad…” to which we nod in affirmation.
This fancy souvlaki shop is no late-night greasepit. It’s a bar, diner and takeaway in one where you can get ouzo for a fiver, hammer huge fresh salads full of almonds, barley and citrusy handfuls of rough cut parsley, or get a baggie of slow roasted lamb to go. The kebab game just changed. Unlike a lot of Melbourne’s fancified hot dog stands and burger joints, Jimmy’s is almost as cheap as its inspiration. Three huge steamed dim sims are $6 and worth every dime.
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). 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 and the casual fit-out matches the pricing – dinner here won’t put too big a dent in your wallet.
Greek immigrants Thomas Deliopoulos and Sylvia Gabriel noticed that despite Melbourne’s massive Greek population we’re not so hip to the idea of pork gyros. Lamb yes; pig, no. Hey presto, a market opportunity was spied. And Kalimera Souvlaki Art is pork perfection. They use only female pigs, which have a milder taste. Lots of oregano, a lick of lemon, a dusting of paprika, a decent hand on the salt. It’s charry, juicy, suckable. And the bread is that proper, springy, sauce-sopping Greek type that can withstand the onslaught of serious condiments.
No one is reinventing the wheel here: the menu is full of simple, fresh flavours; portions are Olympian; and they arrive quickly. You’ll barely get your order in for a glass of the Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro’ before BAM! Your spit-roasted chicken has arrived. The glistening meat is sweet and succulent, fragrant with oregano and garlic and a squeeze of lemon adds a bright citrus spark. While traditionalists may tut at the addition of the kaffir lime leaf to the wondrous strips of battered calamari, it’s a subtle addition that works.
Legendary purveyors of Greek food Stalactites know a thing or two about souvlaki, so they’ve opened a sister venue specialising in everyone’s favourite Greek sandwich. The tiny blue-and-white space has only six dine-in seats, with the focus on takeaway. The menu keeps it simple: there are four types of souvas, three plates and a few ready-to-go accompaniments. Everything – from the dips (eggplant, tarama, hummus, and spicy feta and roast capsicum) to the desserts (baklava and rice pudding) – is made fresh daily.
George Calombaris’s latest venture in Williamstown isn’t the place where you’d stop by for a pint and parma after work with your mates. There are no TVs, no outdoor seating, and only three uncomfortable stools at the bar, so it’s barely a pub at all. But if you’re after a workday lunch, a school-night feed for the family or a couple of glasses of wine with your favourite grown-ups, Hellenic Hotel has got you wrapped up like a souva.
It’s rare but exciting when a restaurant is able to recalibrate something as ordinary as the chip and make the diner see it with fresh eyes. The humble chip is one of the leading lights of the global food canon, transcending race, religion and class, but the chips at Gazi take things to the next level: super-crisp, salty batons of starchy goodness decked out with baubles of feta with a whisper of garlic and oregano adding their subtle notes. They’re the prince of chips; the Oscar winner of fried food. A plate of happiness, yours for $11.
Much loved roaming food truck Lukumades has opened their first brick and mortar store in West Melbourne, right across the street from Queen Victoria Market. They make doughnuts the old fashioned Greek way. Instead of deep frying these doughy mouthfuls, they shallow fry them, rolling them around in hot oil until they’re golden brown. It’s $10 for a serving of around eight, which can be topped with anything from honey and cinnamon to Nutella and crushed biscuit.
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