Grilled Calamari at Hellenic Republic.
George Calombaris is an enigma. The few times I’ve seen him on that TV cooking show he seems highly excitable, but it’s hard to get a sense of his personality. And that’s odd, because personality is what defines his expanding empire of restaurants; each has a distinct character and charisma aplenty.
Hellenic Republic is a case in point. This bustling, bright taverna in East Brunswick remains as fashionable as ever with lovers of fine Greek food – which is most of Melbourne, so it’s still difficult to get in here. We book just a day in advance and all that’s left are two seats at the communal table. Sold. It’s the best place to sit, anyway, shoulder to shoulder with fellow diners feasting on chef Travis McAuley’s fine Greek fare.
We kick off with the tyrokafteri, a salty, custardy feta baked in an earthenware dish with heavenly scented wild oregano and a right hook of chilli to cut through all the salt. This stuff is mother’s ruin – you know it can’t be good for you, but resistance is useless.
Our handsome mosaic tabletop is tiled in Aegean blue and white with a Greek-key border design and craypot lampshades overhead. There’s a sort of wall of fishing rope and bricks just inside the entrance that lends some definition to the sizeable dining hall. An open kitchen and busy blue-shirted bar staff provide ample theatre, but diners’ attention is focused firmly on what’s in front of them. In our case, that includes a salad of bite-sized beetroot paired classically with cumin and yoghurt, which tastes every bit as good as it sounds. A Cypriot-inspired salad of freekah, raisins, almonds and coriander, also dressed in yoghurt and scattered with toasted pumpkin seeds, is less absorbing. A side-dish of warmed dolmades arrives with a luscious topping of egg and lemon sauce.
In between dishes we have to contend with a waitress who seems totally unfamiliar with the operations of the place. I’m convinced she’s turned up to the wrong restaurant for her shift until I realise she’s wearing the same uniform as other staff here. She tells us the specials – grilled scallops and grilled swordfish – but can’t provide a skerrick more detail about either. Asked to expand on the grilled scallops, she explains helpfully, “Well, they’re scallops, and they’re grilled.” We try several times to engage her with the menu but she’s giving nothing away.
That said, she does try repeatedly to upsell us a combination plate of roasted lamb and chicken. I only have to tell her three times that one of us is vegetarian before she grasps why we wouldn’t be wanting a plate of animals to share. So I just get the lamb instead.
The meat is slow-roasted with garlic and more of that intensely fragrant oregano, and then carved straight from spit to plate. Get it while it’s hot. The lamb is lush, nicely fatty with a salted skin, but I found it too much for one person. This may have been because at one stage we looked up from our gluttony to discover there were eight half-eaten dishes in front of us. We also shared the calamari, fat chunks of squid straight from the ironbark grill, dressed with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, dill and salt. Close your eyes and taste the Cyclades.
A 500ml carafe of Greek rosé makes surprisingly sophisticated drinking despite coming in a glass jar. The Republic’s wine list has become more Hellenic, to the point where now more than half the wines are Greek. And if the rosé is anything to go by, they’re not half bad.
For glyka, or sweets, we agonised over the menu but eventually agreed on ekmek kataifi pagoto, a wedge of syrupy kataifi threads topped with a chunk of semolina custard drizzled in pickled sour cherries and their juices and, just in case it’s not sweet enough yet, the whole lot is dusted with icing sugar. There’s a ball of mastic ice-cream on the side but it’s a bit superfluous. The kataifi is marvellous on its own and, besides, we couldn’t eat another thing.
Great meal, George.
434 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
Chef: Travis McAuley
Phone: 9381 1222
Hip pocket: About $45 a head for a feast, wine extra.
Open: Mon-Thurs 5.30pm-late; Fri noon-4pm,
5.30pm-late; weekends 9am-late.
Highlights: The baked feta, beetroot, the kataifi.
Lowlights: Sluggish service.
Bookings: Yes, thank you.
We rate it 7.5 out of 10