Mixed grill for two
PICTURES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
Let’s call this one to watch. Just over four months ago an established but relatively low-profile South Melbourne restaurant took on an attractive contestant from a popular television cooking show as its head chef.
It’s an experiment that has the potential to be repeated in restaurants around the country – and it’s surprising it hasn’t happened more.
Recognising his three-year-old restaurant needed to change direction, restaurateur John Ghionis (who also owns Trapezi in Fairfield) renovated Spitiko – which means homely or homemade – and announced a new business partnership with 2010 MasterChef contestant Philip Vakos.
Vakos, who made the top 24 on the popular television show, is a part-time model who was nominated for the Cleo bachelor of the year award in 2011. The clever revamp has made the most of its attractive new chef’s presence, setting him up centre stage in a separate kitchen at the front of the restaurant.
Spitiko “Take Two” offers home-style Greek food, a selection of tapas-style sharing dishes that it has labelled spitaki, meaning little house, and an extremely laid-back approach to service (more on that later).
There’s seating indoors, outdoors and at the souvlaki bar near Vakos’ station, and the restaurant is doing a strong takeaway trade.
The house specialty is whole beasts slow-roasted over a charcoal mallee-root grill, with spit lamb available on Thursdays only, suckling pig available with a week’s notice and whole lamb ordered four days ahead.
Vakos has taken a pragmatic approach to the operation of his first restaurant, listing traditional dishes on the regular menu and offering more creative choices such as scallop saganaki and a watermelon and ouzo panna cotta via his specials board.
“I suppose 90 per cent of the menu is traditional,” says Vakos. “And 10 per cent of it I put on there to see what people will love. Because this is my first restaurant I want to see what dishes customers will enjoy and order before I commit to putting them on the menu.”
Unfortunately this wasn’t well conveyed and the specials were rattled off rapidly and without enthusiasm (the panna cotta wasn’t offered at all when we were looking at desserts).
So with little guidance – admittedly our waiter was preoccupied by an altercation at the front door – we stuck to the main menu.
Spitiko’s wine list features a mix of Greek and Australian wines, but our attempts to gain advice were met with flippancy: “It’s Greek, what else do you need to know – you’re not from The Age, are you?” So from the red-wine choices we took a stab and selected an Orthi Petra Kotsifali (’08 Greece). I suspect it was a cabernet sauvignon by its bright ruby colour and rounded berry notes – it was a pleasant, uncomplicated food wine.
A plate of calamari landed on the table beside us. Its must-have appearance – plump, wide wedges of golden-dusted flesh – was an instant decision maker.
Our own version looked just as good and its flesh was meltingly tender, with a lovingly created fine flour coating.
The mezze list sticks firmly to the classics – eggplant, caviar and tzatziki dips, chargrilled octopus, fried haloumi and kefalograviera and dolmades. We selected the kataifi prawns – a quartet of tangled angel hair-coated shellfish served on a medley of greenery. The plump, firm prawns were of excellent quality and their pastry coating was respectfully treated.
The share menu is short: lamb gyros, lamb cutlets, mini pork and mini chicken skewers and our pick, a mixed grill, which included most of the above plus some Greek sausage.
It was a plate of quality meat, again lovingly treated, all of it gently charred. With the help of our now less-distracted waiter we also also chose a plate of lamb cutlets (minimum of four), grilled, coated in olive oil and parsley with a wedge of lemon. This was accompanied by lemon roast potatoes – tender kipflers in their skins in a lemony, garlicky oil – and a bright salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, onions and feta.
The desserts list includes loukoumades (Greek doughnuts), pagoto (Greek-inspired ice-cream) and baklava, and the special we weren’t offered. The ice-cream was halva-flavoured – I can’t think of a much better combination than halva and ice-cream – and was divine. The disc of house-made baklava arrived with its own bowl of fig ice-cream, which was drizzled with a honey and brown-sugar syrup.
All of this was simple food, based on quality ingredients – Spitiko imports many traditional products – and it was certainly well executed. However, for me, it gave little indication of the chef’s talents. I suspect they will grow and become a featured part of the menu, with time.
270 Park Street, South Melbourne
Cuisine \ Greek Chef \ Philip Vakos
Prices \ Mezze $8-$17; share plates $17.50-$29; dessert $7-$8
Open \ Tuesday to Sunday, 5.30pm-late
Phone \ 9690 2600 » www.spitiko.com.au
The Verdict \ Worth a look
A trio of large monochrome photographs of a lined and pensive yiayia grace the mushroom-toned main wall here. The images are part of an array of family memorabilia around the room. Glossy walnut-brown panels sit behind padded banquettes with matching timber bistro chairs and tables covered with brown paper. Warm, earth-toned floors and ceilings with low, subtle lighting create a soft ambience, while in the rear kitchen, efficient staff move rapidly under dazzling lights. There’s another section at the front where the attractive head chef works in a pizzeria-style open kitchen.