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 its still difficult to get in here. We book just a day in advance and all thats left are two seats at the communal table. Sold. Its the best place to sit, anyway, shoulder to shoulder with fellow diners feasting on chef Travis McAuleys 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 mothers ruin you know it cant 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. Theres 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 whats 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. Im convinced shes turned up to the wrong restaurant for her shift until I realise shes wearing the same uniform as other staff here. She tells us the specials grilled scallops and grilled swordfish but cant provide a skerrick more detail about either. Asked to expand on the grilled scallops, she explains helpfully, Well, theyre scallops, and theyre grilled. We try several times to engage her with the menu but shes 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 wouldnt 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 its 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 Republics 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, theyre 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 its not sweet enough yet, the whole lot is dusted with icing sugar. Theres a ball of mastic ice-cream on the side but its a bit superfluous. The kataifi is marvellous on its own and, besides, we couldnt eat another thing.
Great meal, George.EAT THIS
434 Lygon Street, Brunswick EastCuisine: Greek 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