Hellenic Republic

June 15, 2011

434 Lygon Street, Brunswick East

Would you just look at those gorgeous, shiny purple orbs! As you may be thinking, this post is on a restaurant that does Greek food. Really good Greek food, actually. I am ashamed to admit I am over a month late in posting this review – I was at the Hellenic Republic, George Calombaris’ East Brunswick-located joint for Mothers Day. That’s right, in MAY. Since then, study has dominated my life, but now exams are over – free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I am free at last! So in the next week or so there’ll be a lot of posting of places I visited ages ago but didn’t have the time to write up.

The Hellenic Republic is far up Lygon Street, past the Italians, and the cemetery, and the hipsters, so far up you’re almost at Albion St, in what must surely be Coburg but is apparently still Brunswick. Walking in from the drizzling rain, it was like being transported to a Greek taverna; white washed walls, mismatched marble- and wooden-topped tables, cane chairs, enormous fishing baskets suspended as chandeliers. It’s a very big space, full of families, and with a comfortable noise level that assures you that people are enjoying themselves without any pretension: the perfect setting for Mothers Day. I also loved the cured meats and sausages hanging in a glass cabinet in front of the open kitchen, the gigantic jars of pickled vegetables and colourful glyka (preserved fruit in syrup), and the bottles of ouzo lined up above the bar.

The meal started very quickly, and several young waiters delivered a series of delicious smelling dishes to share, natch. This is, if you ask me, one of the best and most important features of a Greek meal – lots of wonderful, delicious, homely food put in the middle of the table, and everyone talking and tucking in and reaching across each other to grab the octopus before someone else does, and scooping tzatziki onto their plate. Yep, it’s brilliant, just try a Greek Easter or Christmas meal and you’ll never want to leave, trust me.

The first thing I tried were the fasolakia – green beans with feta and pine nuts, served cold. Classic flavours which I love, plus I have a bit of a thing for green beans. And I loved recognising all the names of the dishes from things my mum and grandma cook. Sometimes I think you can be disappointed with dishes at restaurants that you know from home, but here I felt they were true to the original recipes, just a little more special and, of course, superbly executed.

One of the highlights of the day was the kefalograviera saganaki with peppered figs. Wow. Just wow. I mean, EVERY greek restaurant does saganaki (which, in case you were mistaken, is referring to the pan the cheese is cooked in, not the cheese itself), but only George could think of adding super sweet figs to contrast the chewy saltiness of the cheese. Great dish, if you go to the Hellenic Republic, please order this one.

One of my other favourite dishes from the meal was the taramosalata, white cod roe dip. This is what one of my school friends affectionately (and appropriately) calls “pink dip”, because usually it is made with red roe which gives it a pink colour. For some reason, here it is made with white roe, perhaps because of superior taste. It was definitely the best taramosalata I’ve ever had. It was so so creamy, amazingly smooth texture, and lovely lemony kick at the end. Order this one too.

It came with warm, slightly charred pita bread that was wonderfully thick, and those olives, also warm. And a plate of hirino kroketta, pork belly croquettes, which were bloody fantastic. Great porky flavour, loved the contrast in texture of silky interior and crunchy crumbing, plus the sprinkling of salt that had you licking your lips afterwards.

The last of our meze was htapodi, pickled Western Australian octopus, confit potatoes and red peppers. As well as being tasty, this dish looked fabulous, very colourful, and I love the grape colouring of cooked octopus. I must say, I am very proud of this photo, I did a great job capturing the intense colours and different textures of this dish. M was very good at helping me get the right angle and lighting, and was always there to bat off any unsuspecting grandparents from getting to the dishes before I could photograph them!
Next was Thalasina, the fish course. I love seafood, and I really loved this dish, fresh, simple flavours, wonderfully cooked, soft fish. The fish of the day (which my mum thinks was kingfish, and she’s probably correct, mum’s always are) was grilled, and topped with char-girlled whole prawns, and a tomato, white anchovy and olive dressing. Simple + delicious. Very fresh seafood, I especially loved the prawns and their charred taste. Don’t they look wonderful perched on top the pieces of kingfish?
The seafood came with a Cyriot grain salad of “ancient grains” (uh, surely not….), coriander, almonds and yoghurt. I think the grain was a sort of freekah, which is popping up everywhere, am I right? Cumulus Inc, 7 Seeds, The Hardware Societe. It’s like the macaroon of salads; every-freaking-where. Great salad though, very light and fresh, loved the pop of pomegranate seeds.

For Kreas (meats), we were given arni psistaria, lamb spit with tzatziki and patates tiganites. And on the side, a lahanosalata – cabbage salad with lemon, olive oil, dill and oregano. Think a Greek version of coleslaw but without the yucky mayonnaise dressing.

Patates first – oh man oh man oh man they left the skins on!!! Hooray, I love chips with the skins still on. Crispy, soft in the middle, sprinkled with visible flakes of salt and dried oregano, just like mum makes at home. And they were served in a bowl lined with Dodoni feta paper, which I thought was a nice touch. (If you buy feta from the supermarket, it absolutely MUST be Dodoni feta, it’s the only stuff worthwhile. If not available, then another greek brand. GREEK, you hear?! Trust me with this).

The lamb was melty delicious, fall-apart-with-your-fork-no-knife-required. Soft and moist, lashings of garlic and oregano. Good grief I love the Greeks.

The tzatziki wasn’t very garlic-y I thought, and there was definitely some dill in there, but I did approve of how they shredded the cucumber rather than dicing it into tiny cubes – it gives the dip a better texture and it holds together better. The salad was good, tangy dressing, and some sort of thinly sliced cheese on top (my resident expert (mum) says kefaloutiri).

Glyka (literally, “sweet”).  We had baklava yianniotiko, loukoumathes (greek doughnuts with attiki honey and walnuts), and a fantastic dish of karpouzi me feta, watermelon with feta, almonds, mint and rose syrup. Inspired. The salty feta makes the watermelon seem even sweeter, and I particularly loved the jazzy notes from the mint and the crunch of the almond flakes.

I loved the loukoumathes, they hark back to childhood days of mum serving them up, freshly fried, and we’d curl a fork into honey and drizzle it on top, making patterns. They are quite sweet with the honey, but I think being Greek gives you a high tolerance for sweet things. They’re warm, crisp on the outside and soft and savory in the middle. So good, I must have had about three.

The baklava was a little dry, but I suppose at least it wasn’t too sweet. Sometimes that baklava I buy from Greek cake shops are super-dooper sweet and drenched in syrup, so this was a nice touch (here’s a tip – try the identical-in-everything-but-name Turkish cakes, which tend to have less syrup, just don’t tell your Greek neighbour that they’re turkish!).

The one let down? No sighting of little Georgie. I was really hoping I’d see George Colombaris’ bald head bobbing about the kitchen as he hops up and down, slapping his hands together and saying “boom boom, shake the room!” and “come one guys, have some FINESSE!” (can you tell I watch Masterchef?).

This meal was $65 a head, and I think each weekend they do a similar thing for a little less (~$55 a head). Worth it, you ask? I can say, as a blogger, as a Greek, as a Melbourne resident, YES. A resounding yes. Because my thinking is, most of these dishes I’ve had at home, I know how to cook, I’ve cooked for friends. And if you add up all the costs of the ingredients, and the wine, and a small margin for profit, it makes sense. Think about it, we were served over a dozen dishes. Highly recommended. Fantastic food. I am replete.


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Filed under: Brunswick East, Greek