Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hellenic Republic and sweet anticipation

My journey to Hellenic Republic (HR) began months earlier, with a media generated yearning to find out what all the hype was about in this new eatery. Its massive popularity meant planning, rather than a chance seat being available when the whim took me. For a while it all seemed to hard until a special occasion came around.

At this point in our lives, most of my friends are Very Busy People, juggling fulltime work, parenting and post-graduate study. A particular dear friend has all three balls up in the air and one of the few times of the year we have one-on-one time is our birthday ritual. Twice a year, near each of our birthdays we find time for a lunch or dinner together. It is usually a long, slow event where we savour the company as much as, or more than, the food.

As these rare events are planned weeks in advance, finding a table at a popular restaurant is never a problem. In fact, it was the woman who took the booking that provided the next ingredient in the total experience that became dinning at HR. Her manner was welcoming and professional; there were no games about “squeezing us in” or mention of any fabled waiting list. But most of all we weren’t subjected to limited times to eat with rigid seating session, common to other busy restaurants. Then came the clincher when she politely enquired about any dietary restrictions. Never before has an a la carte restaurant asked me this. My dairy allergic heart (or rather belly) skipped a beat with excitement over that simple question. I felt included and welcomed, assured I would have sufficient choice of dishes.

As the weeks passed between booking and dinning, my anticipation grew. In a way it didn’t matter where we would be eating, what emerged was a forgotten ritual of looking forward to something new. I’ve eaten in many top restaurants over the last couple of decades but what has been lost in the intervening years is the wait. Good food and great dinning has become so accessible and so often immediate, that this crucial step of savouring has been all but lost.

So finally the day arrived. I arrived on the dot of 1 pm to find my friend seated beside the window welcoming me with a wave. The restaurant was packed, even the few seats at the bar had a couple of people merrily chowing down of plates of food.

Service was efficient and unpressured. We were given guidance when requested, in particular navigating the wine list where every bottle of wine was Greek. After describing the style of wine we were after (white, dry, crisp) a slightly floral, zesty Peloponnesian number was suggested with the bonus that is was the cheapest on the menu ($45). The wine was good and very drinkable, suiting our food choices well.

We selected four dishes. Of them were two whose reputation preceded them: the fried saganaki with spiced, caramelised figs and the hand cut potatoes (that my friend, a connoisseur of fries declared, “possibly the best chips I have ever eaten”). To balance the meal a grilled whole snapped and a bowl of horta was also ordered.

So did the experience live up to the hype? Once again I caution this is not a review, merely a reflection on a single dinning experience.

As mentioned the wine turned out fine but given it came with an old fashioned cork, I would have expected to be offered a taste. Unlike stelvin seals, up to 1:10 bottles have cork taint and therefore the traditional tasting should apply.

Saganaki: Not being able to tolerate cows milk, a little taste of sheep’s cheese went down a treat. Pairing the figs with the saganaki was ok but it didn’t blow my mind as everyone had promised. The small hair on the sizzling hot plate however was a greater disappointment.

The snapper was perfectly cooked and at around 400 gm just the right amount for two. The only curiosity was the presentation of the dressing to accompany the fish. This was basically a lemon/olive oil emulsion, served in a small bottle. However the said bottle arrived in a clear ice bucket with three carnations peeking out of the top. This didn’t bring back any dinning experiences I had in Greece but maybe it is a regional thing? I know everything old is new again but carnations? In the wine bucket? Odd, very odd.

Horta – I was wondering where they would get chicory at this time of year but given the traditional nature of the dish I was hoping some other wild greens would be on offer. Unfortunately it was silverbeet. As much as I like silverbeet I was hoping for something a little more exciting. It was a traditionally cooked lemony, leafy green served at room temperature but although the literal translation for horta is “grass” or “green vegetable” traditionally the greens were always wild.

We were rather full but wanted to linger a little longer and try one more dish. There are the usual Greek sweets on offer but the cheap and cheeky “spoon sweets” (GLYKO TOU KOUTALIO) caught our eye. A traditional bitter/sweet spoonful (or in this case small plate) of preserved fruit was on offer. We choose orange and cherries. The berries were deliciously tart and the thick swirls of orange rind held on to their innate bitterness balanced by the sweetness of the heavy syrup.

The restaurant is decorated with tasteful Greek touches but suffers from the hindrance created by too many hard surfaces, meaning when at capacity like it was, voices need to be raised to be heard. This makes feel instantly old by noting it, but it does get rather tiring after a while.

Overall, rogue hair and oddities aside I would certainly visit HR again. But the best lesson for me was reacquainting myself with the deliciousness of anticipation. It really did make the experience all the more sweeter. I thoroughly recommend you plan and savour your next big night out and see how it tastes.

Total price $116.50 (4 dishes, 1 bottle of wine, 2 small sweets, 1 bottle of mineral water)

I realised afterwards (though I didn’t check to see if the fish was floured before grilling) our meal was apparently gluten-free. The menu is omnivorous but contains options for most of the common food allergies and dietary choices – including Paleolithic, vegetarian, vegan, low GI and the likes.

Hellenic Republic
434 Lygon Street,
Brunswick East,
Ph: 9381 1222
Breakfast: Sat/Sun
Lunch - Fri-Sun
Dinner: Tue-Sun

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Blogger docwitch said...

Ah yes, this little goodie is just up t'road from me. I do find it hard to get into at short notice though. The one time I went to HR, (and sat at the bar because it was similarly packed), I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lovely service, and I managed to find some delish gluten free treats.

12:17 pm  
Anonymous wholesale sweets said...

thank you for sharing this blog of yours. i visited and read some of your posts and enjoyed reading them. i'm looking forward for your new updates.

1:48 pm  
Blogger steve said...

Ho AOF-I totally get what you mean by that sense of anticipation. Sometimes the experience of actually & finally eating at a place is a bit of a letdown!
In a world of instant gratification taking the time out to pause & wait for something, in this case, a restaurant booking is a way of savouring the moment & perhaps not taking stuff for granted, a rare thing these days.

7:52 am  
Blogger steve said...

Sorry, meant 'Hi' not Ho!

7:53 am  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Hmm. Interesting. Noisy, you say. Must say the 'horta' sound hugely disappointing if it's just going to be silverbeet. Where's the delicious bitterness?

Anticipation is a HUGE part of the dining-somewhere-special experience for me because we don't eat out often. Anticipating the company as much as the meal is a massive part of that joy. Oh, lovely thoughts here, AOF.

9:38 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Well Steve, it wouldn't be the first time I have been called a ho :)

Docwitch am glad it gets the gluten-free thumbs up.

WS - I'm guessing you hope I click your name and follow the link but apologies if I am wrong but that comment had hit-craving-bot written all over it.

Lucy :)

1:23 pm  

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