At times when you enter a sushi bar, the staff shout their greetings. This is an act that no longer surprises. When this happened as we entered Gazi and no less than ten members of the team welcomed us, gave salutations in Greek and provided a sense of general enthusiasm and utter excitement that I haven't seen in a restaurant in quite some time I was a bit taken aback. In fact the energy exuded by the staff instantly put us both in a happy and excited mood ourselves and this was quite difficult considering that we were both experiencing the after effects of excessive alcohol consumption from the previous night so until the finality of the many warm greetings, mustering energy to be excited was difficult but the team and ambiance quickly sorted out those general feelings of malaise.
With an abundance of clay pots hanging from the ceiling, I was pleased that the new quirky blue plates depicting an evil eye, known as μάτι (mati), which is a charm of sorts that according to superstition and dates back to 6 BC in Greece, wards off bad luck. I was pleased the eye was watching over me as I certainly did not want one of those pots falling on my head. Given the popularity of both the restaurant on the day of its launch and the fact that George's star continues to shine from his pedigree of being The Age Young Chef of the Year from 2008 along with hosting duties on MasterChef, I do not suppose that much bad luck will befall this new buzzing establishment. Even when a guest dropped a glass on a the floor during service, it simply bounced off the ground and remained intact so the place must be charmed. The mati was watching.
A thoughtful Greek "street food" menu that certainly requires a fair amount of consideration, especially by patrons such as myself that have not classically been the biggest enthusiasts of Greek fare in the past was presented. Once again I spotted the mati looking at me on page 1, not far away from the list of dips and the Hellenic "dirty food" and as superstition stated, effectively warded off the envy that I had for others dining around me so after the loquacious staff introduced the menu and gave a very detailed breakdown of everything with a smile, we decided that the ten dish sharing menu ($69 p/p) aptly called "Doing it Greek Style" would give the best representation of what was available as it was far too hard to chose. This is a nondescript degustation of sorts so you are left to put your trust in the kitchen and hope that the mati is looking your way. Getting into the mood further, we ordered Mythos beer ($9.00) from the second largest Greek brewery (which is also available at Dan Murphy's) which is a slightly sweet lager that I found appropriate to match with the food that would quickly appear.
Two dips with accompanying soft bread were provided to tide us over until the first two and only dishes from the "Hellenic Dirty Food" menu arrived, the Salmon Tzataki a la Grecque and the Saganaki Kumquat Mustard Glyko. The Greek sauce livened up the fish that on its own would have been boring and it was a light way to ease into the menu. I was trying to keep perspective and attempt to see what Calombaris was attempting to showcase with this dish and uncover the story that it was trying to tell, instead of simply comparing it to other dishes that I have had. The Saganaki, which is a fried melted cheese appetizer was highlighted by the kumquat - a sweet but sour citrus flavour that really brought out the taste of the cheese. I really enjoyed this cheese appetizer and I am sullen that I didn't bother inquiring as to what type of cheese it was as I want to procure some. Fortunately the restaurant remains very active on Twitter so I will have to ask them later. (Update: George Calombaris sent a tweet and advised that the cheese used in the awesome Saganaki is in fact "Kefalograviera" which is a mix of cow and sheep milk. You can buy it from Elco foods or Bills Farm.)
The kitchen wasted no time in moving into the serving of the King Dory, sourced locally from Portland, Victoria, which was fresh from the wood fired grill. I really liked this fish, the way it looked and ultimately the taste as it easily fell apart when prodded with my fork. The taste of the grill was an added bonus and when combined with some additional dips and bread, was one of the highlights of this tasting menu for me. A salad was also presented that were leaves that held very thinly sliced radishes, Santorini capers and lentils. This was another surprise hit proving that you can not judge a book by its cover. What looks unremarkable is filled with flavour. I especially liked the use of the healthy serve of lentils but also the capers from the volcanic island of Santorini was indeed a winner.
Besides a wood fired grill, the kitchen is fitted with a wood fired spit. We were both surprised and thinking of our already bulging stomachs when the Chicken was presented next. This chicken had an amazing crispy skin and remarkably not a very salty taste. This was yet another dish that perplexed me in a playful way as this too I decided that I wanted to try to re-create at home however I fear that I would burn my unit down in the process. Having previously reset my expectations to what I would think Greek "street food" should be, I suspect this is it. Along with the chicken, the white beans and the tirokafteri added a hint of additional flavour but I just could not get over the skin of this chicken. Yet another highlight of this degustation which I was pleased that I decided to order as the kitchen was not disappointing. In between having more bottles of beer appear and also a bowl of Tiganites potato chips with feta, the table became crowded with food and almost foreboding. You will certainly not go hungry in this restaurant.
The desserts were next. A Pavlova with ruby red grapefruit curd and cream highlighted by the use of mastic - dried pieces of sap from a tree. This is one of my dessert highlights for the year and regular readers of this blog know that I am not big into desserts. All of the flavours just worked well together and the use of the mastic was bold and brilliant. Loukomathes, deep fried small donuts accompanied the pavlova, and once spruced up with the sugar that was provided in a small bowl made for a sweet end to a very large meal.
After having spent upwards to eight hours enjoying degustation menus in the past elsewhere, I was impressed that the restaurant was able to accommodate so many dishes in such a constrained amount of time as my dining partner had to get back to Sydney on an afternoon flight to show off the photo that he got taken with George, just to make his missus upset. Although I wanted an Ouzo to assist in digesting this huge meal and be left to rub my stomach like a pregnant woman would, I was left to finish my beer and exit past the phalanx of happy faces of the staff which were all still exuding energy and a sense of true enthusiasm. Ten courses for $69 dollars is great value for money considering the amount of good and honest food that you receive and is probably one of the better offers going in Melbourne at the moment. I want to return when I really have more time to enjoy some of the cocktails which looked quite intriguing on paper but also be able to spend the time at the end of the meal to digest it and take in the ambiance however for now I am left with fond memories of a degustation that works well, great service, a buzzing atmosphere and an introduction to Greek "street food" which I suspect will become a prolonged love affair.
At the time of this post, 90% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also like Gazi however there is only a small sample of votes, so I expect this to fluctuate wildly.
2 Exhibition Street, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9207 7444
(03) 9207 7444
My Rating: 16.25/20
Value For Money: 4.75/5
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com