Move Over Souvlaki!

The Age

Saturday October 11, 2003

Thomas Hunter

The saganaki, mezze and souva are still there, but Greek menus now offer more than traditional fare, reports Thomas Hunter.

It's Saturday night in the city. Clubbers, cabbies and the night shift have all knocked off. With a raging hunger, where do they go? Well, those able to resist the ubiquitous ``Happy Meal" are likely to end up at the nearest souvlaki dealer. ``One with the lot, mate, extra garlic sauce." Oh, the joy.

Late-night souvlakis are only one chapter in the story of Greek food in Melbourne, a story that stretches back to 1947 when the first large groups of Greek immigrants chugged up Port Phillip Bay.

More than 50 years later, Melbourne has the world's third-largest Greek population and a vibrant Hellenic food scene. Places such as Jim's Greek Tavern in Collingwood and Fitzroy's Pireaus Blues are the stuff of local legend.

In recent times, however, Melbourne's top Greek chefs have started pushing beyond the gyros, the salty dips and sizzling saganaki. Thankfully, they've also started employing interior designers.

Gone are the faux fishing nets, the Mediterranean murals and whitewashed walls. Greek restaurants of the new school, places like Kabana Bros in Hawthorn, prefer chic modernity to the cliches of yesteryear, both on and off the menu.

In a cavernous, split-level space, Kabana Bros is all polished concrete and timber panels, with the down-lights wrapped in long wicker lampshades. The waiters wear white, mandarin-collared jackets, while from behind the bar an enormous, ageing family portrait watches over proceedings.

But the real revolution is on the menu, where diners will discover it's all about entrees, all 31 of them.

Indeed, eating at Kabana Bros is meant to be a social experience. The big black tables encourage dining in groups. The menu encourages adventurous ordering, and the wine list certainly won't discourage drinking.

As an opener, the Kabana Bros Tray ($23.20) offers a neat tour of the mezze menu: the usual dips, crispy-fried whitebait, a hunk of loukaniko (spiced pork and beef) sausage, baked broad beans and flame-darkened capsicum. The mains menu has heartier options such as roast kid with barley-shaped pasta and a wedge of fetta ($18.90), or a marinated scotch fillet on a potato and kabana cake ($22.90). Prices are firmly this side of reasonable, and the staff, given the chance, love a chin-wag.

An altogether different style of taverna is Octopus Cafe in Black Rock.

Where Kabana Bros goes for grandeur, Octopus goes for intimacy and attitude.

Owner Chris Orfanidis works the floor, both as waiter and rabble-rouser. Clearing plates, taking orders and holding conversations with numerous tables at once, he offers real hospitality.

Meanwhile, the kitchen prefers to do simple things well rather than fancy things badly. For starters, the skinless cevapcici sausages ($5.50) are lightly herbed parcels crying out for a squeeze of lemon. Likewise the tender octopus legs ($9), marinated in chilli before being char-grilled.

Mains here go beyond the familiar. The chicken breast fillets, marinated in chermoula, are flash-grilled and served over a lively dill, artichoke and spicy chickpea salad ($21). There's a seafood paella ($47 for two people) and, in keeping with the beachside location, there's beer-battered flathead tails with home-made tartare ($17.50), ideal for the littlies. Save room for dessert, especially the white chocolate, hazelnut and Frangelico panna cotta ($8.50) - even better than it sounds.

Driving back up Beach Road to Albert Park, you'll find an icon of Greek dining in Melbourne, Stavros Tavern.

For 24 years Stavros and his dedicated band of chefs and waiters have been satisfying local bellies.

A kitchen fire last year forced a brief closure and renovation. While retaining its basic feel, the walls now sport a charcoal and cream theme, and the seats around the fireplace remain hot property on cool nights. Like his competition, Stavros's menu holds some unexpected delights.

You can get dips with three kinds of bread for entree, but why not try the grilled sardines with onions and capers ($10.50), so tender they disintegrate on your fork? For mains, the hare with button mushroom stew ($18.50), cooked to a traditional recipe, is big and satisfying, as are the juicy quail with vine leaf over a stocky buckwheat risotto ($18). Desserts are less adventurous, with familiar numbers such as rice pudding, baklava and yoghurt with nuts and fresh honey all making appearances (all $6.50).

If those options don't tempt, there's always the souvlaki: tried, trusted and tasty. Besides, if you're going to have a souva, you might as well have it in a restaurant. Sitting down, it's harder to spill that garlicky juice on your best strides.

WHERE Kabana Bros, 623 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn

PHONE 9819 1377

OPEN Daily noon-3pm, 5pm-late

CARDS all major cards including Eftpos

BYO Licensed & BYO wine

WHERE Octopus Cafe, 299 Beach Road, Black Rock

PHONE 9589 7990

OPEN Tues-Fri 6pm-late, Sat-Sun 11am-late

CARDS ae bc mc v eftpos

BYO Licensed & BYO wine

WHERE Stavros Tavern, 183 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park

PHONE 9699 5618

OPEN Tues-Sun 6pm-late

CARDS all major cards

BYO Licensed & BYO wine

© 2003 The Age

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