Continuing the culinary education of my father, I decided to introduce him to Greek food on my last trip to Melbourne. He was a little more inclined than he has been in previous years to try Greek cuisine, especially as my cousin has recently started dating a Greek boy who my father just loves. After all if George, my cousin’s boyfriend, is such a catch, the food of his culture must be pretty good as well right?
I met him for dinner at George Calombaris’s Gazi early one evening after I finished work. We were there at 5.30pm and were amongst the first diners in the restaurant. As we sat down, I explained to my dad that Gazi was a relatively new restaurant, and that a famous TV chef had chosen to shut down his celebrated fine dining restaurant in order to open up a more casual eatery showcasing the food of his country.
“Well that makes sense,” my dad said. “As people get older, they become more in touch with their culture.”
There’s a truth of a kind to my father’s statement. As a child, I used to want nothing more than to fit in with my predominantly Anglo classmates. I would bemoan the fact that my parents would pack my school lunchbox with Chinese snacks, rather than Twisties and muesli bars. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve become more comfortable with celebrating who I am and where I come from. I studied overseas to become more comfortable speaking in my native tongue. I cook traditional meals at home. I’ve become vocal about issues of race in our society. I wonder whether George Calombaris has gone through a similar personal cultural revolution himself?
We started off with drinks around the table. It was a hot day, so Dad told me to order him a light beer, an Athenian pale lager. My brother is a big fan of cider, so ordered the locally made Golden Axe cider. Still on my alcohol-free jaunt (it’s been over a year now!), I treated myself to a house-made grapefruit and lavender soda which is wonderfully refreshing and the perfect mix of slight tartness and sweetness. I finished my soda halfway through the meal and was tempted to order another before deciding to save space for food, rather than another fizzy drink.
Dad’s unable to read the menu, so leaves it up to my brother and I to order. We started off with a dip to share, to whet our appetites. The Taramosalata Dip caught my eye on the menu, especially with the addition of the Prawn Crackers on top – the perfect aerated cracker to go with the fishy dip. This was the first time that Dad had tried flatbread before, and he couldn’t get enough of it, even asking the waiter to bring more bread out so that he could eat it with every other dish we ordered!
The Saganaki was a big hit at our table. We’re not a big dairy-eating family at the best of times – being slightly lactose-intolerant will do that to you! However, as soon as the iron skillet was delivered to our table, wafting in delicious cheesy aromas overlaid with caramelised sweetness, we dug into it with gusto. Even my Dad went back for seconds of this more-ish creamy caramelised cheese after initially declaring “I’ll just have a small taste!”
The Greek Salsa was my brother’s choice, and proved to be a good palate-cleansing dish to finish off the entrees before we jumped onto mains. The crisp sesame and fennel lavosh was definitely the highlight of this dish, and it went surprisingly well with the Taramosalata Dip as well.
We order two of Gazi’s famous mini-souvlakis to share. Known as souvlakakis, they’re about half the size of a normal souvlaki and offer a lot more than your usual chicken, beef or pork options at a 3am souvlaki joint. We ordered the Soft Shell Crab Souvlakaki, and the Duck Souvlakaki. Both were great hits. The light batter on the soft shell crab leaves the souvlaki surprisingly light on the palate and refreshing with the mint and coriander. The duck was a favourite – as my father said, “This duck is so tender, it’s much better than Peking Duck!” And that my friends, is high praise indeed.
The Grains Salad also met with plenty of praise. Having never tried quinoa before, Dad was really intrigued by its nutty taste and texture, especially when paired with the fruity sweet pomegranate seeds. The whole dish worked really well, and it’s definitely one that you could easily replicate at home. I’m encouraging my brother to take up some of the cooking duties at home now that he’s out of school and has a bit more time on his hands to help my Dad out around the house – I’m hoping that this will be one of the first dishes he makes for dinner!
Plagued by a cold sore that day, Dad also requested that we order the Karpouzi salad. It’s very simple and more like a jazzed up dish of watermelon than a salad in the traditional sense. Having never had watermelon in any other way other than ‘as is’ however, I was surprised by how well it paired with a bit of feta sprinkled on top and a dash of mint leaves too. The juice of the watermelon really cuts through the creaminess of the feta, and the mint helps to enhance the subtle watermelon sweetness as well. Simple, but effective!
Now that’s all the entrees and mains we ordered…because I knew I wanted to save space for at least a few of the desserts on the menu! First though, Dad tried a Greek coffee for the first time. Not being a coffee drinker myself, we asked our waitress for some advice on what Greek coffee actually is, and she recommended a coffee style and weaker strength for my Dad to try. He still found the little espresso shot much stronger than his usual Chinese-style milk coffee, but enjoyed the rawness of the coffee.
Unfortunately that night they were out of the ice-cream flavour that I was hoping for (baklava I think?), but my brother’s second choice was just as nice; a homemade Chocolate and Peanut Butter Ice-Cream mix that tasted just like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but more intensely chocolate-y. The crisp waffle cone was delicious as well!
Dad wanted a dessert that was had less dairy in it as he felt that he’d already had enough dairy that day with the delicious Saganaki that we started our meal with. The Loukoumathes it was! Now I always order Loukoumathes at street festivals whenever I see a stall, but these were just on another level altogether. Drizzled in honey and Nutella and sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts, these were sinfully more-ish – I could have ordered another serve!
Gazi’s Pavlova is the pride and joy of the menu though. When it comes out on its big plate, you can’t help but ooh and aah at the sheer size of the light and fluffy meringue shell with its gorgeous peaks and rose petal decorations. The waitress will give you a spoon, and tell you to smash the meringue shell as hard as you can. Be warned – it will make a mess!
Once you smash open the meringue shell, you find the most beautiful scoop of white chocolate sorbet and fresh fruits underneath. You might finish the gelato and fruit quickly as you won’t be able to stop yourself from bringing spoonful after spoonful to your mouth…but you will find yourself seated at your table constantly nibbling on little pieces of the meringue after you finish your meal. It’s strangely addictive!
I’m really pleased with the experience that we had at Gazi. Each dish we ordered gave my sheltered father a new culinary experience, and I think that it has opened his eyes to some of the possibilities of Greek cuisine. I’m delighted that George Calombaris has taken it upon himself to offer authentic, reasonably priced hearty and homey Greek food to Melbournians…and hope that a Sydney branch is on the cards for the future!
I’ll definitely be back to Gazi…but first, a German hofbrauhaus as my Dad has expressed an interest in German cuisine!