Photo: Steven Siewert
The Greek economy might be a tragedy but the heart and soul of its culture will live forever. There's something about Greek food that turns any gathering into an instant party. And when it comes to dining out, it doesn't matter how much money is spent on design, how highbrow the concept, or how many bells and whistles are rolled out, every Greek restaurant is linked to every other Greek restaurant by DNA - and by calamari and dips and lamb.
Newly installed in Westfield Sydney, Xanthi is the new Perama, the unpretentious Petersham restaurant from which chef-owner David Tsirekas sprang. It cleverly faces inward rather than out, tucked between the queues of the cool and groovy Chat Thai on one side and the boisterous, Westfield-embracing openness of Alessandro Pavoni's Spiedo on the other.
Through peekaboo windows, you can glimpse a chef rolling out freshly made filo pastry and check out the two roasts of the day (half a sheep, a third of a pig) turning slowly, resignedly, on vertical spits. Then you're through the gullet of an entrance and into a room dominated by a billowing silken ceiling and ornate glass lamps. Tsirekas looks in his element in the open kitchen, surrounded by grills and spits, sizzles and smoke.
There's not a grapevine or olive tree in sight in the Luchetti Krelle design; instead, colourful kilims are draped over small booth seats, and Turkish carpet covers the floor.
The Byzantine/Ottoman atmosphere undoubtedly bemuses some of Tsirekas's Greek diners but he claims the influences of Constantinople on Greek culture cannot be overlooked.
Nor can the influences of ouzo. Xanthi has the most charming and raffish ouzo trolley in town, with 20 different ouzos as well as raki and tsipouro (the northern Greek favourite). The relatively mellow Plomari ($7 for 30 millilitres), correctly served with water and ice on the side, goes swimmingly with share plates, or ouzomezedakia.
The menu is Perama-gone-to-town; the presentation a little smarter, the methods a little more complex. There's pickled octopus ($9), of course, and dips ($7) but the biggest hit is fried school prawns ($9) - crisp and salty, tossed in fish sauce and honey and scattered with almonds - a stunning blend of ancient and modern Greek flavours. Even that old staple, fried calamari ($9), gets new life with just the right balance of crisp and tender. The tzatziki is awesome but the tarama ($7) could do with a little reinvention; it's a little pink and mealy for my taste, and in need of a good squeeze of lemon juice.
And having been brought up with Melburnian/Greek, I'll always go for smoky grilled pita bread over crisp paximadia toasts for dipping and swooping.
Greek horiatiki salad ($12) climbs out of the everyday with the addition of creamy barrel-aged feta; a rare treat in local Greek restaurants and one of which we should see more.
There are eight filo pastry pies, or ''apo tin plastira'', the pastry stretched and rolled on a special wooden board; the simplest, an ''escargot'' of spinach and feta ($14) is very appealing without feeling too heavy.
Everything here goes with everything else; even the wine list is devoted purely to Greece, right down to a sparkling wine from the Peloponnese. Manager Rachael Vaughan, warm and bubbly with good radar, knows just the thing for the lamb of the souvla (spit): a smooth and velvety 2006 Domaine Hatzimichalis merlot ($85) that seems pricey until you taste it.
The lamb ($36) is good and gutsy, each mouthful tasting of herbs; but a better, juicier, bet for lamby-lovers is the skaras ($30.50) that old Perama fave of slow-braised lamb shoulder resting on glossy green beans and lemon potatoes in a kind of vertical meat-and-two-veg. On the side, horta ($8) is ugly-beautiful - a slippery, wilted mess of cooked-down wild chicory, amaranth and dill pepped up with olive oil and vinegar.
It's a menu that could easily tip into pastry overkill, so I pass on sweet bougatsa and play in a ''Garden of Aphrodite'' ($15) with its beguiling panna cotta-like sheep milk custard, adorned with crystallised rose petals, mandarin segments, ouzo-flavoured meringues and golden beetroot slices. There's thick, syrupy sandpit coffee, too, made in a briki half-submerged in hot sand.
Like George Calombaris in Melbourne, Tsirekas takes Greek food to a whole new level, and I don't just mean up the escalator from Becasse. It's fun, it's loud, it's good value, it's Greek food with the wrinkles taken out and the grey touched up. Yep, we're talking Grecian 2011.
Address: Level 6, Westfield Sydney, corner Pitt Street Mall and Market Street, city, 9232 8535, xanthi.com.au
Open: Sun-Thurs, 8am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 8am-midnight
Cost About $90 for two, plus drinks
- 02 9232 8535
- Cuisine - Greek
- Prices - about $90 for two, plus drinks, about $90 for two, plus drinks
- Opening Hours - Sun-Thurs, 8am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 8am-midnight
- Author - Terry Durack