141 Swan Street Richmond, VIC 3121
|Opening hours||Tue-Thu 4.30pm-11pm; Fri-Sun 11.30am-11pm|
|Features||Outdoor seating, Bar, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9428 8659|
It was the camel milk that did it. Jim Karabagias was already feeling a bit jaded by a decade of serving breakfast at his Greek-skewed cafe – so much smashing of avocados, and they're not even slightly Hellenic. Then came the last straw: a customer suggested he offer camel milk for her morning coffee. He served soy, he allowed almond but camel milk?! Nope. He backed away from brunch.
Karabagias refashioned his business as a Greek mezze bar with a snacky menu, a dozen different ouzos and a weekly dessert made by his mother, Eleni. It's contemporary but classic and, needless to say, there's no camel milk on the premises.
Instead, there's simple, tasty market-driven food and a casual, welcoming mood. Come for a couple of prawns and a beer at the bar. Relax in the rear courtyard and build a meal around dips, a bowl of retsina-steamed mussels and a stuffed eggplant. Sit on the pavement with a cocktail and a friend. The inspiration is Greece, definitely, but also Melbourne institutions such as MoVida NextDoor and Bar Lourinha, places where the flavours are true and the hospitality is sincere.
You'll recognise the ingredients but the renditions are pleasingly freewheeling. Cucumber and yoghurt is a familiar combination in tzatziki dip; you might luck onto it here as a chilled cucumber and yoghurt soup with pickled green chillis, fresh mint and dill.
Grilled prawns come as is or piled over a summery watermelon, feta and mint salad: they're smoky, hot, salty, juicy and so good with a glass of ouzo and ice.
Ouzo a no-no? Maybe give it another try. There are around a dozen varieties of the aniseedy spirit here, served with ice and water so you can adjust the temperature and potency to your own specifications. It's easy DIY.
There's whole fish from the grill but hot days, cold seafood and iced ouzo (your new favourite beverage) are a canny catch of the day too: poached cuttlefish, calamari, clams and mussels are served chilled, over endives and topped with shaved bottarga, a cured fish roe.
It's not Greek if there's not lamb and Jim's lamb is excellent. Cutlets are marinated for two days to an old family recipe that sees grated onion, tomato, cumin, paprika and oregano infused into sweet, tender meat.
Eleni's pastries might include a crisp spice-scented baklava or ekmek, shredded pastry and custard, topped with a pistachio praline.
It's all good, honest food, not as hip as a camel milk latte but rather more approachable.
The Karabagias family has a long history on Swan Street – when Jim was a child his parents ran a fruiterer, then a fish and chip shop across the road from Demitri's Feast. The family lived upstairs. Jim would tag along to the fish market with his father, John.
"I'd bid for flake while dad bought everything else," he says, and they'd come back to the shop with a whole shark to fillet. "It was really fun." Adventures included escaping eels, stored live in a trough, and later recovered from the back yard.
Swan Street shenanigans are different these days – think fancy burgers, clean eating emporiums and upscale ice-cream and rather fewer live eels – but the fun is definitely there, thanks in no small part to the spirited efforts of Demitri's Feast.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)