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Restaurant review by Chris Zacharia
Greek food could have been the one. It could have been great. Why did Italian cuisine rise to immortality, while the dishes of its Hellenic neighbour languished in the kebab house?
Pizza’s global domination could have been achieved by pitta bread. Feta would lord it over mozzarella in the cheese aisle. Lasagna would just be an obscure, less popular moussaka.
But it wasn’t to be. Greek food in Britain remains, on the whole, an unfulfilled promise: a few late-night kebab houses, a smattering of tired fish-and-chips. As a Greek Cypriot, the pain of this untapped potential is all too familiar. You’re better off asking me who does the best sushi than where to find a decent kleftiko.
It’s against this daunting, saturated market that Suvlaki bravely presents itself. Tucked away in food-mad Soho, a few yards from an intimidatingly large Nando’s, there’s little margin for error. Fortunately, Suvlaki is a roaring success. I haven’t visited a Greek restaurant this good in years.
As the name implies, Suvlaki centres its menu around the grilled kebab treat of the same name. Anyone familiar with these succulent chunks of chicken and pork, doused in fresh lemon juice and flecked with parsley, will no doubt express sadness and astonishment that its doner rival, the undisputed master of the kebab world, has kept souvlaki in the shade for so long. Souvlaki, cooked correctly, is clearly superior. And Suvlaki insist on cooking it correctly: meat of sound provenance is prepared fresh every day and cooked over a robata-style grill over pure, highly carbonized wood.
Stepping into Suvlaki, the scale of its ambitions are confirmed: not only is this an Athenian grill-house as it purports to be, it also serves as a kind of rehabilitation of Greek culture. In a city of remarkable dining experiences, eating here is memorable. Look: there’s barracks-chic graffiti spray-painted onto deep aquamarine walls. Look: there’s a protrusion of mock-Doric columns. Look: there’s a traditional wood-fired oven. Suvlaki have managed to give the traditional composition of the legendary Greek taverna an impressive makeover without forsaking its core appeal. During our meal, the tiny thirty-cover restaurant is packed. It makes for an intimate, almost intense experience, but through intelligent decoration Suvlaki have economized their spatial limitation to the point where it becomes something of an asset.
We order the Suvlaki Exuberance, mostly because of its convincing title but also because it offers, for £34, a comprehensive tour of the menu’s landmark tastes for two. A classic pork souvlaki skewer delivers on the restaurant’s core promise; the meat yields in a molten, satisfying way, the fat glistening and lingering on the tongue, while retaining a robust, chewy meatiness. Crispy, deep ochre on the outside, with a salty crunch to it, the pork souvlaki is the kind of food that makes you question how much you could eat before losing interest or getting full. Eight skewers? Nine?
A second skewer of wild boar is less familiar but still delicious. From a farm on the foothills of Mount Olympus, these sausages arrive with the swagger of authenticity, and their full-bodied meaty hit, the texture crumbly and fine, the taut skin bursting with juiciness, justifies its place on a compact menu.
Two flatbread wraps are less immediately successful but still appealing. Lamb mince is particularly nice, especially when its thick, grilled blanket of bread is dipped in the accompanying tzatziki. The chicken thigh wrap, despite the succulence of the meat and a lively partnership with plum tomatoes, fails on account of its tangy but somehow stubbornly un-Greek lemon mustard sauce, which dominates the chicken all too bossily. A hearty and rejuvenating Greek salad provides respite, with its juicy tomatoes and generous rubble of feta. A pita burger, the only notable concession to Anglo-Saxon mores, makes up the rear.
With four sides arriving on the Exuberance platter, we experience something of a cheese surfeit. Three of the four dishes rely on feta as their animating component, best of all in a foil-wrapped tile of baked feta, sprinkled with oregano and pepper. It all amounts to a festival of Feta. We’re flat-sharing with feta, we’re going on a city break with feta, we’re foxtrotting with feta. Weirdly, we don’t tire of it.
Given the sheer savouriness of it all, it’s a relief to see that Suvlaki have made a distinctive effort with their beer. Sourced from microbreweries across Greece, this obscure selection yields some surprising classics. Nissos, a pilsner brewed in the Cyclades, is a great companion to the feast: a riot of crisp flavours, a smattering of tingly applause on your tongue. I’m told it has won a Silver medal at a prominent beer festival in Bavaria; the Germans giving the Greeks an award for beer is a bit like Athens giving Berlin a prize for financial management: unexpected, but gladdening. Half a dozen further beers, ranging from double malt to porter and IPA, complete a decent selection and provide a great alternative to the Greek wine on offer, which starts at a rather forbidding £22.
Presumably exhausted from fighting on every other front, Suvlaki aren’t the biggest proponents of Greek desserts. There’s one choice, the modestly-titled Chocolate Biscuit Cake, and thankfully it’s excellent. Resembling those chocolate tiffins you’d get in the school canteen, but with a squishy, pulpy chocolate filling, it’s a shamelessly decadent way to end what was always going to be a hearty, comforting meal. Homemade coffee-flavoured ice cream provides a supreme creaminess to the dense cake. A hefty slab with the accompanying scoop of ice cream comes at £5, so there’s no excuse. Authentic Greek coffee, as grainy and rich as yiayia used to make, is an essential finale to the meal.
Fault can only be found in the pricing, which while not exactly prohibitive does raise questions about whether Suvlaki can really call itself Athenian street food. Three skewers are £11, and while they’re undeniably delicious I cannot imagine many Greeks who would be satisfied with the portions. But to complain feels churlish, especially when there’s so much to celebrate here. Punchy, properly seasoned, big-flavour food, all served in the kind of bustling dining room in which you long to linger, by a group of Greeks who know just what they’re doing. The game’s up, Italian food. Your days are numbered.
London restaurant review by Chris Zacharia