words Chris Zacharia
You could call Greek food many things, but rarely is it ever complicated. Greek cuisine is laid-back. You won’t find many references to jus or specialist cooking apparatus.
Fork, farm and fishing rod provide fodder for the oven or grill, and a smattering of herbs, flatbreads and sauces do the rest.
It’s precisely this time-honoured prandial simplicity which often feels missing from London’s dining scene. Restaurants fall over themselves to find the latest gourmet trend, but few keep to perfect simple, traditional taverna-style food.
The Hungry Donkey, a breezy modern Greek restaurant just off Commercial Street, is actually a pretty simple place. Excellent pork, chicken and lamb, each sourced directly from named Hellenic suppliers or from award-winning, queue-spawning butchers Aubrey Allen, is marinated and grilled, served on skewers or on a feasting plate. Other treats, such as the moussaka or the fasolakia, are rustic throwbacks to the peasant food of the Greeks. It’s a menu with little need of extrapolation, where even if you don’t recognise the names you’ll have no trouble understanding their appeal.
With the old-fashioned Greek taverna decor firmly rejected, The Hungry Donkey have plumped for a sharp, almost industrial look. Wire mesh criss-crosses the floor-to-ceiling windows. Trunk-like pipes traverse the ceiling in a knot of black and grey. Functional wooden tables are bracketed by blue-cushioned benches. It’s smart and chirpy, but a touch too self-conscious, a deliberate contradiction of a standard dining setting. On the other hand, there’s plenty of natural light and a lovely team of waiting staff, both of which go a long way to warming the place up.
Once the formidable array of starters land, all traces of doubt vanish. With this kind of wholesome, fragrant food, you could be eating in a windswept warehouse and still come out smiling. Fresh, crunchy flatbreads accompany a trio of big-name Greek dips, from cool tzatziki (£5) to htipiti, a punchy swirl of feta cheese and roasted red pepper. Autumnal flavours abound with papoutsakia (£5) – literally ‘little shoes’ – slices of aubergines roasted with tomatoes and feta and finished with lashings of olive oil and oregano.
Despite feta’s dominance, other Greek cheese make notable cameos. Manouri and latodyri cheese balls (£3.50) are deep fried, the natural sweetness of the cheeses playing brilliantly with the batter. Fried saganaki cheese has a beguilingly sooty, acrid taste but is far less successful a vehicle of fried flavour than its cousin halloumi, becoming rubbery far too quickly. Zucchini fritters (£6), meanwhile, are a textural wonder, crispy like fried noodles on the outside and softly yielding within. Each of the starters contributes to a lively, engaging anthology of Greek cuisine.
The mains move everything up a gear. Wild boar sausage slices, spicy and bursting from their casing, are excellent – a tight volley of piquant flavours. There’s a robust, grainy texture too. Yet it’s the meat platter which really seals the deal. Each meat – chicken, pork and lamb – is succulent, crisp and tender, grilled to perfection. There’s a good char on the pork, abundant crust of aromatic oregano on the lamb and a golden sheen on the chicken. All of it, and I mean every piece, is well-seasoned and juicy. By the end we’re all lobbying for our favourite cut. Only the shakiest of agreements allows us to conclude that the lamb is best. This is how you want meat to be served.
Milder success comes with the moussaka, molten in the middle but too cheesy up top, forming a stubbornly chewy crust. It’s a passable interpretation of the dish without ever making us swoon. A delicious full-bodied dry red wine, a Mavrotragano-Mandilaria from Domaine Sigalas on Santorini island, weaves the flavours together adeptly, proof that Greece has an underrated array of wines.
By the time we get to desserts, there’s barely any room left. Luckily, both cakes we try share an ambrosial softness. Galaktoboureko, a filo pastry filled with semolina custard, is both reviving and indulgent, smooth and sweet. Partnered with kaimaki ice cream, formed with Sahlep powder (made with wild orchids) has a stretchy texture and an aromatic flavour. Meanwhile a manouri cheesecake straddles sharp and sweet perfectly, with a decent base too.
It’s hard not to be impressed with The Hungry Donkey. Here are a team of guys who’ve built an independent, clever Greek restaurant from the ground up, stocking it with quality ingredients and chefs who know what they’re doing. Greek food might not be the most complex, but when it’s this good, who cares?
For more information visit www.hungrydonkey.co.uk
words Chris Zacharia