When the culinary bouzoukis play

When the culinary bouzoukis play
Soul Souvlaki. Photo supplied

Greek food done well is akin to having Zorba the Greek dance on your palate. Kolonaki Greek Kouzina takes Theo Holiasmenos and sons back to their Greek roots with a plethora of traditional recipes given a modern twist with everything made in-house, including the cheese.

Somehow there’s still some comfort to be had from an Italian pasta that isn’t al dente or an American cheeseburger without the perfect patty. However, a limp Greek salad is simply inedible while the classic is, in the words of Nigel Slater who says it best, “the ultimate high-summer salad … best eaten with sand between your toes and salt on your lips”.

Towards the end of 2018, during a visit to Cape Town, I finally visited a Greek restaurant that has been operating in Sea Point for what seems like forever. We’d driven past often but never eaten there. It was time, we thought, to support restaurants in the ’hood. We should have left the minute our elbows stuck to the dirty table. The gyro meat looked as if it had been turning for days – it probably had as it was tough and bland.

The food didn’t transport me to Santorini or Naxos. The bouzoukis were stilled – all you could hear was the sound of taxis hooting in Regent Road.

At about the same time came the news that one of South Africa’s most prominent restaurateurs and his two sons were opening a new Greek restaurant – Kolonaki Greek Kouzina – in Johannesburg’s vibey and happening 4th Avenue strip in Parkhurst.

Theo Holiasmenos is the man behind some big-name South African chains of yesteryear. He’s built restaurant empires and sold them. He’s made money – and lost it. But he is a consummate restaurateur who knows what his patrons like and works incredibly hard to give it to them.

His first venture into the restaurant world was the Golden Rand steakhouse in Kempton Park back in 1968. His first chain was MacRib which he started in the mid-1980s. Then followed Ciao Baby Cucina and Karoo Cattle and Land before he looked to open restaurants in the UK, a venture which didn’t pan out as planned following the economic crisis.

Theo’s son Vassilios – known to everyone as Basil – is in charge of the kitchen. Born in South Africa, Holiasmenos went to boarding school in England. He completed his schooling there and then trained in the food and hospitality industry where he got his degree. He worked in a number of UK establishments including as deputy sous chef of the Savoy Londons Mark Emberton. Brother Mike also worked in the hospitality industry in the UK, including a stint at Jamie’s Italian.

Kolonaki Greek Kouzina takes Holiasmenos and sons back to their Greek roots with a plethora of traditional recipes given a modern twist with everything made in-house, including the cheese. They prove that Greek food can be up-to-date without it losing anything that made it one of the world’s favourite food cultures.

Kolonaki. Photo supplied

Kolonaki has become known for its meze (small plates) and jars of pickles and marinated vegetable although I must admit the latter is a particular bugbear for me. It’s the anti-hipster in this old curmudgeon – I hate food served in Mason jars and arbitrary objects. Bah humbug.

The meze is spectacular – vibrant, fresh and packed with flavour: From dolmathakia and yellow fava dip to tiropitakia (feta and ricotta pies) and their own in-house made feta wrapped in phyllo pastry, soaked in honey syrup and served with grapes and strawberries.

Among my favourite appetisers are the salmon cured in beetroot and ouzo served with diced cucumber, dill oil, yoghurt and kataifi (R120), unctuous braised beef cheek stiffatho (R78) served with carrot purée and sliced radish and one of the best octopodes (R75) I have eaten. It has been slow-cooked for hours until it is tender and then finished off on a grill to give it a delicious chargrilled flavour. A simple squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of olive oil and you know, even while eating it, that you will have to return for more.

The lamb ribs (R220) and baby chicken (R135) are also simply chargrilled with lemon and served with a dash of oregano. There are some interesting sides including broccoli served with almonds, garlic, chilli and feta (R40) and halloumi chips (R55) that come with yoghurt and pomegranate seeds.

Leave space for desserts (R65) because they really are worth it – from the Greek yoghurt pannacotta to the Galaktoburiko (custard wrapped in phyllo pastry served with strawberry purée and dried strawberries).

There are some fascinating sounding dishes on the menu that I know I will have to go back for, including the crayfish yiro (price SQ) with aioli. Why have the garden variety chicken or lamb (which is also on the menu) when you can be OTT just once?

The venue is beautiful and upmarket without being pretentious. It seems to be busy all of the time so reservations are a must.

Soul Souvlaki. Photo supplied

Also creating an Aegean culinary stir is Soul Souvlaki, which is the brainchild of Dino Vlachos who was inspired by a trip to Greece in 2012 and his discovery of exceptional Greek street food.

Vlachos started off Soul Souvlaki as a stall selling at the Market on Main in Maboneng. It was a runaway success and led to the opening of a permanent “container store” in Maboneng. The Craighall Park eatery followed in June 2016 with Bedfordview and Parktown North opening last year.

Most of the stores are small and funky (go early if you want to sit down and not do take-out) with recycled furniture and mismatched items that somehow go together. Go for the lamb souvlaki served in a pita (R68 for a single) which comes packed with red onion, rocket, tomato, tzatziki and a dash of chilli or the grilled bifteki (burger) on a plate (R88). It’s great, fresh and simple Greek food at a great price. DM

Kolonaki, 18, 4th Ave, Corner 9th Street, Parkhurst. Tel: 010 900 3319

Soul Souvlaki: Bedfordview: Bedford Arcade, 2 Hawley Road. Tel: 010 595 1189; Craighall Park: 339 Jan Smuts Avenue, Shepherd Market. Tel: 011 327 6143; Maboneng: 18 Albrecht Maboneng Precinct, Jeppestown. Tel: 072 300 0896 Parktown North: Corner of 3rd and 7th Avenues. Tel: 011 327 6366.


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