It’s as fast as Greek gets – and you’ve never had pitas like these
Try to imagine fast Greek food. Is there such a thing? Okay, maybe souvlaki street vendors. But these puffy pitas are outright delicious, even before anything at all is laid out or smeared on them and rolled squishily, paper-wrapped and tucked.
Chris Tatsakis has a lovely soft Greek voice. He’s one of those positive people who like everything and love a lot of things. Especially Greek things.
And we know that Greek food is for lingering over in the sunshine. For relishing in its simplicity, tongue-tasting the oil, the rich flavour of lamb, perfectly balanced tsatsiki. Licking your lips and smiling.
So, when it comes to GRK, the concept by Chris Tatsakis of Ethos, the exquisite Oxford Parks restaurant with its elegant, creative Mediterranean cuisine, it’s difficult at first to imagine something supposedly very different, something meant to be quick.
GRK is intended as fast food and it does come quickly because of some cunning inventions, but I think you can’t really eat it any other way than slowly and very appreciatively. Hopefully in a sunny spot. Like here where we are, in the shop.
I’ve been trying to find out something about this place for a while, being an Ethos fan and follower of the Tatsakis father, Chris, and son, Giorgio, the greatly talented designer. I knew it was opening but there was no way of finding it except that I knew it was in Rivonia and then heard it was in the Village Centre here.
I was wandering around the busy parking lot and then asked the friendliest looking person if he knew anything about GRK.
“I’ll take you there,” he said. “In fact, I work there.” He pointed to the three letters on his sleeve. He’s Gift Dube and he pushed open the doors out of the wintry wind, on the inside of which all was bright and sane.
It is not likely to be this calm for long though. GRK is open to the public already, “softly” as restaurateurs say, to sort out early systems and teething hassles, so it’s not yet been officially opened with a bit of fanfare. Chris Tatsakis was inside, as hoped.
The idea of GRK is not to move too far from the idea of the Greek yiro, like the Middle Eastern shawarma, but to improve on the hygiene standards and even the taste of warm meats standing around under warm lights on poles.
In addition to improving hygiene Tatsakis reinvented the production process, enabling GRK to serve up fresh food quickly. It’s very clever.
About five years ago Tatsakis was with three other chefs of Michelin starred restaurants that he knows, on the Greek mainland, and they chatted into the late afternoon about ways of improving yiro or gyro-cooked meat and solving its food-safety problems. This, implemented at GRK, is that happy, eventual solution.
However, part of the fabulousness of the end product is what goes with that clever meat, so all the sauces are made from scratch and the quality of the fresh vegetables cut for optimum taste.
Those sauces include truly traditional tzatziki but there are versions of it especially for South Africans, like an avo one, oh yes, as well as especially garlicked and especially herbed ones. There is true Greek hummus too and then there are some less Greek items here by popularity, like mustard yoghurt and babaganoush.
But the puffy pitas are outright delicious, even before anything at all is laid out or smeared on them and rolled squishily, paper-wrapped and tucked. They aren’t made from scratch. They are specially imported by Tatsakis, tried and trusted, sent from a baker and friend, Chasioti Konstantina south of Athens, and with whom he has a contract of exclusivity. That deal could turn into something promising too. We do not have pita of the like.
Tatsakis has a lovely soft Greek voice. He’s one of those positive people who like everything and love quite a lot of things, especially Greek things.
As I know from him, even at Ethos, there are particular food items that just have no peers here and he needs the very best quality versions of them to be brought over from certain individual parts of Greece. These are principally cheeses like real halloumi and, in this GRK instance, real feta. But here are also the pita breads. Never, ever, have I tasted anything like these. I have made many of my own over years, in frustration with what’s generally on offer. I may as well give that up. All four of the different versions, rather than flavours, are outstanding but it is the density and quality of each pita that’s so munchily satisfying to eat, so different from what we know as pita.
Tatsakis has time, for once, so he and I go into the kitchen and put them to still-novel full-on, filled, preparation and presentation tests. Tatsakis plunges eagerly into his apron like a swimmer into the inviting Aegean.
First I must point out the four different types or nutritional compositions of the pita. They can all be used interchangeably with five main protein fillings.
The Village or Choriatiki is a mixture of good wheat and hard-wheat flour with a high protein content, along with antioxidant turmeric. It looks yellowish.
The corn pita is yellowish anyway from the corn flour that is mixed with wheat flour but also has a little turmeric with it.
The rather tasty wholewheat one, which is Tatsakis’s favourite, is made with less-processed wholegrain wheat flours so that the pita retains its magnesium, vitamin B and iron.
Carob powder, which I know more for making chocolate things without cacao, is part of the wheat mixture here. It’s not sweet of course and known for its fibrousness. The carob pitta is brown and has a slightly earthy flavour.
A chef who will be front-of-house has arrived but Tatsakis and I are with the cooks at the plates, sauces and vegetables prepped and ready. Here we go. The chefs cook the pita for exactly three minutes, while the others wield their specially made half-moon knives as part of the “new-method yiro” process, whipping the protein fillings-to-be onto crazily hot plates. The proteins are lamb, pork, beef, chicken and a brilliant falafel. Tatsakis surprises me by saying that the favourite Greek option is pork.
We spread the freshly cooked pita with a choice of sauces, fill them in a blur with the hot-hot proteins shovelled from the plates, smack in the prepped vegetables and wrap them just so. Tatsakis has a final thumb flip of the paper that does the fast trick and then the bottom is twisted kardoes style. There.
We put all the varieties on a plate to divide and share and taste. It looks wonderfully generous. “This is like being in Greece now,” smiles Tatsakis appraisingly, still in his apron.
Before we sit down to taste-test all the variations, Patty Sibongile stops us for something called “double trouble”. Oh, yes, the dessert item Tatsakis told me about is mini-waffles or Vaflaki, also imported. As Patty says in this case, it is, “With milk chocolate, white chocolate and strawberries.” My eye also fell on some pomegranate gelato among about six interesting flavours made here at GRK.
And then, even before everything is even on our table, in comes “half Greek, half-Italian” Anna Mancini, who bakes and brings into GRK an ever-changing selection of homely Greek dishes. People can eat these here or take them home, ready to serve.
Today she has brought papoutsakia, aubergines filled with meat and béchamel sauce, also what looks like a yummy vegetarian casserole of stuffed tomatoes and peppers, with baked potatoes. I can smell the scent of the olive oil in it.
Finally Tatsakis and the front-of-house-to-be, Matthew Earp-Jones, and Mancini and I are gathered. And people keep joining us. One man blurts, “Your friend, he wants to say that this thing here,” and he indicates the full table, “is better than sex, but he is not saying it.”
Tatsakis has business partners. Or maybe they are lucky to have him, I reckon. It’s a full Greek family, originally from Lesbos. Tatsakis says, “See our most famous Greek olive oils come from Lesvos. And the excellent ouzo. Over there.” There are bottles next to Greek pots and books on shelves.
Over our sunny corner lunch, while realising that a carob pita is my most wonderful thing, I speak to a man who advises about “the systems” and ask him where he’s from. He looks around and says, “From other restaurants too.”
“No, I mean are you South African?”
“Well, yes,” he says.
“I didn’t think so. I thought you might be from another country.”
“But of course – I am Greek!” he exclaims proudly, almost standing from his chair.
I look about me. Giorgio Tatsakis’s artistic interior of dark and neutral timbers and geometries (“none of that old blue-and-white”) comes into its own with sunlight and here we are tasting and eating fast-produced Greek food but, as I expected, eating it slowly and having fun, laughing and enjoying ourselves at GRK. DM/TGIFood
GRK Shop 5, Rivonia Village Shopping Centre, Cnr Rivonia Blvd and Mutual Rd, Rivonia. 010 534 7672
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.