A Homeric culinary journey

The Real Greek in north London boldly taps into traditions that are barely touched on by other Greek restaurants
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A warning to those who imagine they know an up and coming area of London better than they actually do. Hoxton Market is not where Hoxton market takes place, which is in the yet to be trendified Hoxton Street. Because of this misapprehension we could have done with Ariadne's ball of thread to navigate the maze of one-way streets leading to The Real Greek, a welcoming reworking of an old pub that, unlike the hip bars of Hoxton, is more about food than fashion.

A warning to those who imagine they know an up and coming area of London better than they actually do. Hoxton Market is not where Hoxton market takes place, which is in the yet to be trendified Hoxton Street. Because of this misapprehension we could have done with Ariadne's ball of thread to navigate the maze of one-way streets leading to The Real Greek, a welcoming reworking of an old pub that, unlike the hip bars of Hoxton, is more about food than fashion.

Chef and owner Theodore Kyriakou's mission is to debunk every myth associated with Hellenic catering: that oily moussaka and retsina, plus plate smashing and bouzouki music, in a taverna in a suburban parade of shops is in some way reminiscent of an island holiday. Food from the mainland is almost unheard of in Britain, and the menu in the archetypical Greek Cypriot restaurant is entirely predictable and limited. Unbelievably, until now, no one has tried to show that there's more to Greek food than we're used to.

Kyriakou's history explains why he's able to break out of the moussaka mould. Born in Athens to parents who ran a food shop, he came late to cooking in London, after years as a merchant seaman. At Livebait, the Waterloo restaurant bought and expanded by the Chez Gerard group, he changed the face of fish cooking by matching sauerkraut with mussels and prawns; seared scallops with red-wine pears; roast monkfish with braised red cabbage; tuna with baba ganoush. Switching his focus to Greece, he's introduced an unheard of variety of island and mainland ingredients, gone over the border for some recipes and come up with delicious, bold new flavours and combinations.

Is it really, truly, purely Greek? Does it matter? It's unlike anything else you'll eat in London and probably better than the real thing. The vanguard of our waylaid party ordered starters, aka mezedes, which are somewhat misleadingly described as three or four small bites, as if they could be shared. Instead, compositions are not easily divisible, and they were so good that although we ordered a selection for sharing, each was quickly appropriated and guarded. There was little opportunity for anyone else to dip into a plate that contained one chunky tentacle of barbecued octopus next to lightly salted cod fillet in light batter, plus potato and garlic aioli - a thick mayonnaise or mayonnaisey mash depending on how you looked at it - with roast beetroots.

Another plate comprised wonderful lamb and herby breadcrumbed meatballs called by their Turkish inventors "lady's thighs" on account of their plumpness, firmness and length. They were presented cut in half on slices of cured tuna with a tomato and bean stew. A third mezede presented three forms of fish roe: thin slices from a smooth, dense strip of grey mullet; lumpfish in a red and black speckled puree, and an unassuming-looking taramasalata of firm, fishy smokiness without the usual baby-lotion pinkness. This was the best taramasalata you're likely to find either side of, and probably in, Athens itself.

These mezedes draw on meticulously sourced raw materials: a solidly meaty, peppery-coated salami from Lefkas; Kalamata olives; matured feta; grey mullet roe; yellow split peas from Santorini. They're not just easy-way- out assemblies because, with parts which are raw and others which are slow cooked, they combine the products and processes of earth, wind, water and fire in elementally delicious forms.

Equally elemental in a restaurant, excellent breads including sourdough and walnut, are offered without any lubrication. Since they weren't especially Greek, the reluctance to provide butter seemed unnecessarily doctrinaire. More essential to encourage customers to appreciate Greek output is that the wine list offers no alternatives. I don't think we can lay all the blame for how we felt the next day on the Strofilia red and Notios white.

Main courses are divided into two sizes and price bands. Small dishes for £5-£7 include spinach and feta filo pie; a casserole of cannellini beans and cured beef with sourdough toast; and souvlaki of lamb's offal, a sausage of compacted sweetbreads, liver and other best-not-identified pieces of organ, on top of almond skordalia (a dip of garlic, nuts and bread) scattered with slivers of toasted almonds and a salad.

For double the cost of the usual bubble there are other dishes which go even further in reinterpreting Greek - and even Turkish - food. Ismir- style meat dumplings, dense but not heavy meatballs in tomato sauce, with yogurt spiked with cumin and rice cooked in stock must be a rare example of meatballs worth a £13 price tag. They were exceptional. Fast- cooked tuna with slow-roasted leeks was one of surprisingly few fishy choices. Slices of roast loin of pork with honey-coated quince, and stewed endive as a more bitter foil for the fruit, is a variation on the Turkish version of lamb and quince. These are not the jet-travel jostlings of incompatible cultures on one plate, but sensationally rewarding dishes derived from established regional traditions that have barely been tapped.

Afters are cheesy, but not in the usual sickly sweet Greek way. There is a savoury selection of never-before-seen cheeses - Kaseri, Kefalotiri and Graviera - with mirabelle chutney, or a saffron and cottage cheese tartlet. Desserts were so spattered with soft fruit syrups that it seemed fratricide might have taken place in the kitchen. But there was no tragic ending. A roulade of soft meringue with blackberry juice and cream cheese, and a cheesecake-textured baked white chocolate torte with chocolate cookie covering and raspberry puree were joyous conclusions to an epically delicious dinner. An odyssey rewarded.

The Real Greek, 15 Hoxton Market, London N1 (0171-739 8212) Mon-Sat lunch and dinner. Set price lunch £14 two courses, £17 three courses. Dinner about £20-£30 a head. Major cards except Diners Club. No disabled access

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