My wife and I have a habit of turning up for a holiday in faraway lands just after the proverbial doo-doo has hit the fan. A couple of winters ago we arrived in a Delhi consumed by horror at the gang rape of a local girl on a bus. The story shook India.
The following summer we got to Athens just hours after a 77-year-old chemist had shot himself in Syntagma Square, pleading that the country's young had been betrayed by their rulers. Riots were expected; city tours abandoned; police mobilised. And do you know what happened? The people came out on to the streets and… ate.
Yes, the Greek response to economic impoverishment that we were personally witness to was to make more taramasalata and bake more baklava. I'll never forget how, in full view of the Parthenon, the streets filled not with civil unrest but with men and women who defied warnings of blood to savour fresh dollops of tzatziki in the sun. Nothing confirms solidarity like a shared meal, especially here.
It was for a taste of that spirit that we went to The Greek Larder. The setting, in London's King's Cross, is not auspicious: the restaurant occupies the ground floor of the most sickeningly ugly new block of flats in the capital, a totalitarian structure of raincloud-coloured rectangular tiles that together look cheap and horrible. These thrifty shades of grey, which I cycle past every day, are the worst of modern urban architecture.
Yet the Larder is full of sunshine. I adore it. Various comrades in the critical trade have pilloried its cooking but I must say, one dodgy dessert aside, I found most dishes superb.
The mains, ranging from £12 to £18, include venison, veal, partridge, grilled fish, cuttlefish casserole and a veggie option; but to get the best of the place, you have to work your way through the mezes.
The grilled flatbread (£3) – thin and crisp – is rather good, if dusted with dry herbs. (Why not fresh, such as parsley? The flavour would be much stronger.) The strained tomatoes and olive oil with olives and bread (£3) is a bit meh: essentially just a bland ketchup, but the olive oil is very rich and fruity in flavour.
But then come a roll call of delights. The kefalotiri saganaki (which sounds almost Japanese to my tin ear) is a pan-fried cheese with smoked red onion and candied chanterelles (£5). It is also an early contender for Dish of the Year 2015: a medley of salty, stringy, succulent melted cheese with sweet, rich and nutty accompaniments. Worth a revisit on its own.
The taramasalata (£6) is the best I've tasted, and comes with roasted fennel and crunchy radishes. The soutzouki sausage (£6), with a root-vegetable melitzanosalata (smoked aubergine salad) for company, is excellent. It has a spicy, slick twang, which is very welcome after the slippery customer that we have immediately before: octopus and fava (yellow split-pea purée). My only gripe is that there is not nearly enough octopus: half a tentacle seems uncharacteristically stingy.
None of the other dishes skimp on the ingredients. The slow-cooked chickpeas with tzatziki are a sloppy riot of garlic-infused Mediterranean goodness, healthy if dear at £6; and for the more adventurous there are masterfully crafted lamb tongues with oregano potatoes and htipiti (red pepper and feta spread (£6), and rabbit with parsnip skordalia – a kind of potato and garlic purée (also £6).
A cheesecake is the only real disappointment of the whole evening. This is a manouri and quince number. Manouri is a soft cheese made from goat's or sheep's milk, and its texture is much more chalky than, say, mascarpone. This should work fine, especially with the marmalade-like quince dripping over the top. Alas, it tastes like it's gone over, a rather sour note on which to finish. Much better to end with the delicious Greek version of an afogato – coffee over ice cream (£5).
I'm not sure why this restaurant, from Theodore Kyriakou of The Real Greek, has met with disapproval in the critical sphere. To me it seems a joy. The trick is to forget that you're under flats that Mussolini might have designed. If you focus hard enough on the food, you might even feel, just for a moment, transported back to happy days in the Athenian sun.
The Greek Larder, ArtHouse, 1 York Way, London N1, Tel: 020 3780 2999. £60 for two, without wine
Four more foodie notes from the past week
Lunched with the High Commissioner of India; a spicy, baked fillet was the highlight of a perfect meal.
Ham & Mozzarella panini
I had one from Café Nero in Heathrow Terminal 5. Greasy, meaty, carbohydrate-drenched goodness.
If it's January, it must be the tea and biscuit diet. I prefer Yorkshire to PG Tips and Tetley – but only just.
At Gravesend station, my mate spotted a Pumpkin café. This dry-as-dust purchase made me wish he hadn't.Reuse content