People often say to me: "Restaurant critic, that must be a cushy little number. But it isn't really proper work, is it?" Well, no, it isn't, and that's why I try to make time in my week for some sheer bloody hard graft. Like playing records on the radio, for example.
As both of you who own a digital radio will know, BBC6 Music is a rocking little station, to which I make a modest weekly contribution. But bestriding the network like a goateed colossus is the comedian Phill Jupitus, who presents the breakfast show. Something about the man told me he might just have an interest in fine-dining, so I invited him for lunch (he gets up at 5am to travel into London from Southend, and by supper-time he's a spent husk.)
The Real Greek Souvlaki and Bar, in London's Clerkenwell, was the venue, and not just because it's vaguely on Phill's route home to Southend. An offshoot of the esteemed Real Greek restaurant in Hoxton, which has done so much to overturn stereotypes of Greek cooking, it specialises in street food, and particularly souvlaki - skewers of meat cooked over charcoal. Just in case Phill thought I was pigeonholing him as some kind of kebab-eating Essex man, it also offers a full supporting cast of mezedes and grills, and an interesting all-Greek wine list.
An apt environment for Greek street food, the Souvlaki and Bar affords all the comfort you might expect to find in a Greek street. In downtown Sparta. The woody charm of the parent restaurant has been traded for an industrial, boiler-room look, featuring massive exposed flues and ducts (purely decorative judging by the smokey stuffiness of the room), and walls treated with a paint effect to make them look like bare concrete. "If Kraftwerk came from Athens, this is where they'd live," Phill observed as he and his producer (another Phil, confusingly) attempted to make themselves comfortable on the spindly chairs.
I'd been expecting that my guests - two big men who had been up since dawn - would give the shortish menu a thorough pounding, but things didn't go as planned. First Phil Wilding announced that he doesn't eat meat or fish. Then Phill Jupitus revealed that he follows a no-wheat, no-dairy diet on account of his headaches. In fact, when it came to dishes we could all share, it was basically down to a bowl of chips. Oh, and neither of them was drinking.
Phill's no-wheat, no-dairy regime rapidly crumbled, however, in the face of the mezedes, and particularly the grilled flat bread that accompanied them. "I'm prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the review. And anyway, I've already got a headache." The stars of our veggie-friendly selection were gigandes plaki - butter beans stewed with tomato and herbs - and a warm salad of beetroot and horta, (dandelion leaves). Cold dishes included a nubbly salad of feta, onion and red pepper, and melitzanosalata, a Greek cousin of baba ganoush made with aubergine and walnut. The taramosalata, undyed and tangy with roe, was according to Phill, the best he'd ever tasted. "And I've had the expensive M&S sort."
The Souvlaki and Bar serves its souvlaki not as skewers of meat, but in the Greek style, as a sandwich - what Americans call a gyro - with the meat folded into flat bread with tzatziki and tomato. They arrive wrapped in waxed paper bearing the Harvey Nichols logo (the meat comes from the store's food hall), an uptown touch which delighted Phill; "It's the legitimised kebab!" The chicken was smoky and lemon-scented, the lamb sweet and herby, the bread deliciously soaked in juices. But the souvlaki is definitely not first-date food; taking a bite involves a manoeuvre which turns even the most dainty of nibblers into Gazza on a big night out.
All the main courses contained fish or meat, so while Phill and I were gorging ourselves, Producer Phil was balefully contemplating a rerun of his mezedes, with added dolmades. "How's your food, cheese boy?" cackled Phill, with the sadism that only a lapsed vegetarian can muster.
Puddings aren't really street food, although the ice-cream and sorbet we tried had the texture of something you might find sliding down a stick in 100 degree heat. "Can I tell you what mine tastes like? Earth," said Producer Phil of the sludgy Greek coffee ice-cream I'd forced him to try. As I'd also encouraged him to start his meal with an ouzo mojito, a doomed attempt to rehabilitate that pariah of the drinks world as a cool cocktail, it would have been quite understandable if he'd thumped me, bringing the kebab meal to its traditional climax.
Both my guests, however, were generally pretty impressed with the Real Greek Souvlaki and Bar. Phill Jupitus in particular, waxed positively lyrical in declaring his meal "the loveliest Greek food I've eaten by a mile". At around £30 a head, prices are high for street food, but not unreasonable. The one thing, we agreed, that would stop us from going back is the bleak and uncomfortable design. After all, we get enough of that at work. E
The Real Greek Souvlaki and Bar, 140-142 St John Street, London EC1 (020-7253 7234)Reuse content