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Empire strikes back

Pat Nourse takes a trip back to Byzantium at Xánthi, the new CBD restaurant that’s been billed a “fun-park of Greek food.”

Count the number of really great Greek restaurants in Australia on both hands and you'll find you have fingers to spare. Unlike, say, Brazil, Peru and South Africa, Greece is not represented in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. In its most recent Europe-wide edition, Michelin's red guide reviewed 36 restaurants in Poland, 28 in Finland and 20 in Luxembourg (Luxembourg!). 

Greece rated just 15 entries. But we're talking about a cuisine that can be every bit as fresh and healthy as anything else in Europe, a cuisine which has its share of regional diversity, historical depth and complexity, and unique products. The traditions are clear, the proud Greeks are many. It's just the restaurants that are thin on the ground. Why, to quote the late, great Professor Julius Sumner Miller, is it so?

Chefs such as Theodore Kyriakou in London, Michael Psilakis in Manhattan and, closer to home, George Calombaris in Melbourne and Peter Conistis in Sydney have proven that the food of Greece can form a convincing and rewarding foundation for restaurant cooking. Now David Tsirekas, whose Petersham restaurant Perama had been a Sydney Greek standby for a decade, is chalking up another run for the Greek side with Xánthi. It's an ambitious new establish­ment that builds on the Perama brand with a bigger menu and a grander design on the top floor of Westfield's shimmering new temple of Mammon in the city's centre.

"My goal is to present the whole spectrum, from ancient to classical to traditional to modern," Tsirekas told us before he opened Xánthi. And so the menu runs from the Byzantine, in the form of dried figs reconstituted with pepper in a honey and vinegar syrup, a hit at Perama and doubtless here too, to the Kerkyra fish curry, fillets of ling with fennel, potato and leek in a creamy, lemony sauce. It's inspired by the British introduction of curry flavours into the pantries of the Ionian Islands, the menu notes, though in truth it's spicier on the page than on the plate, and seems unlikely to be destined for permanent menu status. I'd give better odds to Tsirekas's two signature baklavas. Both the savoury pork belly, pistachio, date and mastic version and the caramel ice-cream rendition have made the journey over from Audley Street, as has the lamb skaras, a braised-then-grilled shoulder.

The room isn't quite so polished as its next-door neighbours, Spiedo and Chat Thai. It's a far cry from the loopy grandeur of the new Bécasse on the floor below, but it's also pitched at a very different price-point. The bulk of the main courses come in under $32, and there's next to nothing on the wine list priced above $90. There's a café/bar island in front of the restaurant, but the dining room is more or less closed off from the mall. Sheer golden curtains line the walls, and when they're open at night, the far end looks out over Castlereagh Street. The music is Greek, the olive oil is Greek, the wine list is Greek, the soft drinks are Greek, the mineral water is Greek. The cutlery is branded "Athena", the carpets are patterned, the large column in the middle of the room (not so much Corinthian or Doric as Load-Bearing, I suspect) is tiled in white. It's not luxe, but it's modern and comfortable enough. It is, in short, thoroughly Greek in feel without actually going as far as bunging on the whitewash and fishing nets.

Kick things off with a drink from the ouzo cart. It comes replete with tsipouro, Greek brandies, raki and mastic-flavoured liqueurs from Skinos, Patras and Chios. There's also a sparkling moschofilero from the Peloponnese listed by the glass, and a selection of beers that extends well beyond the usual Mythos to the Keo of Cyprus, Craft's Athens lager, or the wonderful Vergina, named, of course, for the town in Central Macedonia. The boxes have been ticked, from the sour cherry Loux fizzy drink ("the traditional Greek taste since 1950") to the St John Commandaria to close.

The service of the wine is slightly problematic in that so far I haven't encountered anyone on the floor who can adequately explain the essentials of the all-Greek list in terms of the fundamentals of what goes well with what. The waiters are cheerful and friendly, and are very keen for you to try what you can by the glass before you buy, but their recommendations rarely get beyond the red-with-meat, white-with-fish level. There's not much about their manner that suggests the kind of intimate understanding of what they're selling you'd see on the floor at The Press Club, say, or Sepia. I salute the courage shown here in going 100 per cent Greek with the list, but without the skills and training to sell it, it's something of a Pyrrhic victory. Hey, it'll be a thing of beauty when it's fixed.

As you get to grips with the menu, I'd suggest you go hard on the ouzomezedakia. They're small dishes designed, as the name suggests, to enjoy with a glass of the strong stuff, but they also make quite natural entrées into a shared meal. Straight-up classic grilled haloumi with lemon and oregano makes the perfect complement to those peppered figs and some seriously vinegary cabbage, celery and leek pickles. Skordalia croquettes, herby and well browned, ooze garlicky goodness under the knife, while breadcrumbs with a grating of graviera, the hard sheep's milk from Crete, make an interesting, nutty and dense crust for thoroughly fried veal sweetbreads.

There's the odd dud in the mix. The zucchini fritters are suburban-ordinary, and I don't mean that charitably, while the salted bonito is skin-on, coarse and tangled, a bit of a mess on the plate. You can see how it would work with a measure of feisty Barbayanni, but for now the presentation needs work. Head instead for the wine-dark loukanika, northern Greek-style pork sausages rendered rich here with whole spices, or the kind of stuffed vine leaves that should be taught in dolmades school, served warm and brightened with a splash of avgolemono sauce and some twirls of spring onion. Best of all might be the sheftalies, caul fat-enriched pork meatballs from Cyprus. Meaty, juicy, charry and packed with grunt, they are to rissoles what Aeschylus is to Acropolis Now.

Things cooked on the spit get their own "apo tin souvla" section on the menu. It's a choice of pork, lamb or goat, in 250gm or half-kilo serves. This being a shopping mall crammed with luxury goods, there's no live-fire cooking allowed, but the results are still pretty decent, if uneven. One day we get a collection of prime cuts of lamb, cooked dryer than anyone at the table could have wanted. Another day the same order of lamb was juicy shreds of what appeared to be shoulder meat, with a thoughtful (and flavoursome) addition of a little dish of tzatziki served with it.

The dishes "from the wooden board" offer more consistency. The name refers to the hand-rolled fillo pastry Tsirekas hopes will become one of the things for which the restaurant is known. The pastry hasn't so far shown the exquisite buttery lightness that Peter Conistis, for example, produces in his dough-work on a good day, but that's not to say it's not worthy. The little pastry parcels packed with a rich red wine and rabbit stifado shot through with cinnamon ought to be on your must-order list.

Desserts, the ice-cream-terrine-like baklava included, are serious in their sugar-hit. Their diversity is a feather in Xánthi's cap, whether it's the conceptual "garden of Aphrodite" (raspberry and beetroot gel conspiring with sheep's milk pudding, rose petals, ouzo meringues and more) or the less racy pistachio, fig and olive oil ice-cream (unlike Aphrodite, it's extra-virgin). The ekmek, another dish of Byzantine inspiration, combines kaymaki, a clotted cream, with a slice of sweet brioche and honey syrup. Picture a happy marriage of French toast and bread-and-butter pudding, intensify the sweetness, and you're most of the way there.

"I think of Xánthi as a fun-park of Greek food," Tsirekas told us before the restaurant opened. And that's exactly what we've got: a place to explore Greek food in many different guises. Some of them work, some of them don't, but you can rest assured they're quite unlike anything else in this city. Good new Greek restaurants are too few and far between not to support the Xánthi team's efforts. Give them a big yiasou from us.


Xanthi

Level 6, Westfield Sydney, cnr Pitt St Mall & Market St, Sydney, (02) 9232 8535, www.xanthi.com.au
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Lunch daily noon-3pm; dinner daily 6pm-10.30pm. Limited menu available daily 9am-11pm.
Prices Entrées $7-$18; mains $29-$35; desserts $7-$15.
Vegetarian Two mains, plenty of entrées.
Noise Not noisy.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A vibrant take on Greek eats.
Minus Still a bit more suburban than urbane in the details.

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Xanthi

Level 6, Westfield Sydney, cnr Pitt St Mall & Market St, Sydney, (02) 9232 8535, www.xanthi.com.au
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Lunch daily noon-3pm; dinner daily 6pm-10.30pm. Limited menu available daily 9am-11pm.
Prices Entrées $7-$18; mains $29-$35; desserts $7-$15.
Vegetarian Two mains, plenty of entrées.
Noise Not noisy.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A vibrant take on Greek eats.
Minus Still a bit more suburban than urbane in the details.

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