Hey Greek Australia, why don't you give us more to eat? I can count the Greek restaurants in Sydney that have impressed me without having to resort to the other five fingers: Civic Dining, home to Peter Conistis's sublime feats of pastry-making; and Perama, Petersham's interestingly experimental and deeply friendly neighbourhood favourite. On the next tier, Nostos flies the flag with yemista and barbecued octopus amid the tricolour hordes of lower Norton Street, you can give your dancing shoes a work-out at Steki in Newtown, and if you want a whole roast sheep's head served in a setting that has barely changed since the 1960s, there's always Marrickville's landmark Corinthian. Another member of the trapped-in-amber-and-loving-it school, meanwhile, is one of Sydney's oldest restaurants, the fabulously unreconstructed Diethnes on Pitt Street. We all know Greece has the goods when it comes to food, yet they remain, for the modern Australian restaurant-going Tantalus, cruelly just out of reach. Where are our budding Theodore Kyriakous, our Michael Psilakises?
When it comes to the sophistication of the food, no one in Sydney really holds a candle to Conistis, and he has been a long-time and tireless champion of Greek food's modern-day dining potential. At the Civic, though, the sense of Greek experience and hospitality typically goes no further than the plate, a little bit like one of those smiles that never reaches the eyes. Hospitality is a long suit at Perama, meanwhile, and whether you're talking about his pork belly "baklava" or the way he teams shellfish with crisp slices of spiced soujouk sausage in his Smyrna scallops, owner-chef David Tsirekas's creative impulses give the menu plenty of juice. But this ambition and these bright ideas, sadly, can be brought undone by a lack of clarity and finesse on the plate. Where Melbourne now has firing-on-all-cylinders Greek fine-dining and taverna food lifted by quality ingredients and sharp and consistent cooking, these things are harder to find in Sydney than they really should be.
Medusa Taverna is for my buck the closest thing we have to a casual straight Greek diner of note. It's fast without being brusque, polished without being too pricey. And despite being named for that arresting sister of Stheno and Euryale, venomous-locked daughter of Phorcys, it's not too hard on the eyes. Opened in 2007, it's distinctively Greek without deploying fish-nets or blue neon; the décor is modern, but not in the look-at-me sense. Tables are double-clothed, a terrace on one side and a balcony on the other offering the honk and hiss of Market Street. Floor-to-ceiling photographs of the Cyclades cover the walls, but otherwise the Hellenic touches are relatively low-key: the tiles running up the bar, the writhing snake-like feature lights recessed in the ceiling, that sort of thing. The blue-and-white pattern that predominates is not of the Aegean but of the sea of business shirts cramming every table. Steak and Burgundy may be the CBD's favourite way to splurge, but on a more day-to-day basis it seems grilled snapper tail and perky Peloponnese whites have the power of siren-song.
The menu is relatively straightforward when you compare it with those of the more progressive Civic and Perama (and indeed The Press Club), but it's far from cookie-cutter. When the classics are done here, they're done with respect and skill. Fried eggplant is a fine example in that it's a dish that just about everyone mucks up. Here you're served discs about a centimetre thick; they've got a pale, crisp, light batter coating, and the creaminess of the eggplant flesh inside suggests that they're either precooked before they're battered, or that chef Gregori Akridas just happens to be a dab hand with the deep-fryer. Either way, the flavour is clear and sweet enough to render the dipping sauce of garlicky thinned skordalia almost redundant. A special of fried zucchini flowers is similarly accomplished. The crisp coating isn't exactly tempura in this instance, but the herby ricotta and rice filling makes for a fun and very edible play on yemista, the stuffed capsicum and tomato ballast of many a trad-Greek menu.
Predictably, perhaps, it's these mezedes or entrée dishes that are the menu's strength, the main courses not quite reaching the same heights. The grilled lamb pieces in the arni souvlaki are wonderfully flavoursome, but the chips and salad they're served with are a bit ordinary. For every slow-baked side of lamb, fork-tender and seductive of scent, there's a moussaka that, despite its pretty splayed eggplant-petal garnish, is just that bit too gluey and heavy to be called really great. There again, the xifias souvlaki is mercifully a chip-free zone, presenting simply as skewers of very fresh prawns and hunks of swordfish over old-school lemon potatoes and parsley, the seafood cooked just so, retaining all its bounce and tang from the char-grill.
If you want to make an entire meal of mezedes, you're not short of options. Saganaki makes a virtue of simplicity: sizeable isosceles sails of mottled golden-brown kefalotiri cheese laid gooily by some slices of raw tomato, a wedge of lemon and a little salsa of crushed green olive. A little twist, but an intelligent one. Kotopoulo podarakia is a new one on me. Described as caramelised "mini chicken shanks", it's made all the more interesting by a vigorous application of spice (notably star anise) contrasted with a honey-sweet sauce and shreds of caramelised fennel. Then there's the loukanika. These country-style sausages have often been given short shrift at Greek restaurants in Sydney, but at Medusa they're redeemed by the chunkiness of their filling, rich in chilli, coriander seed and other spices. They're given a good char and served on a nicely sharp salad of beetroot leaves.
Apart from the central location and the fact that the prices are thoroughly decent, I'm guessing Medusa's popularity with the business crowd has a lot to do with the fact that service is fast enough to make Hermes proud. You can run from the comfort of the chickpea purée with olive oil and flatbread through to the dangerously dense Greek coffee in no time flat, but the staff are so approachable that you're left with a feeling of efficiency rather than hurry, and you can bet your fisherman's hat there'll be some vintage Greek dad-humour in there from veteran restaurateur Peter Koutsopoulos too.
And then there are the loukoumades: it'd be a crime to dub the version of the classic dessert here "Greek doughnuts". Large, crisp golden puffs of fried dough scattered with nuts and honey, they're pretty much a reason to visit the restaurant in themselves. Pair them with an order of the visino glyko, a cocktail glass holding scoops of vanilla bean ice-cream sauced with Greek sour cherry preserve and scattered with slivers of toasted almond, and a glass of, say, Samos muscat or a St John Commandaria - and you're laughing.
Medusa owes its appeal not so much to the gifts of fortune such as those bestowed on Achilles but, somewhat more like Odysseus, to the more everyday virtues of diligence and integrity. This is simple food done well at a fair price point, and this is a restaurant that any Sydney neighbourhood would be the better for having. In short, they work hard, they get it right and we, the diners, profit. And that's a formula for the ages.