Melbourne really deserves its reputation as Australia’s food capital. The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival is on next weekend, an absolute extravaganza of things to put in your mouth, and yesterday, I cruised the gorgeous offerings of the Hellenic Republic.

You know I’ve been out of the scene for a year now, so I had to dredge back into my memories of this celebrity chef (glossy cookbooks sold at the door) who is so big on the Melbourne scene. But it all came back when I read the wine list, which had shiraz from Australia, sparkling wines from France and… a welter of wines from – not Greece – but the all-inclusive term, Hellenic Republic. Is the chef, George Calombaris a patriotic Cypriot? I asked, the light dawning. Of course he is.

The table was an extravaganza of food, much of it familiar to anyone who knows Middle Eastern cuisine, with dips such as melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant known elsewhere as baba ganough) and fabulous sagonaki (grilled haloumi cheese) served with baby figs poached in black pepper, but the stand-out was the taramasalata. You know, I’m not a fan of this fish-roe dip, but the table and the waiter egged me on. “Go on, it’s white!” As if I objected because of the traditional ikky pale pink colour of the supermarket version of the dip. Tasting of the ocean, subtle fish and lemon, it was awesome with the fresh Greek white we were drinking, Gaia ‘Notios’. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

The pita bread was hot, fresh and buttery, the lamb cooked on spit was perfect with the tzatziki (cucumber & yoghurt) but the star was a slow-cooked cassoulet of pork and black-eyed beans that the chef whipped up that morning. A perfect winter dish, though we weren’t quibbling on a summer’s afternoon.

There was Attika honey everywhere, from the poached figs to the loukoumathes (deep-fried Greek donuts covered in crushed walnuts) and even an ingredient in the chi-chi soap in the toilets. I’ll have to save up and cruise George’s other two restaurants, the Press Club and Maha, a Middle Eastern affair. Word is a fourth in the group, St Katherine’s, will open in October 2010.

Hellenic Republic, 434 Lygon St, Brunswick East VIC, (03) 9381 1222
Photos: Hellenic Republic