Tuesday, 30 August 2011
Tsiakkos and Charcoal, Maida Vale
I don't know if you've noticed, and I daresay you haven't, but I've been on a mini-quest to find a Greek restaurant in London worth bothering with. At the risk of repeating myself, it makes no sense that just so many Greek restaurants in the capital are so bad - the cuisine isn't a million miles away from Turkish and there are more good ocakbasi than you would ever want, and the Greek community in London is equally long-established and successful. After a poor meal at Lemonia in Primrose hill, commenter Alex C thought that it might be simply that Greeks cook all their best food at home, and whether or not that's true (I've also heard rumours that Lemonia staff get fed exceptionally well, it's just the paying public that suffer), it's not really an excuse. London even has a smattering of good Mexican restaurants now, and there must be far fewer Mexicans making their way over the Atlantic than there are Greek Tavernas already up and running. The whole thing is baffling.
So more in hope than expectation, I battled through the rain with a friend last week to Tsiakkos and Charcoal, subject of a number of healthy recommendations from various individuals and, given the pain of previous meals, our designated last shot at decent Greek food. And what a weird, ramshackle old place it is - inside is dark and chaotic, walls and counters covered with old cloth and junk piled up in the corners. Outside is even more bizarre - a courtyard containing old sofas and various statues, trinkets, road signs and other ephemera sheltering under corrugated plastic; it was like having dinner at Steptoe & Son's. We ordered the 'mezze' (£20 a head but containing more or less most of the menu) from our friendly if slightly distracted waiter, and a bottle of £13 house Rioja.
Things started well, at least. The cold mezze were all pleasingly rustic-looking, in fact I'd never seen hummus or taramasalata so chunky, and they tasted very good. Potato and beetroot salad, dripping in oil and garlic, was great, and although the pittas were bought-in (or at least felt like it) they did their job well enough. Tzatziki was straightforward but fine.
Grilled halloumi were pleasant if unadventurous, but then grilled halloumi always is. I was more disappointed with a feta salad, which despite having a huge fresh chunk of fluffy feta on top suffered from bog-standard tomato-and-rocket filler and was fairly unimpressive all said and done. Nice olives in there though.
Lamb kleftikos was the best of the meat dishes, and although lacking a bit in spicing or seasoning made up for it by being lovely and crusty on the outside and oozily moist within. The rice it came with was hugely enjoyable too, cooked with the meat juices perhaps and full of flavour. Tsiakkos and Charcoal are so proud of their kleftikos, in fact, they brought out another one for us to try when we were hardly halfway through the first (actually this is a lie - it was just a miscommunication with the kitchen and a mistake).
"Slow burnt pork" sounds like the kind of thing I'd ordinarily beat a path to anyone's door to try, but had unfortunately here been doused in a hugely oversweet marinade of some kind (honey?) and was quite sickly. We didn't eat much of it. And chicken and lamb kebabs, though cooked properly and with good crusty skins, had next to no flavour at all. In fact, flavourless kebabs has been a bit of a feature of Greek restaurants in London generally - either they really do like their meat as bland as possible, or the quality of the raw ingredients back home means they can skimp on the seasoning and still enjoy a nice end result. It's presumably hard to get top-end chicken or lamb in London for £20/head.
I will say this about Tsiakkos and Charcoal - there was a hell of a lot of food (not even counting the extra kleftikos) for your £20 and they refilled the bread without asking, so even though there wasn't much to shout about you still felt like you were just about getting good value. They also happily boxed up the bits and pieces we couldn't finish, so extra points for that too. But even ignoring the long journey into deepest Maida Vale (it's a good 20 minutes walk from the nearest tube), our meal wasn't quite either cheap enough (think - again - about all those amazing ocakbasi grills in Dalston which would be half the price) or exciting enough to be worth the effort.
This may be deeply unfair to however many excellent Greek restaurants there are out there that have yet to feature on this blog, but I have a suspicion that Tsaikkos and Charcoal may, in fact, be as good as this food gets in London. Perhaps what we need is a restaurateur that will do for Greece what Thomasina Miers did for Mexico or Russell Norman did for Venice - to showcase a greater variety of those cuisines in an affordable and accessible way, served with a smile and an attitude. In fact, according to Daniel Young commenting on the Lemonia post, we may be about to get just that, as Theodore Kyriakou, original founder of the Real Greek long before it went downhill, returns to do business in London once again. But until then, we have Tsaikkos and Charcoal – it’s not perfect, but I just don’t have the time, the money or the capacity for disappointment to keep looking for anything better.