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.

6/10

Tsiakkos & Charcoal on Urbanspoon

21 comments:

Gregory said...

With regional Indian and Chinese restaurants all over the shop, Greek food is surely the most neglected cuisine in London.

I look forward to someone proving otherwise.

Alastair said...

You should come up to Madchester and try Bouzouki by Night http://bit.ly/qUzyp9 if you want indelible proof that Greeks in the UK have restauration skills that compare favourably to the grace and aplomb of the Cyril Smith Hang Glider Display Team.

Anonymous said...

Some facts regarding greek food in UK:
1. If a greek restaurant serves hummus, falafel, soutzouki, basturma or kleftiko it is probably not really greek but owned by a greek cypriot. More recently I have encounter greek restaurants owned by albanians or english who spent a few summers in Greece or Cyprus and decided that they are capable of serving authentic greek food. Most of them serve a copycat bastardised cypriot cousine.
2. Greek food is very versatile and has variations based on regional cousines and also specialised restaurants.
3. My only suggestions for greek food in London is a greek food stall called Evi's Greek Food (http://www.evisgreekfood.co.uk/) and as greek as it gets (http://www.asgreekasitgets.co.uk/), a greek grill house with a few cooked dishes which is quite good (although average if you were in Greece) and owned by Greeks who run a restaurant in Athens.

Greedy Diva said...

We need Melbourne's George Calombaris (of Press Club and Hellenic Republic) to come over here and lead the charge. Or my boyfriend's yia yia.

Anonymous said...

Rule of thumb: are you in Greece? If yes, then try some Greek food. Preferably a) in small taverns and b)small fish, salads etc.
If not, then avoid it. Also, avoid meat and traditional dishes such as "musaka" "tzatziki" etc

Greeks (and this comes from a greek) don't know anything about cooking meat (everything is burned to grey/black oblivion, thin steaks and greek beef is tasteless anyway), tzatziki and tarama salad are good only when they are homemade, feta cheese served in restaurants is at best of mediocre quality. Only fish is cooked properly and worth eating. And fruit of course...

AtariTeenageDiet said...

Daphne on Baynham Street in Camden? Sublime sweet breads, they always have interesting specials and it's run by an eccentric husband-wife team, giving it a flavour of holidaying in Santorini. In the main I'd have to agree though; Greek food in the capital has a tendency to dissapoint.

Anonymous said...

That style of food sounds quite a lot like my lovely local Lebanese restaurant (www.cedarterestaurants.com) - which is quite nice indeed, but alas in deepest darkest Ruislip!

Laissez Fare said...

Interesting point about lack of really good and/or authentic Greek restaurants in London (I never found one either, btw).

Sounds like the same argument that Iranians make about their food in London (or in most other Western cities), i.e. that the best of it is made at home and will never make it to restaurant diners.

The main explanation given for this is usually that the most of the people who have opened Iranian restaurants abroad were never actually chefs when they left Iran around the time of the revolution, but simply did it as a way to make money in their new life. Maybe as the new generation, who were born abroad, grow up there will be some good Iranian restaurants.

I don't know what the excuse is for the Greek food though...

Food Urchin said...

In your quest, would it be worth getting in touch with Elisavet Sotiriadou who runs the Greek Cookery School, she can't be cooking for herself all the time, right?

Ed @rocketandsquash said...

Wonder whether this (albeit noble effort) might end up as a fruitless quest - I've never thought traditional Greek tavernas are any good, so the London scene is representative of Greek reality. Sure, there are a few decent classic Greek dishes, but the only truly great meals you have in Greek restaurants are those that are of fresh grilled fish and simple sides ... and those are (a) best classified as generic Mediterranean than Greek, and (b) really of the moment occasions (i.e. when you're sunburnt and next to the sea, rather than cold and wet in London).

I'd be delighted to be proved wrong!

The Ample Cook said...

How disappointing.

Some really interesting comments here,in particular those by Anonymous and Ed @rocketandsquash.

We have spent many holidays in Greece and are old enough to remember that to get a good meal you went off the beaten track where a menu was never presented and you were invited into the kitchen to see which dishes had been prepared. These would be family run tavernas cooking the sort of food that they would eat themselves. There wouldn't be much choice, but it would be incredibly good - basic - but in a very good way. Unfortunately we are struggling to find such places now.

Greek food for us, should be uncomplicated. Chris, I think you'd fare better to get yourself invited into the home of a Greek family (or come over to us one day :)

Helen said...

Yup, I think we're done, although the food stall (Evi's) that Anon mentioned is the one I was telling you about - she also does occasional supper club evenings I think which is where the 'maybe it's better in their own homes' conversation came from. OOH MAYBE WE SHOULD GO...

The Hungry Mama said...

As mentioned by a few others above, Greek food outside of Greece is fairly poor. I don't think it is particularly to do with keeping better food for home, as you can get perfectly good food in tavernas in Greece. The only explanation I can think of is the actual ingredients themselves?! (tomatoes here are not quite as good as in Greece in the summer and 99% of Greek restaurants here serve pita different to the one found in Greece...). Personally I am slowly trying to promote Greek food through my family's own traditional recipes (regional recipes from Kefalonia). I know the food there is great with infuences from Greek, Italian and even British cooking through years of occupation.

Gastro1 said...

The fact that there may not be any good Greek restaurants in London is not symptomatic of that country's cuisine - the reality is that London is generally overrated for almost any cuisine.

We certainly have variety , diversity and quantity.

Greek food is fantastic in Melbourne , Toronto and New York because there are significant Greek populations - In London Greek Cypriot food is dominant because there is a large Cypriot community.

Are there really that many good Italian , Thai , Turkish , Lebanese ,Indian , Pakistani , Vietnamese , Chineese, French restaurants in London/UK ? - not for me.

Food in Greece like Spain is fantastic especially when you stay clear of the establishments catering for tourists - you need to know where to go whether it's a 2 Michelin star place like Spondi or the fantastic places that do "Politiki Kusina" whish of course is very similar to the finer version of Turkish cusisine that is by the way also conspicuous by it's absence in London.

@roketandsquash there is no such thing as generic Mediterranean cusine/dishes - you can of course find Ottoman and Moorish influences across countries that have access to that sea but the influences in each specific country are multiple and multinational/ethnic.

Mzungu said...

I was here on Saturday night and found it an interesting place. The food was not brilliant but it does have a great ambiance though.
Maybe Greek food suffers abroad as like Italian it is all down to the ingredients, and we cannot get the same here as there.

Soulla in London said...

Try Carob Treee in Kentish Town. Definitely better than other Greek food I have had in London!

Chris Price said...

Its so true, my girlfriends family comes from Greece, and it infuriates here that there isn't a decent Greek restaurant in London, we haven't tried this one though, so thanks for the tip.

www.pringleland.com

Elena said...

I agree, very few decent Greek restaurants in London. And even those seem to be the capitals best kept secret.

youngandfoodish said...

It is not true that Greek food outside of Greece is poor. There are good Greek restaurants, both trad and contemporary, elegant and cheap, in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and even Paris.

This is a London problem.

Cat said...

Vrisaki in Bowes Park certainly used to be very good (I haven't been in a while) but again, I think it is actually Greek Cypriot...and a bit of a schlep for most people too: http://bit.ly/wniJ2b

missywissy said...

Vrisaki in Bowes Park is the only Greek (Cypriot) restaurant in London. Being Greek Cypriot, I've eaten at Tsiskkos, at Aphrodite in Chepstow Rd, one in Camden I can't remember and one in Bayswater. None even come close to Vrisaki. I agree, there is a Greek food void, The Real Greek is anything but, I really hope someone else sorts this out soon. Un the meantime I'll keep schlepping to deep North London to Vrisaki.