Friday, 23 December 2011

Going Greek

I'd love to chart every cuisine served within 2 miles of my flat. It'd be a fun exercise - and may help focus my efforts on local eating out. A project for a rainy winter's day perhaps?

What I find most interesting is thinking how the age and cuisine of restaurants can reflect waves and patterns of immigration, as well as different food fads. Blackstock Road, not too far away, and on my old route to work, is a scruffy, ungentrifiable strip, and host to many different communities at different points over the last fifty years. There's a little patch, half way between Finsbury Park and Highbury Barn, where there is a collection of rustic, but bright Sardinian trattorias, a pre-Wahaca-and-burrito-fetish-era Mexican restaurant, and a drab and austere-looking Greek taverna. I like that the patch is completely understated, without any of the hype and crowding of Upper Street or Church Street. It's a locals' spot.

With the nights long, the wind blowing cold and warm sun a distant memory, Greek food couldn't be more appealing. Greek restaurants are too often shrouded in the clich├ęs of plate-smashing, belly dancing and ouzo shots; sometimes you just want to have some mezze and souvlaki without all that fuss. I'd never cycled past N5's Olive Tree and seen hen or stag parties, and a bit of googling found a few glowing reviews from proud locals.

Inside, there's a sense that it's been there since the 1970s (it's not - more like late 90s) - slightly austere green, plain walls, starched table cloths, a bit of cladding by the kitchen. It's a family affair, and at least three generations seem to be involved in front of house, kitchen and management. All very nice and keen to please you. We had superb banter with the waitress who I guess was about our age and told us that we reminded her of someone very clever from a TV show we hadn't heard of, and how excited she was to get off her shift and out some make-up on.

The menu offered a fair priced a la carte with a wide range of Greek meals and grills. But there's a set menu which seems to be available most of the time (including Friday and Saturday nights) which does 3 very decent courses for £10.90. It's mostly the classics - very well made dips and gorgeous pita breads, mains of moussaka, haloumi, baked aubergines and some more basic grilled meats, and a small selection of desserts (greek yoghurt and honey, honey cake with ice cream).

We opted for the set menu, doing a bit of topping up from the a la carte. And got a bottle of pretty nice white wine too. The dips and starters were really good - top houmous and reminded me of the differences between the Greek and more Middle Eastern versions.

I ended up opting for moussaka - an old favourite and something I'm rarely motivated to cook (too many stages, too many pots) and was very pleased, nothing to fault with it's creamy cheesy top, the olive oil soaked potatoes and aubergines or the aromatic lamb mince. Portions were very generous, and we over-ordered by getting a large Greek salad to go with the mains. A doggy bag for lunch the next day.

Overall, the Olive Tree was great for a hearty taste of Greece, decent, good-value portions and warm and homely service. Sure, it's not going to win any Michelin stars for innovative cooking, but what an excellent neighbourhood spot for a no-fuss, honest Greek meal.