Gazi is George Calombaris’ new Greek restaurant, taking over the space formerly occupied (until very recently) by The Press Club. Where The Press Club was aimed at the fine dining crowd with Greek cuisine being elevated through presentation and technique, Gazi moves in the opposite direction. This is loud, brash, honest food like you would find in any Greek home, cooked by yiayia. So while The Press Club takes a break until later in the year (when it reopens in the adjoining former Little Press space), this new venture is very on-trend by going for a more casual audience. There are definite similarities with other Made group restaurants (Mama Baba, St Katherine’s), but Gazi already feels like it is ahead of the pack.
Fitting with the change in concept, the room has been stripped back (literally), showing exposed walls, but the eyes will be on the hundreds of terracotta pots hanging from the ceiling. A number of booth tables circle the room, with rows of tables taking up the bulk of the space, but as with many restaurants these days, it will be the bar seats around the open kitchen that will prove popular. For those who have visited The Press Club before, the new entrance is on Exhibition Street, rather than the previous entry on Flinders Street. The staff are enthusiastic and eager to please, going so far as giving a Greek call of welcome from the entire staff when you are walked to your table (which at first seems a little unusual, but fits the concept well and later in the evening even the other guests are joining in, although that could just be ouzo).
As with Mama Baba and St Katherine’s, the menu is designed with starters, small dishes and larger dishes to share, or you choose to do it ‘Greek Style’ (a 10 course set menu). We went a la carte on this occasion, as there were a few dishes that I definitely wanted to have. Starting the meal with a selection of dips and bread was the perfect accompaniment for a couple of cocktails. The sweetcorn dip was smoky, with crunch from crispy chicken skin; cauliflower skordalia was a highlight, rich and smooth with chunks of smoked almond dotted on top (the crispy pork mince did not really add anything for me); and the beetroot dip was earthy and brought alive with the salty creaminess of the feta. The accompanying flatbread is freshly cooked and given in generous servings (as were the dips), with refills coming whenever the supply ran low.
The starters are designed around the concept of Greek street food (or Ethnika Vromika- Hellenic Dirty Food- as the menu describes it). The saganaki is a slab of cheese, fried until golden and oozing, with a kumquat glyko (think relish, chutney) that has a wonderful tartness that cuts right through the cheesy richness. Prawns are served simply, whole in the shell, grilled over wood for a smoky flavour, lightly dressed in lemon and oregano (they come in serves of 3, but we were offered it to come as 4 prawns, 2 each).
It was probably remiss of us not to try the souvlaki (as Gazi has been billed as a contemporary souvlaki bar), but there were more tempting dishes to choose on the menu. The souvlaki are on the smaller side to allow you to try a couple, and the ones being carried to other tables did look good.
Moving onto the larger dishes, they are very centred around the the wood fire grill and spit. The grilled options cover fish, short ribs and various steak options; all served with walnut dressing. However we chose the in-season pine mushrooms, cooked to a light char but still juicy and tender, served alongside blackened, smoky chilli peppers.
Off the wood fire spit we opted for the pork belly, served with tender white beans and apple skordalia. Through a small service hiccup we were delivered the spit roast chicken instead, but they were quick to fix the mistake and within minutes a pork belly was hitting the table and the chicken was left with us as a complimentary dish (that is how you deal with service issues- quickly and politely). The pork belly was slow cooked, with juicy meat and perfectly crispy crackling; the apple sauce was tart enough to balance the rich fatty meat. The chicken was also cooked well, served with white beans and tirokafteri (a capsicum and feta purée), and ended up being a welcome addition to the meal.
To balance out the protein heavy mains, there is a generous selection of salads and vegetables. The radish, Santorini caper and lentil salad was a great foil for the pork belly. Crisp radish and acidic, salty capers to give a lightness to the meal.
Dessert brought us to the bombe metaxa, intended for two, but could probably have served more. Soaked tsourki (Greek Easter bread, essentially a brioche), layered with chocolate icecream and crunchy chocolate wafer, topped with Italian meringue. It is lightly sprayed with brandy and flambéd at the table, giving that sense of theatre much loved at restaurants.
We finish with a strong Greek coffee and a flight of ouzo; three small serves of different ouzo designed to highlight the range of flavours and styles. Opa!
Gazi is the opposite in most regards to The Press Club, but it is much more fitting for today’s trend towards more casual eateries. It might not be pushing boundaries like its predecessor, but it delivers what it aims to: tasty, well-cooked homestyle Greek food in a fast-paced yet laidback environment. The enthusiasm of the staff is infectious and the service elevates the whole experience. It looks like this will be another of George Calombaris’ establishments that will gain a loyal following because of its consistency and strive to please, and in my opinion delivers a more interesting experience than sister restaurants Mama Baba and St Katherine’s.