Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Lemonia, Primrose Hill


There is no reason I can think of for why so many Greek restaurants in London should be so very poor. After distressing experiences at two different branches of Real Greek (neither were my choice; was dragged there by friends brandishing 50% off vouchers, presumably the only way they can attract paying customers) followed by a catastrophically awful dinner in Camberwell (I won't mention the name but it's easily Googled if you're desperate to try the greasy supermarket taramasalata and frozen calamari for yourself), I had pretty much given up hope of ever finding anywhere worth my money. Why can Turkey, not a million miles away from Greece geographically or (debatably) culinarily, bless us Londoners with more brilliant little Ocakbasi grills than we could ever want or deserve, and our options for a Greek be either a permanently-discounted chain that sold its heart to investors many years ago or some grotty local Taverna serving mystery meat? It makes no sense.


But being the eternal optimist, and emboldened by a slew of recommendations from Twitter after wondering out loud if I'd ever find a good Greek restaurant in this town, last night I and a friend found ourselves in Lemonia, Primrose Hill. Perhaps, the dodgy reasoning went, if we paid a bit more and tried a long-established and objectively very popular restaurant in a slightly nicer part of town, the chances of being disastrously disappointed would be diminished somewhat. Well, you can't say we didn't try.


I did like one thing at Lemonia, though. The taramasalata, fluffy and bright and actually tasting of nice fresh cod's roe instead of the weird pink goo you find in Tescos (or indeed in Greek restaurants in Camberwell) was fantastic, even very nearly worth the £5 they charge for it. We were happy enough scooping it up with house bread, although for some reason despite asking for just "pitta", we were brought (and charged for) one small portion of decent warm pitta and two large toasted slices of what tasted suspiciously like Sainsbury's sesame loaf, which remained largely untouched.


The other starters were less enjoyable. Tsatziki was warm and unremarkable (and at £4.75 must be at the upper end of what you can pay for a mixture of yoghurt and cucumber) and a couple of parcels of spanakopitta were light on filling and heavy on oil. They also cost £2.50 each, which is surely way too much.

As for the main course, a mixed grill, I have rarely seen a more carelessly presented and unexciting looking plate of food. This is exactly how it arrived - like what might be leftover at a garden party after all the guests had gone home and the barbecue coals had long gone cold. There was a single tiny lamb chop, cooked through to chewy grey, a couple of kebabs of bland lamb chunks and (admittedly surprisingly moist) cubed chicken, and finally a single miniscule blackened sausage rolling around at the side, looking like a burn victim's dismembered digit. Most of it was boring if just about edible, but the sausage was mealy and dry and packed with far too many herbs and vegetables, giving it a horrible sweaty feel in the mouth.


Whether by way of an apology or through sheer incompetence, Lemonia only charged us £9.75 for the mixed grill rather than the listed £14.75, but it still wasn't worth it. And also, ordinarily I'd applaud anywhere only charging a 10% service charge rather than the normal 12.5% but even that seemed over the odds - we had arrived after and were seated next to a very pleasant American family of four who watched bemused as me and my friend ordered our food, finished off our starters, picked at our mains and polished off a bottle of rosé all before their first dishes arrived. I felt their hungry eyes dart over our way as we tucked into the taramasalata but I'm fairly sure hunger gave way to terror once they caught a glimpse of that mixed grill. Even so, if it had been the other way round and we'd waited 25 minutes for our food while the table next door feasted, I would have been furious.


The search goes on, then, I suppose. I still have a handful of recommendations for places in scary locations like Enfield and I'm not about to write off a national cuisine just because their restaurateurs aren't up to the job - otherwise we'd have all given up on Mexican cuisine long before the likes of Wahaca and Buen Provecho showed us how it should be done. But Lemonia's success and longevity is baffling - perhaps there's not much competition in Primrose Hill, perhaps the celebrity factor is drawing in more people to a mediocre local restaurant than would otherwise be the case, or perhaps - and this is the most worrying thought - people think this is just as good as Greek food can be. Well, I am eager and willing to prove them wrong. Watch this space.

4/10

Lemonia on Urbanspoon

20 comments:

arbaggs said...

It may have been crap Chris but you have to give them some credit for decorating the taramasalata to look like a cartoon cat. I love food that looks like cartoon cats.

Ino said...

I'm bemused by how even an average tavern in Greece can manage to serve better and (much) cheaper food than any greek restaurant in the UK. Of course the costs are higher here but not sure they're high enough to justify the difference in quality and price.

Us Greeks somehow fail miserably at exporting things: wine, olive oil, coffee, sweets, restaurants. It's shocking. And a bit depressing.

I hope you succeed in finding a good Greek place - I'll be the first in line to visit it if you do.

Alex C said...

I have an elderly Greek friend called Elsa, who is the most marvellous cook. Her Easter lamb (a whole very young lamb roasted with garlic and lots of herbs) is something of a miracle in itself, but she'd never dream of cooking professionally - that is for her family and friends. I wonder if this is any part of why the national cuisine is poorly represented over here. That and the lack of decent cheap seafood.
I've only bothered eating Greek a few times in London and any restaurant has generally been poor and any friends have generally been excellent.

There's also the weather. Retsina is (as wine goes) not great unless drunk very cold on a hot sunny day. Not up there with Vietnamese or Croatian wine for sheer awfulness but certainly woeful when compared to France, Spain or Italy. We love it on holiday because it gets us pissed quick but it's a frequent disappointment when we get it home. As much as celebrating with Greek people is usually pretty gregarious and makes up for any bucolic views or warm lazy days, eating in a Greek restaurant (particularly one that's trying to be English genteel) doesn't have the same vibe.
One question that might be telling - when is most Greek food actually eaten in the UK? Outside the kebab shop after a good night out.

Patrick Wilkinson said...

Vrisaki Bounds Green - Greek Cypriot at the back of a kebab shop, they do an epic mezedes.

Patrick Wilkinson said...

Vrisaki in Bounds Green, it's a Greek Cypriot taverna at the back of a kebab shop. They do epic an mezedes meal.

Tom Morton said...

I'm sorry you had a bad meal there Chris. It's been a local favourite of mine for some years: great family welcome, lively atmosphere, heart-stopping deep fried saganaki cheese. I wish you luck on your quest for satisfying Greek food but many people still enjoy Lemonia.

Donald Edwards said...

Hi Alex C - for the sake of the poor wine producers of the Istrian peninsula, please don't bracket them with Vietnam in the rubbish wine front. There are some excellent small producers and a great long standing wine making tradition, that has until recently just not really been exported into the UK. Where as Vietnamese wine has had loads of marketing support in the UK and is truly an abomination that should have been aborted sometime in the idle planning stages.
Check Pacta Connect for a merchant importing some excellent Croatian wines..
Oh and I agree with the Greek restaurant problem, though I did end up eating a very mediocre Turkish meal in St John's wood yesterday, but it's kind of my own fault it didn't look too promising but I was very hungry and it was getting late.

Bistro Becs said...

Having spent a good deal of time in Greece I too have searched long and wide for somewhere in the London area that serves authentic, tasty Greek food. I have too endured the Real Greek (worst and most unlikely name for a joint ever) and a few other unmentionables. I recently had a horrendous 'meze' in Essex including 'village sausage' that was clearly out of a tin of hotdog sausages - not Greek in any way. I've long wanted to try Lemonia, but reading this has stopped this desire. The best I have found is a restaurant called The Olive Tree in Loughton, Essex (on the central line). It isn't just Greek food, more Med style dishes, but everything I've had there has been good, authentic and reasonable in comparison to what you paid for two people and a mediocre meal. Keep me updated if you find anywhere to write home about. Becs

Alex C said...

Hi Chris - please don't publish this if you don't want your comment thread going all Croatian...

Hi Donald,
Fair enough - packaging Croatian and Vietnamese wine in the same bundle is on the harsh side, but 4 years of holidays sailing up and down the Croatian coastline and islands with oenophile family and friends, hasn't turned up anything that's particularly palatable or at a sensible price. Particularly with Italy only a couple of days sail away. Personally I learned to stick with Karlovacko beer (which is excellent), and leave Posip and Dingac as the two most acceptable commonly found wines to the people willing to pay far too much for wine you'd be offended to be asked to pay more than £3 / bottle over here. A member of the Jurade de St Emillion and wine buyer for the Royal Yacht Squadron, after spending several breaks a year there for several years also gave up, eventually, long after I did, demanding that people bring decent wine with them if they wanted to use his boat.
I dare say there is some decent Croatian wine but we searched pretty hard for it and finally gave up. The single greatest thing the Croatian government could do to improve tourism would be to allow non-Croatian wine to be served in restaurants. It'd ruin the Croatian wine industry for at least a decade, but the competition should force some positive changes. Croatia should have more or less perfect growing conditions, and as you rightly point out, a reputation going back over millennia.

As for Croatian food (this being a food blog after all) - it's marvellous until you realise after 3 meals that everywhere has more or less the same menu. It's a very nice menu - but pretty limited. Sorry to say that by far the best food we ate in Croatia was what we cooked on a ramshackle barbecue off the back of the boat whilst anchored off the Kornati islands. Garlic and lemons and herbs, oh my!

None of this is in any way to denigrate Croatia - stunningly beautiful place with lovely people and great beer. The food is fantastic if you're on the Atkins diet, but a bit samey if you're there for any length of time, and the sailing is some of the best in the world. But aside from some pockets of viticultural delight we sailors haven't been allowed to try, the wine is generally best avoided. Possibly I'm a couple of years out of date.
Cheers
Alex

Donald Edwards said...

Hi Alex C (sorry Chris for the comments thread diversion).
Cheers for the lengthy reply, the wines that I was most impressed with tended to be in a style similar to Gravner/Princic, i.e. v long macerations for white grapes, quite odd, but in keeping for the tradition for the region.
I'm quite jealous of all the time you've spent yachting in the region though.

thatchapcarnell said...

Chris

Can I guess that you've actually been to Vineyard in Camberwell?

Blimey, you must be the only person who has. It's permanently deserted. I don't even know how it stays open.

Anyway, there is another new (I think) Greek place in E&C called "My Big Fat Greek". One last throw of the dice?

Chris said...

thatchapcarnell: Yep, that's the one. Didn't blog about it for some reason, possibly because I wanted to just forget it as soon as possible. I've seen the Big Fat Greek, although I'm not that optimistic about it...

ruduss said...

Sorry you didn't like it there Chris. I've always had good experiences there myself, but how boring the world would be if we all had the same views on tzatsiki :)

Nupur said...

when i worked in primrose hill 6 years ago everyone raved about Lemonia. After 1 disappointing visit I couldn't fathom why. At last, I feel vindicated in my opinions. Thank you so much.

youngandfoodish said...

Chris - Theodore Kyriakou, the founder of The Real Greek, will soon be free to re-enter the Greek food trade in London. Let's hope he rescues us from this pergatory. There are at least 25 and perhaps as many as 40 Greek restaurants in New York superior to anything in the UK.

On another note I appreciate your observing the level of service not only at your table but also at an adjacent one. Much like the lamb chop this was very well done.

Leigh said...

Interesting; I too find it diffcult to find great Greek. Turkish, Morrocan, African...you name it, you can normally find good variants but there's just something about Greek - which is a shame because as a cuisine, I love it.

Anonymous said...

Vrisaki in the back streets of North London has to be the best in London.Wonderful mese ,ery authentic atmosphere and packed.

Anonymous said...

this thread is old but there is a newcomer in notting hill said to be nouveau hellenic cuisine looks good . will try and post (if anyone is stil interested?)

Chris Pople said...

Anon: Please do!

Anonymous said...

You paid £10 for dips , you're not very bright.