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.