From breakfast to dessert, here’s what you can’t miss in Melbourne’s ‘little Athens’.
Oakleigh is known as one of Melbourne’s strongest cultural hubs, where Greek people and friends go to enjoy Greek food and drink.
Stepping into Oakleigh’s epicentre, Eaton Mall is incredibly similar to the pedestrian areas of central Athens. When the weather is good, the mall bustles with people sitting outside enjoying everything from breakfast and a Greek coffee to late-night dessert. Depending on the time of day, you may be greeted by a waft of meat from one of the many, hardworking charcoal grills and rotisseries in the area.
This tight-knit community plays a key role in keeping Greek culture alive in Victoria’s capital – and anyone is welcome to enjoy it. Whether it’s your first or fifteenth visit to this part of the city, here are five things that are well worth trying.
1. For breakfast: bougatsa
Bougatsa is a common breakfast option throughout Greece. Some consider bougatsa dessert, and it’s sure sweet enough to be. However, it’s traditionally enjoyed at the start of the day.
Bougatsa comes in a few forms but it’s best to start with the classic version, where warm vanilla custard is wrapped in filo pastry and baked until flaky and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon.
Visit the cafe-restaurant Melissa Oakleigh for reliably great bougatsa. The business, which first opened as a petite cake store on Smith Street, Collingwood, about 50 years ago, has a reputation for its sweets selection. Its bougatsa is the perfect balance between sweet and creamy.
2. For lunch or dinner: gyros
‘Gyros’ is the word for meat cooked on a rotisserie, which is then shaved and served in a pita wrap or on an open plate with the likes of chips and salad.
Whether you’re a lamb, chicken or pork person, Oakleigh has all meats covered. At most meat eateries, you can enjoy a mix of two types. If you’re struggling to choose where to enjoy gyros, head to Kalimera Souvlaki Art or Mythos Gyros Bar – both of which are reminiscent of a fast-paced Athenian gyros bar.
3. On the side: octopus
Greeks take preparing octopus quite seriously. For many islanders, it reminds people of home. In Oakleigh, you can enjoy octopus chargrilled, perhaps with some fava bean puree or simply served with a squeeze of lemon. Grilled octopus should be tender – and nothing less than that.
If you favour acidic foods, order some pickled octopus, which is prepared in a typical mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar and white-wine vinegar. Some pickled octopus recipes are spruced up with spices such as oregano and cumin.
Many eateries in Oakleigh serve octopus, but at restaurant Greca Street you’ll find it both grilled and pickled. If you’d like some pickled octopus for home, pop into one of Oakleigh’s Greek delis and get a tub. Make your way to Athena Delicatessen if you want to shop as the locals do.
4. For a coffee break: a frappe
Greece is the birthplace of democracy, famed philosophers and the frappe. It was invented by a Greek Nescafe representative who was experimenting with frothy drinks in the late 1950s. To clarify, when Greeks say ‘frappe’, they are almost certainly referring to the coffee version of the drink, not to any other flavours.
This iced, creamy drink is a hallmark of Greek coffee culture. The best thing about frappes is their customisability. You can ask for a frappe ‘sketo’ (meaning plain, with no sugar), ‘metrio’ (medium sweetness) or ‘gliko’ (sweet). You can add ‘gala’ (milk) or not, and a scoop of ‘pagoto’ (ice cream) if you want to take it to the max. Enjoy one at Nikos Cakes, a cafe institution which also sells Greek cakes and pastries.
5. For dessert: ek mek
Oakleigh is home to mega cake store Vanilla Lounge, which houses over 80 different kinds of cakes and biscuits in its cabinets. One of its traditional cakes is much loved by the locals, but not as known outside the Greek community. It’s called ‘ek mek’ – a glorious triple-storey dessert.
The base is made of kataifi – shredded filo pastry – which is doused in syrup. Above this sits a custard, which is topped with thick cream and dusted with cinnamon. Ek mek is available at most Greek cake stores in Oakleigh, and Vanilla Lounge’s is a front-runner. Could this be your new favourite sweet?
Featured image: courtesy of Kalimera Souvlaki Art.