Mike gets cheesy with an old colleague.
In the Hungry Donkey in Aldgate, my former workmate Kelly checks the menu: “What cheese do you get with Greek? Only Feta?” She loves her cheese - I hope this won’t be a disappointment for her. She loves her meat too, but we both know the Greeks have that in spades.
The restaurant is modern-looking in the base of a newish residential development on the fringes of the Square Mile. The interior is quite hard, more cafe than cosy restaurant, but clean looking and fresh with big industrial pendant lamps and yellow metalwork.
It’s warmed by wooden tables and softened by ivy hanging on wire mesh over the full height perimeter glazing as well as from the large concrete columns. It’s all plastic foliage, but it succeeds in fooling the eye.
The menu encompasses a huge range of hot and cold dishes from breakfast eggs with Greek twists to Greek Yoghurt, Pitta wraps, skewers or sharing hot plates focusing on home cooked style traditional faves – “Like mamma used to make” - according to our friendly waiter Yanis - and a large range of ‘mezedes’ the small meze plates it is customary to nibble at while you drink.
We forgo the Ouzo as we’re here to taste our food rather than sickly aniseed, not that we don’t drink - Yanis recommendeds a robust Mavroudi 2012 – a tiny bit acidic when first corked (and it was a cork - just like mamma used to cork) but it soon comes alive in the glass. Looking up from the menu Kelly asserts she would “Happily eat all the hot things”.
I leave her to order knowing she'll get what I want too, as we’ve enjoyed many a business lunch or dinner. Yanis returns with a smile and she begins: Feta salad (i.e. cheese salad). Garlic Sausage (meat).
She perks up at the discovery of another cheese; ”Of course, grilled Hallumi!” Keftadakia beef and lamb meatballs, “Spanakopita; Filo pie with Ricotta – “Another cheese!” (and spinach - we are having some greens).
Finally, Moussaka from the home style sharing plates - with melted cheese all over it of course. “They actually have loads of different cheeses” Kelly muses. She loves her cheese. Yanis keeps us happy as we wait with green and Kalamata bio dynamic olives, both of which are really good. Then pitta triangles and dips; one Feta (cheese) which Kelly declares has the consistency of a face mask - but she loves it. Come to think of it she would probably enjoy smearing it all over her face.
The second is an aubergine dip which is really fresh, zingy and tasty and finally Taramas, their subtle version of Taramasalata, which is probably too long for busy City of London types to be bothered to say.
Our Mezedes are all lovely; succulent wild-boar, pork and leek sausage with a light mustard, moist meatballs, the crispy filo pie has creamy Ricotta and the grilled Hallumi is perfectly juicy and ‘on point’ - just before that stage five minutes later when it goes squeaky.
The lettuce, onion and tomato salad is wonderfully fresh and Kelly is loving its Feta. The main event Moussaka is perfectly pleasant, but the fine mince isn’t coarse enough for either of us and it’s slightly under seasoned, certainly homemade - but not quite like we’d like mamma to make it.
We chat to owner Markos Tsimikalis, he’s tall with the proper Greek curly hair gene. Kelly brings up the topic of cheese as she’s so delighted to be reminded Greece has so many.
He explains he did have some trouble holding the cheese back to begin with, as there’s such choice they could’ve brought out even more. He’s tried to get the balance right - possibly not for trendy vegan east Londoners (though there are plenty of other options), but perfect for my dinner guest.
Cheesecake completes the circle of cheese and I love it as it’s actually made with proper slightly salty stiffer than normal cheese, with an excellent dry biscuit base, far superior to the usually mushy sweet American version.
But what’s this? Kelly prefers the Bougatsa; a semolina and custard filo pie with cinnamon - perhaps she’s reached ‘peak cheese’? She does find it a little dry though, suggesting it needs some fresh fruit or runny cream.
No says Markos - It has to be as it is traditionally in the town of the same name, freshly baked and cubed to eat on the way to work - so deliberately nothing wet or sticky. Respect to mamma, fair play.
By the time we wander out onto the pleasantly balmy almost Greek evening air, we’re very full and happy. I’m still not sure if Hungry Donkey is a neighbourhood restaurant for nearby residential blocks or a lunch cafe for the also nearby office blocks of the square mile. I guess both and it gets away with it.
Kelly is making a plan to go cheese free for at least the rest of the week... well tomorrow anyway. Unless there's some decent cheese knocking about. She loves her cheese.