Welcome to my review of what is potentially the most famous Greek restaurant in all of London town.
It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to dine here. Not because it’s become a place for celeb spotting (Kate Moss & Jude Law are regulars apparently) but because it’s a family run restaurant that has been going for 35 years. I wanted to come here to see how they were serving up the classic dishes you find in a Greek or Cypriot tavern. I wanted to see if these guys were keeping true to the reputation they have built of serving up Greek classics, the ones I grew up, and serving them up well.
The romantic glow that lights the pavement from within and the turmoil you hear everytime the front door of Lemonia restaurant opens is almost an unorthadox disturbance to the sleepyness of Regent’s Park Road, but for sure a welcome one. Entering Lemonia (The Lemon Tree) soon makes you forget you’re in London. The restaurant took me back to Cyprus, to one of the most famous fish restaurants called Zefiros on the marina in Larnaca. A trip to Cyprus is not complete without at least one visit to devour the fresh fish mezedes from Mr.Zefiro, and the manic rush of the waitors as they pounce across the restaurant floor was what I was seeing in Lemonia, but in a more composed manner (I mean we were in Primrose Hill).
Things got off to a good start. I was the first to arrive from our little party of ex Hispanic & Portuguese grads, all of us a bit lost in the world but all good pals. The woman behind the front desk was warm, to be fair she reminded me of a great aunt. Welcoming guests in the typical Mediterranean fashion, I was tucking into some juicy olives, carrots and radish while I waited. A few minutes later I was shown to my table in the back room. We (very sensibly) booked our table at 8pm since the restaurant was packed from the time I arrived to the time we left over 3 hours later.
The buzz is only heightened in the back room. Everywhere you look there are tables & chairs, set up in different arrangements and on different tiers. The foliage is hard to miss: there are plants all over the shop. The artwork showing off Greece’s stunning landscapes and islands along with one wall covered in portraits that is quite possibly the family-tree of the restaurant’s owners is what you expect from a restaurant as old and ‘classic’ as this one. I liked it and it got me excited for the food to be had.
The thicker version of a Cyprus style pitta bread served as a starter was warm and (despite not made in house – which is understandable as it’s pretty challenging) was still very authentic. Served alongside a soft and creamy hummus and taramousalata (fish-roe dip) that was white and well balanced (its natural colour and not the horrific artificial pink added to so many…why!?).
It was nice to see that the menu wasn’t exhaustive but still offered the familiar dishes you should know and hopefully have tried if you have visited Greece or Cyprus (although I'm still confused why Shashlik was on the menu). I was here for comfort food and so opted for the Stifado (onion stew cooked in wine and served with rabbit like it was always served in the villages). I ordered this with a side of bulgur wheat pilaf ‘pourgouri,’ which I have my own recipe for. The majority of the rabbit was tender, which as a lean meat, deserved recognition. However the thick, sweet stew that oozes from the meat cooking down with the shallots that I have always associated with Stifado was lacking. This was a shame because for me it’s that rich sauce that really makes this dish. Despite this the meat and its juices were well seasoned and had nice flavour with a subtle hint of cinnamon. The bulgur wheat was a nice accompaniment but I would have preferred it to have more tomato purée (a personal taste).
My friend Dav ordered the Kleftiko, which I must admit, was beautifully cooked. If I return that is definitely what I’d be ordering.
Service (& wine)
The average age of the waitors is, well, elder. The service was very good and quite charming. From what I could see all the waitors were originally Greek or Greek Cypriot and despite the clear bustle going on around us, we were well attended to. Our waitor was amusing and while willing to answer questions took the ‘get on with it you look hungry so have this one’ approach.
Our waitor recommended us the Domaine Porto Carras, an organic red Carbernet Sauvignon hailing from the Halkidiki region in Northern Greece. This red was rich and warming with notes of spiced fruits and it went down well with the rabbit stew.
Lemonia is a very pleasant restaurant for a sit down meal. A hub of activity, it seems to cater to large parties, families with children in need of amusement (provided by the waitors) and couples, all at the same time. The food, if not extraordinary, was satisfying and I can see why people choose to return.