The word that best describes Hellenika at Nobby Beach is ‘smart’: smart top quality food, an interestingly eclectic international wine list, informed and efficient service, chic rustic surroundings, even smartly understated marketing. It’s classy in a solid, ‘know what they’re doing’ sort of way, filled nightly with people who know that at Hellenika they’re eating some of the best Greek cuisine in Australia.
Good Food Gold Coast talked to Hellenika’s owner, Simon Gloftis, about the emergence of Hellenika, rising Aphrodite-like from an inglorious row of shops close to the sea, and what future plans he holds.
GFGC: Journalists have had trouble comparing Hellenika to anywhere else. The closest has been George Calombaris’ Hellenic Republic. Where did the Hellenika concept come from? How was it conceived?
Simon: My godfather owned Vasili’s & Yanni’s in Kew. I always loved it as a kid – hanging around the restaurant, but I especially loved sitting in the kitchen itself as the food was being prepared. It all started from there and later on I kept travelling and growing in my love and knowledge of food, but I always wanted to own a Greek restaurant that felt warm and homely; one which felt inviting to be in, yet a place that was not a stereotypical Greek restaurant. But even though I had this dream, I wasn’t worldly enough to realise it until two years ago. I didn’t have the money or experience, I hadn’t travelled enough. Then, when the timing was right and I’d sold my last coffee shop, it all came together. It worked.
GFGC: Did you ever consider that the Gold Coast may not have been ready for a restaurant such as Hellenika?
Simon: Well, they might not have been ready for it ten years ago, while I held the idea, but I’d tried new things with the coffee shops [Three Beans, Little Beans & Piccolo] and they’d succeeded, so I had more confidence in the market and had gained experience. I think we underestimate Gold Coasters. Most people on the Gold Coast are from somewhere else anyway, and many of them are successful and clever – that’s why they’re here, and they recognise and appreciate good food.
GFGC: And you also saw a market opportunity; a gap in the market.
Simon: Yes, that’s true too.
GFGC: You have been quoted as saying: “There are no accidents with restaurants…You can’t cheat, you need to do your homework, and do it properly. There are no short-cuts.” How did you prepare for Hellenika’s opening?
Simon: We built this place from the ground up to have the feel we wanted. Chairs from Melbourne, tables – we wanted them to be rustic. The bricks on the wall are from Spencer Street Station, to give the warmth.
I love food. If I didn’t, I shouldn’t be doing this in the first place. I needed to source the highest quality ingredients that I could. I made the decision to buy fresh and local wherever possible, so fish, cucumbers, tomatoes etc. are sourced locally. But some ingredients needed to be sourced from elsewhere to get the type and quality we needed: rigani cheese, olives and olive oil from Greece. Some of the seafood took time to source. The giant octopus comes from South Australia, the best in the world, we bring it here whole, cut the tenticles and cook them on the grill. The southern calamari is from Tasmania or South Australia. I’m always looking for new ingredient sources – I’ve just found samphire (a sea vegetable which resembles thin asparagus) and can’t wait to try it.
Then I had to choose staff. Beth Clarke is the best possible manager on the Gold Coast. She makes this place, I’ve always said that. And I got the best chef I could who could understand me and the ideas I had about food. Not a Greek chef, but an Irish one, Bryan Kelly, who had worked in Spain, London and travelled through Europe. He understood where I was coming from and, best of all, he loves fresh fish. (Anyone who loves fresh fish has won me!) Then we recruited staff, the best we could, and took the heads of the team to Melbourne to look at how restaurants operated there: Yanni’s (of course), Jim’s Greek Tavern, Spanish tapas bars (Movida’s – there were two then).
GFGC: Hellenika’s cuisine is regional Greek food; slow food; perhaps closest to food traditionally served at family gatherings to be shared at big long tables… From what regional areas of Greece do the dishes originate?
Simon: Yes, you are right. It is regional food, not just from Florina, in the north of Greece where my family comes from. The Arni sto fourno (slow cooked shoulder of Junee lamb) is from there. The Gigandes (baked lima beans with pork) and Pork belly with leeks are also from the North (although we’ve tweeked the presentation a bit), but we’ve gleaned some of the best dishes from other regions of Greece as well, such as Cypriot meatballs.
GFGC: Yes, and many of them are favourites here too. I have a theory about favourite food. I think that certain dishes take on an iconic status with us, particularly when they’re rarely found of that quality or are available in only one restaurant. They’re almost addictive, holding a warmth and familiarity, a comfort to us, so we have to go back to that restaurant and order them again and again. That’s what makes great restaurants so successful, I think, that emotional tie. Do you find that? Hellenika’s slow-cooked lamb is like that for me…
Simon: So when people can’t get lamb because they might arrive at 8 or 9pm, they’re disappointed…that’s why we suggest that you place your order with your booking.
GFGC: Do you have other dishes like that too?
Simon: Yes. The octopus, once people have tried it they love it, but I have to tell them to try it! And the Dolmades, veal and rice wrapped in silverbeet and served warm. They’re my favourites.
I have to tell you about the char grill too, because I’m just as passionate about the way we cook. The char grill is lit at about 4pm every afternoon. Many of the dishes are cooked on the grill – lamb cutlets, souvlaki, Cypriot meatballs, calamari and octopus. The fat drips out as it cooks, we take it off the grill and dress the food with the highest quality extra-virgin olive oil. None of our food is pre-prepared. It’s the very best quality we can prepare.
GFGC: Hellenika is the pinnacle of your career so far. What’s next?
Simon: Well, we open for Friday lunch, starting this week, so that’s new. Actually, I do have more plans. I’m hoping to open a seafood restaurant overlooking the water in Burleigh soon.
See our review of The Fish House here. Simon Gloftis is also a co-owner of Nineteen at The Star and Hellenika, Fortitude Valley.
Photo supplied by Hellenika.
2235 Gold Coast Highway, Nobby Beach Ph: 07 5572 8009