The streets around the Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury border are well-known for their Greek restaurants. There’s The Life Goddess on Store Street, Ousia on Charlotte Street, and of course plate-smashing palace Elysee around the corner. So, at first blush, Ampéli seems a bit of a precocious interloper. To compete it needs a point of difference (which is something Norma has done successfully: rather than peddle generic Italian dishes, Norma combines Sicilian and North African influences). For Ampéli, the USP is its unusual wine and nods to the general eastern-Mediterranean region helped by chef Oren Goldfeld’s stints at Queenswood in Battersea and Toto in Tel Aviv.
So far so good… on paper. Before this first visit though I was somewhat apprehensive. Charlotte Street seems to be undergoing a huge overhaul, with old stalwarts upping sticks and newbies popping up at an alarming rate (goodbye Navarro, hello an always-empty Gaucho – the less said about that awful steak chain the better). Like the hydra in Greek mythology, as soon as one restaurant goes another two or three will fill its place very soon. I was impressed by Norma but when walking past Ampéli on a daytime reconnaissance mission it was dead as a dodo. I wondered if it had already succumbed to the competition in this Greek Bermuda Triangle.
On the evening of this visit though it had livened up, which was a relief. But that didn’t assuage all my concerns. Just sitting down and barely catching my breath, a server from nowhere asked for my drink order:
“Oh, er, just tap water to start with please,” I said.
“We don’t have tap water.”
“No tap water? So there isn’t a functioning tap in the whole building?”
“Yes there are taps. But our water is in bottles.”
“Ah, I see. So you only have mineral water?”
“No. Tap water. But in bottles.”
Apparently they do have tap water but it’s pre-bottled (for reasons I didn’t quite understand but maybe I was just flustered by the odd exchange). In any case there was a slight jittery nervousness to the service which was a little unsettling but forgivable in a restaurant’s early days.
Since ‘Ampéli’ is the Greek word for vineyard it’s no real surprise that wine is the star of the show here. The wine list, curated by Greek Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis, has many an indigenous oddity and curio though, at times, borders on the patronising with irritating comparative descriptions (e.g. “for Pinot Noir lovers”). Perhaps that’s more indicative of the British general ignorance about Greek wine (most Brits’ exposure is limited to Retsina) and so we need a little hand-holding to guide us through. It’s pleasing to see somewhere that finally showcases the lesser-known wine producers of the region, even if some of them are a little funky or over-priced.
Funky wines need funky food to accompany them but, sadly, on this visit the food was a little hit and miss.
Alongside a slightly expensive glass of 2018 Assyrtiko from Santorini (£12.50), we nibbled on some sourdough with Cretan olive oil. Starters arrived including a salty barrel-aged feta saganaki which was off-set by a ludicrously sweet tomato jam. Two extremes in comfortable juxtaposition can make surprising bedfellows, like a Corbynista dining with an ERG member in the House of Commons canteen (the far left and the far right are both opposite and identical at the same time).
You expect salt cod croquettes to be salty but certainly not stodgy. These were dry and a challenge to eat but at least came with a fresh and crunchy remoulade laced with dill – one of those beautiful herbs that can bring Greek food alive.
Oregano is another beautiful herb favoured by the Greeks and this was in abundance around a pleasing pair of lamb chops. These were cooked well, with the fat rendered down perfectly, but sadly the pomme puree also fell victim to the chef’s uneven hand with the salt.
I was really looking forward to the onglet shish – a large kebab-type dish that evoked memories of holiday souvlaki – but it was a disappointment. The meat was tough and chewy. I couldn’t finish it. However, the marinated baby chicken with the Middle Eastern touches of smoked aubergine, labneh and pickled kumquats cheered us up again.
As for the desserts, these all have either nuts or seeds in them which is limiting for those with allergies. I’m not quite sure what happened at the proof of concept stage there, but at least there was a Greek cheese plate (£10). There must and always shall be cheese.
Things ended on not so much a sour note but another salty one – this time in the coffee! Gasping for more of their pre-bottled tap water, we paid a fairly over-priced bill of £81 per head.
Overall, Ampéli is far from faultless but also far from hopeless. A lot of the errors are fixable, and I’d happily buy a bottle of that Cretan olive oil (can they sell it?), but calm the salt down please.
18 Charlotte Street
by J A Smith