Located on Mount Alexander Road, John Rerakis’ Philhellene restaurant has been delivering lessons in Greek provincial cuisine for 20 years.
The rustic interior ensures you will experience the Greeks’ filoxenia to the fullest in the most traditional way.
Family photos that go all the way back to 1900 are exhibited on the walls, along with vintage Greek maps, posters and other memorabilia.
The warm atmosphere exuded by the wooden features and the retro-style fireplace made it feel like home.
Australian-born and raised John Rerakis was there to welcome us and guide us through his Moonee Ponds gem, explaining in fluent Greek the history behind every bit and piece that makes Philhellene.
“What I aimed for with Philhellene was to expose the true colours of Greek cuisine, our most-loved flavours and above all the Cretan culinary identity,” he says, opening a bottle of Greek red wine.
“Apart from the food, we make sure our customers receive the full Greek treatment with Greek raki, rakomelo and pure wines made in Greece.”
Rerakis is in fact the first restaurateur who brought wines made of old Cretan varietal grapes to Australia, in an effort to ‘educate’ Aussie connoisseurs and immerse them in the ancient Minoans’ drinking habits.
“The only way to fully enjoy our food is to accompany it with the right vino, only the ambience of an authentic Greek beverage will complete your palate, and that’s not just ouzo.”
After finishing our first glass of red wine we got to indulge in the menu’s delicacies, showcasing traditional dishes from Crete, Cyprus and central Greece with a gourmet twist.
The first recipes were conceived and executed by Rerakis’ mother and mother-in-law; however, his brother-in-law chef Harris Tsioukardanis joined the team soon after joining the family to contribute his refined technique and fusion ideas.
“Everything is made the traditional way. The point is to feel like home. To taste Greece with every bite,” Rerakis muses.
“Harris’ ideas have raised the bar several notches, yet the menu remains faithful to the restaurant’s identity, which is to infuse our heritage into every dish.”
Rerakis prides himself on creating a true representation of the Greek dining experience in Melbourne, something he himself was struggling to find.
“The main reason which urged me to drop my job and open up a restaurant was that I couldn’t find a single place in the city to make me feel like home.”
“Greek food isn’t just the souvlaki and the lamb or pork on the spit. Traditional Greek cuisine is mainly vegetarian,” he stresses, insisting we read the menu out loud.
Herbed rice stuffed zucchini flowers, kalitsounia pastry, traditional fava with pickled octopus, sheftalies, dolmadakia gialantzi, saganaki, mussels, prawns and pesto scallops would compete with the five-hour slow-roasted kid goat, the cauliflower and pomegranate salad, the broad beans and roast potatoes, the garlic cous cous and of course, the lamb and artichoke fricassee.
To make it through the uneven battle we feasted on the hot, freshly kneaded crusty bread, mesmerised by the smells emanating from the kitchen.
Apart from the menu, there’s a specials blackboard with several options for each day like stifado, keftedes, pies and other seasonal dishes, inspired from different regions of Greece.
“Sometimes I go on a ‘horta-hunt’, and return with radikia and kafkalithres,” he tells Neos Kosmos, explaining that he has managed to find almost every edible herb used back home, in Australia.
“I have a huge community garden and many times I chose to cook specials to please certain people who I knew would visit my restaurant.”
Whilst we are enjoying our delicious meal, Rerakis makes us feel like part of his Philhellene family in Melbourne. On being asked what matters the most he instantly replies “making people happy”.
“Seeing the emotions colour up their faces while they eat is fulfilling. I don’t care about expanding or making that much money.
“What matters is to be proud of my service and have people returning for more,” he adds.
Philhellene’s strength lies in the genuine character of its owner and staff. Throughout the night the waiters- as well as Rerakis himself- would attend to all requests and make sure every customer got his ‘kerasma’.
“This is who we are,” he says, highlighting that only Greeks have that custom. “It’s part of our culture; lets your guest know you’re not just there to get their money, but to give back as well.
“It’s the Greek way to say thank you and show appreciation.”
Philhellene isn’t known solely for its delicious food or treats. It has become the home of several newly-arrived Greeks, who have become members of its staff and active within the Greek Australian community.
“It’s all about giving back,” the restaurateur repeats, sharing his feelings of gratitude towards the Lucky Country. “My family found a home here and I wish to help other fellow Greeks and Australians make the most of the opportunities lying ahead of them.”
Meanwhile, we are told that the restaurant remains open on Greek Orthodox holidays such as Easter and Christmas, offering not just to the poor but to everyone who is alone on these days a hearty meal and company – free of charge.
With our tummies full of the storm Harris had cooked up less than an hour ago, we had no will left to refuse Rerakis’ sweet delights.
The finale met the high expectations created by the starters and mains, with a not-so-usual double dessert platter.
Every spoonful was filled up with a surprising combo of Asia Minor and Macedonian flavours.
Who would have thought a kataifi would taste so good next to a halva ice-cream and sweet fried loukoumades (Greek doughnuts) with honey, walnuts and cinnamon?
At only three kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD, the trip was definitely worth it, proving we’re only a cook away from home.
551 Mount Alexander Rd, Moonee Ponds VIC 3039
Ph: (03) 9370 3303