History tells us that the best Mediterranean restaurants are exercises in escapism. That they are hyper-real, tourist advisory board broadcasts where the irresistible fantasy has been rendered in meticulous ultra-high definition. But at Evi’s, a new Greek restaurant in East Dulwich, real life has a tendency to intrude on the picture-perfect image.
The slender, cool, blue and white space is always in danger of being disrupted by a stampeding toddler or a bobbing Peppa Pig balloon. The closest thing to a gentle, Aegean breeze comes courtesy of a tower fan. And if you sit close enough to the little hatch kitchen, where a young brigade of miniature Carmen Berzattos toil in a nimbus of vaporised pork fat, you may hear a chef wonder aloud about the precise ingredients of a dish (“Is there olive oil on the spicy feta?” I heard one say, not exactly instilling masses of confidence the second time I visited).
And yet, despite all this, Evi’s, an unassuming spin-off of a longstanding street food brand, has a curious magic and subtle, urgent power emerging from its occasional chaos. Partly it is the luck of such a sunburst of a restaurant landing at the same time as something resembling a London summer; partly it is its ragtag, human touch and the charming way founders Evi Peroulaki and Conor Mills are running it. But, of course, mostly, it is the cooking: a gently contemporary, elegantly rugged parade of dishes that, though not always perfect, knock you over with their culinary acuity, gushing succulence and punching, vibrant freshness.
It’s a project that seems to have grown, almost incrementally, in scale and scope. Initially pitched as a bricks and mortar offshoot of Souvlaki Street — the roving takeaway stall native Athenian Peroulaki and Mills launched in 2014 — Evi’s has instead been seized, very shrewdly, as a chance to do something that is far riskier, more grown-up and interesting. This starts with the room: a narrow lean-to of a space that gestures towards homey, Greco-modernism — navy blue booths, whitewashed brickwork, a perspex-sheltered sun trap of a garden — without resorting to full-on, bazouki-twanging cliches.
Courgette fritters were the first eye-widener from the lengthy menu: ragged boulders of finely crisped, faintly golden greenery with weightless, dill-flecked middles, the detonating charge of fresh chillies and a cooling, zingy swoop of sumac yoghurt. Both tzatziki and melitzanalata (aubergine, deliquesced to smoky porridge and strewn with walnuts and pomegranate) had the barreling, layered liveliness you’d expect from something made tableside, and the same went for a crunching, kaleidoscopic mass of Greek salad and bronzed, hand-cut chips that evoke a rippling pan of olive oil and a sleepy Ionian taverna circa 1986.
Evi’s is a finely-honed reflection of what happens when you do your 10,000 hours in London’s sweltering street food trenches
That the drinks list — all-Greek wines, yes, but also profoundly quenching housemade sodas spiked with cucumber and lime — is also a vessel for lily-gilding creativity is another mark of the team’s aversion to easy wins. Are the flatbreads maybe a little unmemorable? Do the signature pork souvlaki skewers, which are Tamworth pork collar compressed into luscious lozenges of pure, grill-blistered desire, occasionally suffer from haphazard salting? There’s an argument to be made on both counts. I also imagine the lack of coffee or dessert — a conscious choice to maintain table-turning momentum in a challengingly small site — will rankle with some. But Evi’s, propelled by pin-sharp flavours and the bustling warmth of Peroulaki’s presence on the floor, is such a beguiling mixture of a palpable passion project and a finely-honed reflection of what happens when you do your 10,000 hours in London’s sweltering street food trenches.
I am not even slightly surprised that, thanks to daily queues and a scramble for tables, the team recently introduced online bookings. Everyone understands the appeal of a highly affordable restaurant built for speed and satisfaction rather than languorous comfort. Everyone knows visible seams and toil can be integral to the beauty of something. And everyone, I think, is going to want to eke out the dregs of a too-brief summer in the perpetual sunshine of this special little place.
18 North Cross Road, SE22 9EU. Meal for two plus drinks about £80. Open Thursday 5-9pm, Friday to Saturday from noon-9.30pm (kitchen closed between 2.30pm-5pm) and Sunday from noon-3.30pm; evisrestaurant.com