Some restaurants just make you feel good the moment you walk in. Bakalaki Greek Taverna, which opened last month in Tiong Bahru, is one of them.
With a high ceiling and an expansive dining area, there is a sense of space that puts you in a relaxed mood. Tables are not too close to one another and there are sofa seats with plump cushions that invite you to lean back.
Add to that a colour scheme of white, beige and turquoise, lit by natural light streaming in through a glass wall during the day, and you can imagine yourself at a beach resort instead of the city centre. There is even an olive tree in the middle of the room to help you imagine you're on a sunny Mediterranean land.
Tables are also set outdoors on a verandah that looks out on the street.
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This is a great place to hang out for Sunday lunches because once you sink into one of the sofas, you are in no mood to go back to work. So it's just as well the restaurant does not open for lunch on weekdays.
Ambience is not the only area where the restaurant tries to create a true Greek experience.
Bakalaki's kitchen is run by Greek chef Spiros Palaiologos, who used to be at Blu Kouzina in Dempsey. He keeps the flavours authentic by using Greek produce whenever he can. For example, most of the seafood comes from the country and the restaurant has its own brand of extra-virgin olive oil, cold-pressed from olives in Greece.
BAKALAKI GREEK TAVERNA
3 Seng Poh Road, tel: 6836-3688; open: 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Thursdays), noon to 2.30pm, 6pm to 1am (Fridays and Saturdays)
Price: Budget about $70 a person, without drinks
The menu offers an array of dips and salads for starters, but it is a rainy day and I decide to go for hot items instead - a decision I do not regret.
The Keftes ($16.90) are excellent. Plump beef meatballs are deep-fried until a brown coat forms, sealing the well-seasoned juicy meat inside. They come with a mint and lemon dip, but taste good on their own.
The serving of seven meatballs is generous, which describes many of the other dishes too.
My other starter of Kalamari Tiganito ($22.90) is less outstanding, but I don't have any complaints either. It's just that it tastes pretty much like the calamari or battered deep-fried squid you find at many Italian restaurants here.
Try the Htapodi ($32.90), or grilled octopus, instead. You get a tender tentacle with an appealing aroma of smoke and oregano. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavours and brings them to life.
Main dishes are mostly grilled items and there are hits and misses here.
Paidakia ($32.90) are lamb chops that are grilled just right, boasting tender and juicy meat. Rosemary and oregano rubbed on them tone down their characteristic gamey taste.
I may enjoy gamey meat, but fishiness turns me off. And the Tsipoura ($43.90), a seabream grilled whole and deboned table-side, tastes a little fishy to me. Luckily, it comes with a sauce of lemon juice and olive oil that masks any unpleasant flavours.
Desserts are where Bakalaki shines. My favourite is something I would not have tried if the restaurant had not sent it to my table with its compliments. Yiaourti ($12), which is Greek yogurt topped with honey and walnuts, looks boring on paper, but it turns out to be delicious. It's such a simple idea and so easy to put together that I am eating my yogurt this way at home.
Rizogalo ($11.90), a rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon on top, is another dessert that works for me. It is creamy and deliciously sweet, but not as cloying as you would imagine a Greek dessert to be.
Those with a sweet tooth can go for the Baklava ($14.90), which comprises layers of filo pastry stuffed with walnuts, cinnamon, cloves and honey syrup. The sweetness level here is toned down compared with traditional Greek recipes, but it is still a tad syrupy for me. Still, once I get past the sugar shock, I start to appreciate the combination of aromatic nuts and spices.
One corner of the restaurant functions as a deli, with shelves that are filled with Greek products such as olive oil, feta cheese, honey and liqueur. So if you like that honey in your yogurt or the olive oil you drizzle over the fish, you can replicate that experience at home.
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•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.