A wine bottle wall shaped like the flag of Greece is the first thing that catches my eye as I enter Bakalaki, the new Greek establishment in the heart of Tiong Bahru. An indoor olive tree, smack in the centre, is next. Designed by the award-winning interior architect Dimitris Economou, the colossal space – which used to house the now-defunct Tiong Bahru Bar – is decked in textured white walls, wooden panels, banquettes in various shades of blue, and more bizarrely, framed photos of donkeys. If you manage to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, it’s almost possible to imagine you’re on a buzzy Greek island. Almost.
I’m told that bakalaki means the merging of Greek traditions and culture, a testament to the authenticity of the restaurant’s offerings. In the spirit of Greek tavernas, you’ll find spacious communal tables and sharing plates conceptualised by Executive Chef Spiros Palaiologos, formerly of Blu Kouzina. The chef, who grew up in the port town of Piraeus, takes pride in keeping true to traditional recipes, so while some of his ingredients are sourced from the nearby Tiong Bahru Market, most are directly imported from the motherland.
Eastern Mediterranean cooking, when executed well, is tremendously enjoyable – especially so in Singapore where such restaurants a few and far between. Start with some house-baked Pita ($2.90) and heaps of fragrant dips at $14.90 each, first with classic tzatziki yoghurt, the smoky melitzanosalata agioritiki eggplant spread, and then taramosalata, an emulsified white cod roe dip that’s so rich and delicious I had to sacrifice several hunks of crusty pita.
Sunny days call for a refreshing Horiatiki ($20.90) salad with crunchy cucumbers, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and feta drizzled with an in-house extra virgin olive oil that’s cold-pressed from Koroneiki trees. And of course, cheeses too, being a Greek staple and all. The unassuming goat’s milk Halloumi ($16.90), semi-hard, grilled, and served with lemon and oregano, is beautiful, with a layered texture not unlike softer cheeses like mozzarella. For something saltier, the large block of pan-fried Feta Saganaki ($16.90), dressed with fine Greek honey and sesame seeds, will do the job once you get past its initial richness.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the taste of the Mediterranean Sea comes alive at Bakalaki. Immerse in the Greek summertime favourite Kalamari Tiganito ($22.90) – bite-sized pieces of crispy fried squid with just enough flour and seasoning to do the trick, even better with a generous squeeze of lemon juice. The grilled octopus dish Htapodi ($32.90), comes as two fat tentacles that are lightly charred and tender, not tiny, bland, and tough like you sometimes get. With just a bit of sea salt and olive oil, the natural flavours of the legs are easily apparent. If you enjoy fish, the Tsipoura ($43.90), sea bream served with a simple tangy lemon sauce and boiled vegetables, is lovely on the grill.
Spiros does fantastic lamb chops (another Greek favourite) as well. His Paidakia ($32.90), traditionally marinated in olive oil with oregano and rosemary, yields a satisfying flavour that’s a pleasant departure from the Western norm. Rather than the gamey taste and smell usually associated with lamb, what you get is a sweet and herby flavour that tantalises the palate. Pair this and the others with one of the many wines on offer, starting at $13.90 for a glass of house white. But really, when you have the likes of an Ihnos Merlot from Estate Palivos or Santorini Assyrtiko from Domaine Sigalas on the menu, there’s no competition there.
You’ve probably had Baklava, the dessert pastry made of layers of filo that saw its provenance in the Ottoman Empire, but Bakalaki’s version ($14.90) is marvellous, made with chopped walnuts, spiced with cinnamon and clove, and ladled with an extraordinary honey syrup. Flaky, crisp, and saccharine, it’s basically a party in your mouth. If you’re not one for the overtly sweet, the Loukoumades ($14.90) – fluffy fried doughnuts with a coating of honey and chocolate dip (think Spanish churros, but yeast-risen) make a decent alternative.
As you finish off the meal, a cup of Hovoli-brewed Greek coffee will do you some good. Lightly sweetened (let them know how much sugar you’d like) and rich, the brew is made traditionally on a bed of sand. If you consider yourself a foodie at all, head down here to try some authentic Greek cuisine and savour the taverna spirit.
Bakalaki Greek Taverna is located at 3 Seng Poh Rd, Singapore 168891, p. +65 6836 3688. Open Mon-Thu 6pm – 12am, Fri-Sun 12pm – 2.30pm, 6pm – 1am.