Greeks bearing fish


This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times. 

At the end of my first meal at Estiatorio Milos, the Greek fish restaurant that originated in Montreal in 1979 and has subsequently opened outposts in New York, Athens, Miami, Las Vegas and, in mid August, in London’s Regent Street, I spotted a Frenchman who specialises in restaurant franchising lunching with a Russian. 

In contrast to my rather mundane dishes from the £29 set lunch menu (octopus that should have been more tender and an overcooked tuna burger), they had chosen a 1.2 kg sea bass from the large iced display nearby that the waiting staff refer to as the Fish Market. They pronounced it not just the freshest but also the most carefully prepared grilled fish they had ever enjoyed – even, the Russian added, while on holiday in Greece.

Although its founder, menu and style of presentation exude passion for all things Greek, that Milos is now in London’s West End is yet another manifestation of how this particular area is increasingly attractive to restaurateurs from overseas.

Over the past few years, central London has sucked in restaurateurs from Denmark, Spain and Italy because it appears to offer far more opportunities for expansion than their own domestic markets. It is appealing too to US restaurateurs, most recently the Smith + Wollensky steak group, which recently opened south of the Strand, because of the absence of the union restrictions which have scuppered so many British restaurateurs in the US. These restaurants – and seemingly the more glamorous the better – subsequently draw investors from across the globe.

But almost every new restaurant is running over budget and they are all opening later than planned. Les 110 de Taillevent, the wine-led bistro of this long-established Paris restaurant, is finally due to open on Cavendish Square on October 21st, later than its owners would have liked. Milos took four years from the beginning of negotiations for lease with the Crown Estate to its opening, founder Costas Spiliadis explained to me with a sigh.

These new openings are doing London a great favour, however, one that no other business or investment could match: they are bringing new life back to old buildings that are no longer attractive for retail or office use. Milos occupies what was originally British Columbia House, an edifice so daunting, its interior such a warren, that it lay empty for years.

The final piece of the jigsaw that makes London so attractive is that it is currently home to more cosmopolitan, high-spending individuals than any other city. And in offering them a range of the very best fish and shellfish in a style that the capital’s older and more cramped fish restaurants such as J Sheekey and Scott’s, the very Italian Assunta Madre or their Asian rivals Nobu and Zuma cannot match, Spiliadis gives them the opportunity to spend well on the kind of relatively simple food many believe will do them good.

A suitable stage has been set. Imposing wooden doors lead on to an amphora lying on the floor, giving the entrance the air of a stage set, the white voile curtains in the large windows are kept in place by heads of garlic; and vast quantities of white marble have been used to create two different dining levels on the ground floor with a mezzanine above, a crucial addition for the restaurant’s profitability accommodating a further 80 customers, a private dining room, a raw-fish counter and another for Greek cheeses. The sightlines on the ground floor are good so that the bustle generated by the waiting staff, the smoke from the grill and the lights shining on to the Fish Market, where customers talk fish with Spiliadis in his chef’s jacket, is obvious to all.

The fish, flown in daily from Portugal but predominantly via a web of long- established suppliers from around Greece, is most impressive. Their prices are chalked up on small boards behind and, as at the beach, each fish is weighed, priced, and whisked off to the kitchen. It is an approach designed for fish lovers who like to share. (The picture below shows lavraki in sea salt.)

Sadly, as my wife claims to have been born without the gene to fully appreciate white fish, we went our separate ways. A Greek ceviche, that came with diced feta, and a Greek salad made for appetising first courses alongside a plate of avgotaraho, excellent cured mullet roe. The quality of the fish and the grill was revealed in my delicious red mullet that, weighing in at 0.155 kg and costing £72 per kilo, appeared on my bill at £11.16, less than the price of the first courses and the Greek wines by the glass. It was cheaper too than the desserts, a section that needs re-working to make attractive.

It is impossible not to admire 69-year-old Spiliadis’ ambition and work rate. As we left he pointed out how welcome he had been made to feel in London and how opening within the EU gives him the opportunity to show off ingredients such as Greek wild oysters and the wild greens from Crete (an acquired taste, in our opinion) that he may not ship to the US. But London today is the most sophisticated market Milos has opened in, and certain elements, most notably the set lunch menu and the wine list where oddly the California selection is more exciting than the Greek, need to improve.

Estiatorio Milos  1 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4NR; tel 020 7839 2080