If you’re expecting the hoary clichés that the phrase “Greek restaurant” brings to mind – bouzouki music in the background and plenty of blue and white in the color scheme – The Apollo Tokyo is proudly not going to fit the bill. Located on the 11th floor of the newly redesigned Tokyu Plaza Ginza building, it’s a sleek establishment that refuses to wear its Hellenic identity on its sleeve. However, what it does do is combine traditional Greek concepts with a contemporary twist and a dedication to quality ingredients.
This recipe has worked well for The Apollo since 2012, when Sydney-based restaurateurs Jonathan Barthelmess and Sam Christie teamed up to open the eatery. Before their collaboration, the duo had already established themselves as leaders in the bustling Sydney restaurant scene. Christie launched the extremely successful Longrain, which has been running for 17 years, after managing several bars. Barthelmess had been a head chef at two of the city’s top restaurants – Darling Harbour and Manly Pavilion. It’s no surprise that The Apollo was earning accolades in short time.
In addition to their extensive restaurant experience, Barthelmess and Christie come from Greek backgrounds, and are familiar with the country’s best-known dishes, but neither of them wanted a place that fit easily into a stereotype. Christie explains, “There are plenty of Greek restaurants in Sydney, but they’re all very traditional and they’re all almost the same … you know before you walk in there what’s on the menu. We wanted to do the opposite of that, and have a really smart, casual place and let it shine on Greek food and let people learn about another cuisine that has been overlooked.”
Although bringing Mediterranean food to the Far East might seem like a stretch, Barthelmess sees a common spirit linking the two cuisines. It’s something he first noticed while researching the Japanese restaurant scene in preparation for his second joint venture with Christie, the izakaya-inspired Cho Cho San. Barthelmess sees the relaxed environment and the simplicity of preparation as a common link between the two kinds of restaurants. “To me, The Apollo is very izakaya style … Our food is very simple. Like Japanese food, it’s about the produce – just seasoning it appropriately and cooking it perfectly and leaving it alone. We have that same philosophy with Greek food.”
The Apollo Tokyo has only been open since the end of March, but we didn’t want to waste any time to make our first visit. We started off our meal with a sampling of Kalamata olives and The Apollo’s version of hummus, which had a pleasingly mild flavor. The restaurant’s dips, including their signature taramasalata, made from mullet roe, lemon juice and olive oil, are all served with handmade pita bread, presented in the restaurant’s signature “pizza style” cardboard boxes. (If you’re a healthy eater, we’d definitely recommend getting a second order – they run out quickly.)
Our appetizers were followed by their Greek salad, a traditional favorite that highlights one of the most important things for Barthelmess: locally sourced ingredients. In fact, after spending time in the markets around Tokyo, the chef is even more excited about what’s available in Japan. “The produce here is so inspiring … it’s creeping into the menu in ways that we don’t use in Sydney.”
But in this seemingly simple dish, there is also a detail that has offended more than a few purists: instead of topping the salad with traditional Greek feta, known for its saltiness and its crumbly texture, Barthelmess goes with Danish feta, a milder, softer version of the cheese. It’s a small point that may seem insignificant, but it’s a detail that the chef has considered deeply: “[the Danish feta] is a lot milder, it’s not as harsh. You’ve got olives in the salad, you’ve got vinegar in the salad, you’ve got all these harsh things already. I don’t want to add more harshness or saltiness; I want to turn it down and be more delicate.”
The next dish was the oven baked lamb shoulder – The Apollo’s signature main dish. Grilled for ten hours over a low flame and then finished in the oven for one more hour, the lamb is superbly tender and soft enough to cut with a fork. It’s served with tzatziki, a sauce made with yogurt, dill, and garlic, which serves as a perfect complement to the meat’s rich flavor.
We finished our meal with a dish that lets Barthelmess display a bit of inventiveness: the Avgolemono Pie. Fans of Greek cuisine will know avgolemono in soup, or as a sauce that goes best with savory dishes, but here it’s a clever take on the traditional meringue pie. The dessert features a rich lemon curd topped with dollops of meringue and crumbled pie crust. All we’ll say about this is leave room for dessert – you’ll regret it if you miss this one.
Accompanying the food menu is an impressive wine list that that ranges from Australia to Greece itself, a region that produces more than its share of fine wines. (Christie, a trained sommelier, curates the wine list.) Cocktail aficionados won’t be disappointed, either: with choices like the Pearsephone, which is made with vodka, pear juice, and coriander, the ominously named Tears of Chios, featuring liqueur made from the sap of a rare tree, gin, and cucumber, and the Apollo Smash, there is something for everyone.
Although The Apollo offers fine dining-quality cuisine, both Christie and Barthelmess want their restaurant to be a place where guests can feel at ease, and each area of the floor offers a different atmosphere, from the table seating to the bar space, and a small counter that faces out on a city view. Like the menu, the restaurant is a space that calls to be revisited. And that’s the point, Barthelmess says. “We want people to come in, smile, have a good time, walk away, and come back.”
With a restaurant experience like this on offer, we think that’s an easy plan to follow.
For more restaurants bringing global flavors to Tokyo, click here.