671 POINT NEPEAN ROAD, MCCRAE, 5981 1202
LICENSED AE DC MC V EFTPOS
WEDNESDAY-SUNDAY NOON-3PM, 5.30PM-LATE (MEZZE ALL DAY; FROM NEXT WEEKEND SATURDAY-SUNDAY 8AM-11.30PM)
MEZZE: $5.50-$16; MAINS: $25-$35; DESSERTS: $4.50-$14
It’s a long, long way to Santorini but it’s not far to McCrae where a passionate evocation of Greek island life is drawing diners for mezze and feasts, christenings and work parties and, above all, easy, breezy vibes served with professional poise.
Alatonero (“saltwater”) is the vision of owner Jacqui Poulier who fell in love with Greece as a 21-year-old after a stopover on the way to London turned into an enraptured two years. Ever since, she wanted to recreate that feeling of sun-soaked easy joy on the Mornington Peninsula. It took a while; in 2004 she opened Stillwater at Crittenden Estate, a fine dining vineyard restaurant. A year ago she added Alatonero to her portfolio and got used to people asking her if she’s Greek. “I’m a pseudo-Greek,” she says.
The broad timber building is done in whites and blues but it reads as fresh and classy rather than cliched. There’s a restaurant to the right, a casual area at left for drinks, snacks and spill-over, and a large astro-turfed front garden. A local artist created eye-catching murals; the gorgeous ocean-inspired crockery is peninsula-made too. Alatonero is across the road from the foreshore: you can’t see the sea but there’s something about being here that makes you feel that if you wiggled your toes long enough they’d end up sandy.
The food is unabashedly, nostalgically Greek but it’s also tied tightly to the region. Local produce is showcased on the menu and the food is anchored in the here and now. Many dishes are proudly simple: sardines with a wedge of lemon, peppers from down the road in Boneo, roasted and stuffed with currant-studded oregano-flecked rice, mussels baked in the charcoal oven with tomatoes and feta.
Charcoal also lends superb character to the chicken skewers (juicy, smoky, herb tickled and served over a sturdy yoghurt sauce) and the DIY souvlaki, served either with shredded lamb shoulder or pulled pork. It’s a fun dish but ours came with minimal pita bread and enough raw onion to sink a budding romance.
Some dishes have borrowed fine dining finesse from Stillwater. Prawn cutlets are wrapped in kataifi (shredded) pastry, fried, and served with lemon aioli and crushed hazelnuts. Pork belly is expertly cooked, the fat rendered and the skin crisp. There’s added bite from pickled fennel and succulents gathered from the foreshore.
Not every wheel needs to be reinvented. Moussaka – lovingly layered lamb, potato, eggplant and bechamel – is baked in terracotta. There’s a vegetarian version too. Youvetsi is one of Jacqui Poulier’s signatures: it’s another baked dish, done with beef short rib, ouzo and tomatoes but soon to switch over to summer-friendly prawns. Loukoumades (donuts) are canonical: puffed dough balls doused in a sugar syrup. A generous serve suggests either sharing or catatonia. A big scoop of salted caramel ice cream is a deluxe modern flourish.
Alatonero is too elegant to be called a taverna – you won’t see any waiters groaning under the weight of a meat platter – but there’s a thrumming destination feel to the place too, not surprising when it sees 500 people on a busy day. Eat big, come anytime to snack on dips or baklava and, from next weekend, roll up for a sunshiny breakfast platter. It would be a stretch to say that Santorini has landed in McCrae but if you squint you might just smell the Aegean on the breeze.