When Odysseus was cast into the churning deep by Poseidon, that brutish god, he consulted his “fighting spirit” to survive. Fighting Spirit in The Odyssey is masculine, brawny, indomitable. It pervades classic Greek culture and resonates with Greek cuisine, which isn’t crumpets at The Peninsula.
Greek cuisine is garlic, lemon, fish roe, charred lamb, whole fish, yoghurt, saline cheese from goats and sheep who graze in stony pastures, salt, olive oil, resinous wine, ouzo, whiplash coffee. It’s what Popeye would eat if he ventured beyond spinach. It is nourishment to defy Poseidon himself and wreak savage justice on any impudent rakes who put the move on your significant other. In case you’re not familiar, Odysseus wrought bloody vengeance (slasher-movie bloody) on the suitors who, thinking he was gone, horned in on his wife. Read The Odyssey before visiting this restaurant to give yourself the right mindset. You believe the best translation is by Robert Fagles, and you can hear it in splendid audiobook read by Sir Ian (Gandalf) McKellen.
You ate at Artemis & Apollo once before and vividly remember the lamb chops. These were nothing like Frenched, dainty chops with paper frills meant to be eaten medium rare while discussing Mozart with your piano teacher. These were sliced very thin, perhaps less than a quarter of an inch, and cauterised over charcoal to carnivorous perfection. The ratio of addictively scrumptious char to meat was greater than any you had ever before experienced, and you growled with happiness gnawing your way through the one-kilogram pile. Had you been able to afford it, you would have kept gnawing until Death betook you. These were chops for hurling bronze-tipped spears at barbarians. They equalled in their way the glorious tandoori chops served at New Punjab Club, Black Sheep bro, to be eaten with fingers as Cyclops ate Odysseus’ crew.
So you returned to cast your net deeper within Artemis & Apollo’s menu.
Your jokes say who you are. Your hummus says who you are. Your jokes typically leave people baffled, and your hummus is garlicky, lemony, salty, cuminy, slightly granular. It could be that your sense of hummus is better than your sense of humour. You are puzzled by Artemis & Apollo’s hummus because it seems incongruent with their gruff, glorious chops. It’s silky smooth, like Jergens lotion, and low in garlic, lemon, salt. It’s tasty enough with their warm, delightfully blistered pitta (though so oily it tends to slip off), but it feels like the chef held back. Weaponised, it wouldn’t penetrate Trojan armour. It’s demure.
Most squid available in Hong Kong are large enough to take down Labradors fetching sticks in the surf. This puts HK chefs at a disadvantage compared to US chefs who work with true baby squids, small as larks, that are wonderful sliced, coated, deep-fried. Artemis & Apollo’s squid meat is thick, like the tubing that connects your washing machine to the tap. This isn’t their fault, but the crust falling off is. You’ve had success simply dipping squid in flour and deep-frying it. LPM successfully uses potato starch. Actually, Krusteaz Bake & Fry Coating Mix, brewed by food chemists, works incredibly well. A chemical or two won’t hurt you. After all, what are we but chemicals?
The tzatziki served with the squid should pulsate with garlic and chunks of cucumber, but instead it is bashful like the hummus, reminding you of ranch dressing (though it occurs belatedly to you that they may have served you a simple yoghurt sauce and misidentified it as tzatziki).
The taramasalata though – a dip usually made from fish roe, olive oil, lemon and bread, though it tasted as though they used yoghurt instead – has the tang your tongue seeks. You like it. It makes you hanker for skordalia, a dip of mashed potato, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, seraphic with warm pitta, seldom seen these days. Would Artemis & Apollo consider putting it on their menu? If so, don’t namby-pamby around with the garlic.
The anchovies, pristine, deboned, set artfully in a puddle of olive oil, fulfil your highest hopes. The unmistakable flavour of fresh anchovy (radically different from tinned) comes across balanced accurately by vinegary pink onion slices. Rarely have you so closely communed with a fish. Happy thought: after you eat these anchovies and incorporate their essence, you are now, in small measure, part anchovy yourself.
But why so few other seafood offerings? In the tavernas of Greece that line the cobblestone harbours, seafood in tanks or arranged on ice usually greet you when you enter. Choose your fish and they charcoal-grill it. Hong Kong markets are plump with fresh seafood, so this would be logical here. One TripAdvisor pic of Artemis & Apollo shows charcoal-grilled octopus, your great favourite and prototypically Greek. It’s off the menu, alas.
With all Greek food, your wine of choice is uniquely Greek, retsina. With an unlikely flavour and scent of turpentine from the pine resin added as a preservative, perhaps it is an acquired taste, but it is somehow just right with Greek food, cutting sideways across its oil and fat. Yet, you’ve been to Greek restaurants with no retsina at all, which baffles. It would be like going to a red-sauce resto without Chianti. Artemis & Apollo has one retsina, which you drink happily, but there are countless others, and inasmuch as it is the quintessential Greek wine, of ancient heritage, more are needed. Think how exciting a flights of retsina would be!
As with the carbon cycle, Doritos are an American adaptation of Mexican food that have cycled back to Mexico. So it is with fortune cookies, a Chinese-American restaurant concoction that have returned to China. Saganaki, which technically refers to a two-handled Greek frying pan, usually is a piece of goat’s or sheep’s cheese (kasseri or halloumi), flambéed. Food historians trace the flambée to a restaurant in Chicago, though it has made its way back to Greece. Ouzo is the usual accelerant. Artemis & Apollo does not flame their cheese. You wish they would, for not only does food set on fire thrill your inner arsonist, but the ouzo imparts a lovely flavour. Uniquely, they top their saganaki with dried apricots. Sweet and salty is very au courant, and your wife loves this dish. You, less. Perhaps because you were looking forward to the flames.
Dessert: coffee and cheesecake. Traditionally, Greek coffee is fierce, made in a primitive coffee pot called a briki that does not separate the grounds. Supposedly they settle as you slowly sip it, though many have ended up between your teeth. But that’s authentic. Odysseus was forced into servitude by the goddess Calypso, a woman of strong appetites, for seven years. In case you ever find yourself in this pickle, this coffee might sustain you. Unfortunately, Artemis & Apollo eschews authenticity for merely delicious coffee, like The Coffee Academic’s. Perhaps customers venturing forth inflamed by authentic Greek coffee have legal ramifications.
Their cheesecake, prettified by pomegranate seeds, is made with labneh (very thick yoghurt) with a sesame crust. Surprisingly, the filling is somewhat chalky, with little flavour, nowhere close to cheesecake’s full potential: creamy, luscious, tangy, addictive. Though sesame crust sounds good (and surely could work), here it is pallid. If you’re going sesame, you need something with the intensity of halvah (maybe halvah itself), possibly incorporating some of the texture of sesame brittle (maybe that too). And it needs more salt. Otherwise – it’s an immutable truth – graham cracker is best.
If the servers at Artemis & Apollo and, by extension, all the servers in the Black Sheep family, were dogs and resided in a shelter, they would be the ones you’d wish to adopt. They are notably authentic, warm, likeable. They fetch (as servers do). And though you’ve never seen them race around and jump on the furniture yipping or with a chew stick between their teeth, you can hope. You highly commend Black Sheep for their employee culture.
The decor of the restaurant successfully conjures the white, sculpted interiors of the Greek islands.
The lamb chops will forever haunt you and bring you back. Likewise the anchovies. Oddly, the other dishes – hummus, tzatziki, saganaki, cheesecake, coffee – are muted. This surprises you given Black Sheep’s well-deserved reputation for authenticity and excellence, for nailing the little details. All the flavours of their sibling New Punjab Club flash and crackle, no exceptions. At Associazione Chianti, their Italian trattoria, they only serve their bistecca alla Fiorentina medium rare. Rightly so. What accounts for this disparity?
Being creatures of excess, you and your wife spent about HK$1,000 on lunch. Mainly this is because you were seeking a full range of dishes in order to evaluate the food and, for medicinal purposes, had three drinks between you. Probably two could eat a great lunch for around HK$400 or so, more with drinks. As with Black Sheep’s other restaurants, you get good return on the dollar.
Artemis & Apollo surely has strengths. Where it falls short, it is not due to a deficit of talent, but what strikes you as a deficit of fighting spirit. They serve Greek food, the food that nourished Odysseus, the food to challenge Poseidon, the food to slaughter saucy suitors, the food that Achilles ate to gird himself for battle, for goodness sake. Even the gods on lofty Olympus – immortal, scheming, jealous, lustful, murderous – ate this food. It must be heartier and fiercer or it is apt to incur their wrath.
If you haven’t read The Odyssey, do so. Then hoist your shield and spear and go for their chops and an ice-cold glass of retsina.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Food: 3.5 (though the chops and anchovies by themselves deserve a 5)
Overall value: 3.5
9–11, Moon Street, Wanchai, 2818 8681, book online
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.
Read more of David’s reviews for many Hong Kong restaurants on his website, www.ardentgourmet.com, and remember to like Foodie on Facebook