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Review: Santorini – Greek food in the heart of Itaewon

restaurants | February 6, 2014 | By

It’s hard to imagine a country, and a food culture, more diametrically opposed to Korea than dear old Greece. To spend a week on Naxos or Corfu, you need to change down into a lower gear. Greeks wake up late, eat lunch around two and then head home for a nap. Dishes take an age to arrive and no-one seems in a hurry to go anywhere. There is no such thing as a “45 minute express lunch” in Greece. Land of the Morning Calm and Mid-Afternoon Snooze.

I’ll confess here to an inbuilt bias. I grew up with my family in Athens, and the taste of tsatsiki is, for me, the taste of home. It’s a bit like Koreans who travel abroad with ramyeon noodles and those little plastic containers of kimchi you get in convenience stores (and you all do, don’t deny it); it’s hardly the highest expression of your nation’s culinary arts, but comfort food doesn’t necessarily equate with logic. Santorini, in Itaewon, goes beyond the souvlaki-and-chips comfort zone to offer a wide range of dishes that attempt to bring a bit of Mediterranean sunshine to the cold snows of the Seoul winter.

IMG_2720Let’s get straight to it. Santorini seems to have a poor reputation among foreign residents in Korea. In all the times I’ve been in one of their two Itaewon locations (and I have, down the years, been in here at least a dozen times) I don’t recall seeing more than a handful of waygook faces. Why is this? It appears to be a combination of complaints about the food (greasy, inauthentic, etc etc) and poor value for money.

Now, I will happily defer to my American friends when it comes to what constitutes an “authentic” pizza or taco, and take the advice of my Korean friends for where the best samgyeopsal joints are. So, take it from one who knows; Santorini’s food is as authentic as you are going to get in Korea, and for the most part, it meets or surpasses expectations.

On my most recent visit, the tsatsiki was on point; garlicky, fresh-tasting and perfect with the lightly-toasted pitta bread. Hummus was so-so, needing lots more seasoning in my opinion (but then again I do like salty food). The Greek salad was good given the limitations of Korean ingredients.

IMG_2723The star of the appetisers were undoubtedly the cheese pies, almost as good as the tyropittakia on every street corner in Athens. I was pleasantly surprised by how flavourful the filling was. These vanished in moments.

IMG_2726We shared two mains, of which the better was the chicken souvlaki. With a generous squeeze of lemon over the nicely charred and moist chicken, lots of nice chips and the bread underneath soaking up all that lovely juice.

Moussaka was, again, acceptable rather than outstanding, though it looked great on the plate. The meat filling was a little ungenerous and the mince was crumbly rather than juicy. I’d give this a miss next time. (Incidentally, I’ve heard people complain that it wasn’t hot enough. Moussaka, like its near-relation pastitsio, is not meant to be served piping hot. It’s usually served merely warm or even at room temperature.)

IMG_2728Overall, in food terms, I’d give Santorini a solid score. The food is tasty, well made and well presented. It’s also pretty authentic compared to other so-called “Greek” places in Seoul (with the exception of the excellent El Greco’s in Gyeongnidan). In fact, the least authentic part of the whole experience is the brisk and efficient service.

But we come back to the issue of value, and here my blinkers have to come off. As nice as the food is, Santorini is overpriced, and I got the impression from looking at the menu that prices have increased in the last year or so. We paid nearly 100,000 won for four people without any drinks or dessert, and while replete at the end of our meal, we certainly did not order a huge amount of food – four or five appetisers and two mains, each of which were around the 20,000 – 22,000 won mark.

22,000 won for a couple of medium-sized souvlaki, a couple of pieces of bread, some chips and a little pot of tsatsiki; when you consider that you can get a souvlaki set at El Greco’s for half that, or for that matter a big shashlik at Samarkand in Dongdaemun for 4,000 won, this seems steep. Yes, Santorini is a full-service restaurant in Itaewon, not a snack bar or cafe in a cheaper part of town, but still.

Santorini comes recommended, and I will always go back. But I understand why many foreign residents in Korea prefer to look elsewhere.

  • Category: Greek
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try: Cheese pies, chicken / pork souvlaki
  • Subway: Itaewon station exit 1 or Noksapyeong station exit 3
  • Directions: From Noksapyeong station, go out of exit 3 and walk across the road onto the Itaewon main street, and Santorini is on the right on the second floor. The second location is in the alley behind the Hamilton hotel: look for the little sign, again on the second floor near Copacabana Grill.

Santorinimap

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