BY BRYAN LAVERY
Zack Agathos has the presence and magnetism which combined with a genuine earnestness bodes well in the hospitality business. He’s good looking and charming and approachable and has good restaurant chops. Agathos descends from a long line of savvy Greek-Canadian restaurateurs. His grandfather, Jim Agathos, father Ross Agathos (Sweet Onion Grill in Wortley Village) and Aunt Effie (newly-opened Kosmos Catering and Eatery on Richmond Row) operated The Dancing Greek (formerly the Huron House and Jimmy’s Tavern) for 51 years before it closed.
Agathos confides that he was drawn to the cautionary legend of Icarus, and chose the name for his new resto bar after careful deliberation. He felt the story of Icarus spoke to him. Icarus is of course named after the son of Daedalus, who ventured too near the sun on wings of wax and feathers. The story goes that Daedalus had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete within the walls of his own invention, the Labyrinth, whose function was to hold the Minotaur. But the master craftsman would not suffer incarceration. He fashioned two pairs of wings by fastening feathers to a wooden frame with wax. Giving one pair to his son, he warned him that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. But Icarus became elated with the ability to fly and neglected to heed his father's warning. The rest, as they say, is history.
Agathos is confident, he has bravado (the good kind) and he believes he has the right skill set to succeed in the restaurant business. He has intentionally surrounded himself with staff, confidantes and advisors who have the finesse and judgment it takes to birth a successful restaurant.
Icarus Resto Bar is located in the repurposed premises formerly occupied by Coffee Culture on Richmond Street. Last year, on my initial visit to meet up with Agathos, he emphasized that the restaurant would have an interactive open-kitchen concept with a contemporary Greek/Mediterranean fusion theme. Sometimes when speaking with him I was reminded of an impresario who is trying to bring Modern Greek cuisine the acclaim it deserves. Despite his due diligence, he had many unforeseen setbacks during the construction of the restaurant, which he endured with optimism.
Today, the long room features large picture windows, seating for more than a dozen at the open kitchen (protected by a large sneeze guard), yellow brick walls and chestnut-coloured accents at the entrance, and a bamboo ceiling in the front portion of the restaurant. There are good acoustics. Behind the row of banquettes, near the back of the 2,000-square-foot restaurant, a whiskey and bourbon bar is slated for a future expansion. There is also talk of an outdoor patio at the side of the building which would allow al fresco dining.
With its noble preparations, enthusiasm for direct spicing and emphasis on lamb, olives, garlic, lemon, yogurt, cheese, grains, nuts, honey and seafood, Greek/Mediterranean cookery has a long tradition. Dishes are mostly enhanced with lemons and fresh and dried herbs such as oregano and thyme. Spices – cumin, cinnamon and allspice – are used frugally but are integral to the flavour profile of dishes like pastítsio. At Icarus, pastítsio comprises layers of pasta noodles and lamb ragù with a creamy béchamel topping and is served in a small and exceedingly hot-to-the-touch cast-iron fry pan accompanied by a chef’s knife.
Like most cuisines, flavours change with the season and geography. Some classic savoury pastries and desserts use filo pastry. There is a surprising continuity in culinary matters from ancient Greece through to contemporary times, and many dishes are part of a larger tradition of Ottoman cuisine with Turkish, Arabic and Persian roots. You can see these influences in the menus.
“The Squash” is a wonderfully rich, sweet and savoury salad of roasted butternut squash, beet and pumpkin with red and green onion and spiced nuts tossed in maple vinaigrette.
Chef is just as confident with the layered butternut squash parfait with whipped Greek yogurt, honey, granola, quinoa, spiced nuts and dried apricots. Each morsel reveals a blast of flavour and texture, and the crunch of spiced nuts combined with the sweetness of honey against the yogurt and dried apricots is sublime and perfectly balanced. There are several vegan-friendly and gluten-free choices, and the menu is peppered with substitution suggestions and add-ons.
Tacos are versatile and delicious. (Variations on the genre are popping up on menus everywhere these days.) On the lunch menu there is a trio of grilled tacos with lamb ragù, slathered with feta, and dressed up with pico de gallo. The tacos are excellent. More surprising on the mostly Mediterranean-centric lunch menu is the stand-out, mouthwatering wild mushroom and leek pappardelle with sweet peas and burnt lemon. Some items, like the lamb burger and prime rib beef dip, repeat on the dinner menu, which is larger than the lunch menu, but not overwhelming.The menu is big but not overwhelming; the family-style setup makes it easy to order from every section
At dinner, Chef flirts with our taste buds, with thick garlicky tzatziki with a hint of cucumber and updated Greek specialties such as spanakopita, keftedes (lamb meatballs), pastítsio, souvlaki and grilled calamari. Chef brings new life to these staple menu items. Saganaki is pan-fried goat cheese flambéed with lemon and brandy creating a crispy, salty, stringy, succulent melted goodness.
The squash theme is updated with micro greens and kale tossed in pomegranate vinaigrette and topped with warm goat cheese, slivered almonds and sundried cranberries. There is also spicy, crispy bite-sized chicken mixed with lemon pepper popcorn and roasted garlic aioli.
Rabbit is something rarely seen on menus in London. Chef prepares braised leg of rabbit with a sauce of tomatoes, leek and shallots accompanied by roasted potatoes. There are also the usual staples like beef tenderloin and the ubiquitous salmon.
Agathos still loves all the food he grew up eating. He recalls family-style servings of homemade traditional Greek foods, including fresh fish, seafood, goat, rabbit and lamb. On the evening menu, in homage, The Icarus platter for four features skewers of chicken, pork and beef tenderloin, an order of pastítsio, Greek salad, potatoes, rice, pita and tzatziki. The Poseidon platter for three includes seared scallops, shrimp, grilled and fried calamari and baked salmon with Greek salad, potatoes, rice, pita and tzatziki.
One of the best experiences we’ve had here was sitting at a high top near the chef’s counter in front of the open kitchen watching the machinations of the kitchen and the parade of Richmond Row fashionistas. Another was a birthday dinner when Chef pulled out all the stops when dessert rolled around. Desserts, like the plating, are innovative works of art.
Icarus Resto Bar
519 Richmond St., London
SUNDAY–TUESDAYS: 11:30 AM–9:00 PM
WEDNESDAY: 11:30 AM–10:00 PM
THURSDAY: 11:30 AM–10:00 PM
FRIDAY–SATURDAY: 11:30 AM–12:00 AM