Update: As of 2012, Santorini has changed its name to Kalamata. Under the same management. See below for updated review.
If you're looking for the taste of summer on a plate, Santorini's your restaurant. Step off Cowley Road into its pillared confines and you might as well be on holiday. Although moussaka and meaty main dishes keep Greek food on the British radar during winter, its emphasis on ingredients such as feta cheese, peppers, rice, spinach and tomato mean that it really comes into its own during the excuse for an English summer that is June, July and August.
Shared food also seems much more tempting in the summer somehow, no doubt reminding me of sociable evenings in Seville, ordering plate after plate of tapas washed down with tinto de verano. On a warm evening in Santorini, the four of us decided to bypass the (excellent-sounding) mains and ordered 8 mezze, dipping into both the hot and cold sections of the menu. Assuming there was something missing from the listings, we requsted a certain chickpea-based dip from the waiter. 'We don't do houmous. We're Greek,' he announced, to our great puzzlement. In case you're interested, internet research informs me that houmous is actually Middle Eastern in origin, but no matter where it's from, it still goes down a treat as a pre-dinner nibble.
We stopped the minor houmous-related sulk as soon as the mezze arrived, though. Eight substantial portions and a basket of oil and oregano-dressed bread filled the table and had us diving for our cutlery ready to dig in.
The rice-filled vine leaves were perfectly divisible between our party of 4 and came on a bed of salad, topped with a healthy dollop of tzatziki, a refreshingly light yet creamy yoghurt, cucumber and mint dip. The sizeable helpings continued with the gigantes plaki, baked butter beans in a rich tomato, onion and parsley sauce with a touch of chilli, infusing the beans with flavour. Also full of flavour was the spanakotiropita (spinach and feta pie), its pastry thankfully avoiding the sogginess sometimes resulting from the cheese and spinach combination.
Cheese dishes are an excellent choice at Santorini, as the kefalotiri saganaki proved. Deep-fried halloumi-style cheese may not be the most artery-friendly option on the menu, but it was definitely delicious, oozing oil but maintaining that signature chewy taste. Cheese also popped up in the garides saganaki, a tasty confection of prawns and feta baked in a tomato, white wine, garlic and parsley sauce - and once again, the cheese made the dish, adding a perfect contrast to the prawns. The theme continued with gemista piperies, tiny red peppers stuffed with feta and chilli and providing a deceptively miniature morsels. We managed to control the cheese craving for our final options, the roasted aubergine and tomato delight that was melitzanes imam balidi, a garlicky, herby dish slow-cooked to perfection, and patates yahni, oven-roasted potatoes served in a tomato sauce with onion, garlic and olive oil.
Full of fresh tastes, this delicious spread may have filled us up, but I'm hungry for more of what Santorini has to offer. With meze ranging from £3 to £4.75 (and our meal for 4 with 2 glasses of wine and a 10% service charge adding up to just £47), Santorini's just as good value as a holiday restaurant, with friendly service and a homely atmosphere thrown in for good measure. What more could you want?
Santorini is at 126 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JE. Tel: 01865 241260.
Update: I visited Kalamata in August 2012 and although the staff haven't changed, the menu has one important difference. Kalamata serves houmous. Interesting that a change of heart accompanies a change of name. I have to say I was far less impressed on my most recent visit: everything appeared too quickly and had a distinct feel of microwave. It's a shame as the food is still incredibly tasty, but inadequately reheated dishes aren't really good enough. We were also presented with bread we hadn't ordered and then charged for it. The waiter did remove the charge when we asked, but it added another sour note and meant that the 10% service charge really wasn't warranted. I'd be interested to know what experiences others have had there recently.