In Greece, they love eating out, leisurely whiling away the night quaffing vast quantities of resin-flavoured wine. They don’t actually seem to care about the food. Even in the most feeble establishments people are dining into the early hours. For a start, they smoke like industrial chimneys in even the smartest restaurants. Greece, where 40% of the population self-fumigate, was the last (this July) in Western Europe to introduce non-smoking sections. Small premises are still exempt. We might loathe the nanny state, but living all these years smoke free, it’s a shock when in some quaint tavern someone lights up next to you, ending your epicureal delight; your taste buds contaminated; the aromas from your dish absorbed in carcinogenic smog.
Anyone travelling around Greece soon learns there is no quality base line. You take your chances. Unlike Turkey, where if it isn’t delightful, a restaurant will not survive. Not so on the most popular resort islands of the Cyclades and in the tourist quarters of Athens. Yet I’ve had sublime cuisine while cruising the Ionian Islands, such as Lefkas and Kefalonia, or Meganisi, which is only accessible by yacht. In one quaint establishment in Ithaca the floor was at such a slant, it felt one was still on the boat.
Greek restaurants have cast themselves far and wide. I know of two in Tokyo, which has a total population of about 90 Greeks. South Africa has them in every major city and, for the nostalgic package tourist, in many seaside resorts – Hermanus, St Francis Bay, Knysna, Umhlanaga Rocks.
Greek gastronomy is straightforward: use the very tastiest, freshest, best ingredients, treat them with care and patience, and the results are stunning.
Start with the simple olive. You wouldn’t say the nasty little, mass produced, ferrous gluconate-dyed things we get served sprung from the spear of Pallas Athene when she struck the Acropolis. There are numerous delicious varieties of this strong flavoured, oval fruit – all quite absent from our plates. For olives, the Greek in Mowbray scored best in my survey of our Greek eateries. They were juicy, not soggy. Their lamb too is okay, and their yoghurt authentically thick. However, their Greek salad erroneously contains iceberg lettuce and only a little feta, crumbled.
The Greek salad which closest approximates the real thing is at the Greek Fisherman: a solid slab of firm feta on top, ripe black olives, cubed cucumber, rings of reddish onion, no lettuce. Only the tomatoes disappoint. Not one of our Greek restaurants has anything near the sun-ripened beauties of the Mediterranean. Their unleaven pita, which in many places is either doughy or hard as a Frisbee, was okay. The tzatziki has prominent garlic, and their hummus is the correct consistency. Their moussaka (R99) arrives plated and with very little béchamel sauce on top, which I prefer, but the aubergine had all but cooked away; the potato is mashed; they use beef not lamb mince (though this is not uncommon). They’re better at seafood. A small card of SQ prices for crayfish, oysters, langoustines, certain fishes, is very helpful. A few pasta dishes pacify the hoi polloi of the Waterfront. The interior is in the now ubiquitous generic, four-star, international hotel style. This is anything but a tavern. You wouldn’t throw a plate here.
For that you must go to the rather gormless Leesia’s restaurant. It has somewhat dropped off the radar since it opened in 1993, but this is where office parties and rowdy family gatherings still get to throw plates and shout, “Opa!” .
Music in our establishments is usually not Greek. The Fisherman played awful house mix versions of film themes, and eventually, perhaps hoping to get rid of us, moved onto some bouzouki as the dinner crowd emptied out. Why not some Maria Farnatouri? A little Theodorakis? I’d even settle for Melina Mercouri if I must.
I remember as a school kid 25 years ago going to Aris Souvlaki. The late, charismatic Ari played traditional Greek music and smashed plates. After every few tracks, the music, still on homemade cassette, would be interrupted by him announcing, “I am Ari. Aris Souvlaki. I am the greatest in the world!” The walls were studded with snapshots of patrons. You’ll find a picture of Telly Savalas (of Kojak fame) still on the wall. It’s a somewhat rundown establishment these days, but survives on its cheap prices and casual attitude. You pay at the till on your way out.
Another legendary Greek restaurateur is Theodoros Vouiatzis of Zorba’s from the 70s. He still does the rounds of the tables, but at his smart new premises in Milnerton. Unfortunately it faces away from the sea and they play generic elevator music, but the food is pretty fine. They slow cook a whole lamb and for R110 you get an assortment of chops and cuts, falling off the bone, full of flavour, the juice literally running out. Their mezze (R55) is most generous, with big dolmades, the fishiest tarama, skordalia (garlic, potato puree), hummus, crispy calamari tentacles, somewhat bland meat balls, and yesterday’s spanakopita. The feta is Danish. The baklava (R40) has the feel of a long wait in the fridge. The menu also has many Northern suburb favourites: steaks and spaghetti bolognaise.
But a restaurant is not only about food. If you include ambience and service, then the best of the Greeks is Marika’s, a family run affair in a converted house. Wonderful sardines (R30); airy spanakopita that is not oily; perfectly cooked, firm whole baby kingklip (R105). The lamb (R99) was a little dry and unexceptional; the olives and tomatoes indifferent. All this is redeemed by the friendly, unrushed atmosphere, and that they are one of the few places that serve Retsina (R165).
Aris Souvlaki, 83a Regent Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 439 6683.
Greek Fisherman, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront. Tel: 021 418 5411.
Greek, 78 Durban Rd, Mowbray. Tel: 021 689 9970.
Leesias, 24 Station Road, Rondebosch. Tel: 021 686 8254
Marika’s Restaurant, 38 Victoria Road, Bakoven. Tel: 021 438 2727.
Zorba’s Restaurant, Lagoon Beach Hotel, Milnerton. Tel: 021 528 2093.
This article appeared in the Mail&Guardian October 23: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-10-23-great-greek-grub