Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Restaurant: Aphrodite Tavern
By Boeing: 2693 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.8 miles
There is no more popular place for Brits to escape grey skies and seasonal affective disorder than the sun and sea of the Greek islands. Within range of the budget carriers and promising a culture chaser to a tonic of sun-baked beaches it is destination of choice for many. And those that haven’t got the time or means to escape can get a taster of the experience at a Taverna. There are many in London, most traditional, family run restaurants that have kept progress and modernity at bay and offer a glimpse to the younger generation of what dining out was like for their parents, when such expense and frivolity would be the rarest of treats.
It is hard to believe when looking at the bland bechamel blobs that constitute, or even re-constitute, ready meal Moussaka’s that this now common dish was one of the most exotic of the sixties dinner party circuit. Then a Moussaka was a statement dish, a course to draw compliments and cul-de-sac cache. Now, thanks to the convenience age, it has turned from a weekend treat to a midweek TV dinner. Once given the silver service treatment it is now slipped unceremoniously from a Microwave to a plastic tray. Like its Italian cousin the Lasagna it has fallen from grace and favour, the culinary equivalent of a medieval beggar forced beyond the walls of civilised society to dwell in the hovels at the towns unfashionable extremities.
The diners in the wonderfully atmosphereic Aphrodite tavern were carving into Kleftiko, the signature slow braised leg of lamb, or the piquant tomato based stew Stifado. Why, they no doubt reasoned, would they spend £11 on a Moussaka when they had one the week before for a paltry £1.99. But I think that history, and Iceland, and that beady looking Birdseye, may have done a disservice to this classic dish. Afterall it has all the hallmarks and ingredients you would want from an appetising meal. So I threw caution to the wind, and ordered it.
The restaurant has a homely and inviting feel, a rare commodity in an age of stripped down, modernist restaurants. I took my table in a corner and took in the surroundings. Every nook and cranny was filled with artwork, statues and exotic objects. On the wall behind me were marble figures of Gods peering down reverently on the clutter of tables below. Small shelves were overgrown with plants, narrow sills festooned with cultural nic-nacs. Other than its small dimensions a certain cosyness was created by the undulating ceiling, that gave Aphrodite the impression it was hewn out of rock, or formed the vestibule an ancient temple.
As is the Greek way there were more plates hinged onto the wall than sat laden on the tables and as I sipped a glass of fiery Retsina I played a familiar game on this journey, guess what noise the odd instruments nailed to the wall make. This family run restaurant, with the portly, moustachioed chef-cum-owner and his wife the voluptuous waitress, is the antithesis of those modern chain restaurants that are aggressively colonising the city, that are devoid of character and run by young, business-schooled products of a graduate recruitment scheme.
It was busy with bravado and bonhomie as the convivial atmosphere made diners comfortable enough to laugh uproariously, relate coarse anecdotes from their working day or make emotive entreaties to their partners. This suspension of reality and the stuffy conventions of the formal dinner really did give it a holiday feel. You almost felt like you were in Greece, that if you walked out of the door you would walk down some steps onto a beach where Aegean waves would gently wash your feet.
The Moussaka was absolutely delicious. With a baked crust and the tenderest of succulent lamb centres it was unrecognisable from the ‘gourmet’ gruel that emerges after four and a half minutes in the microwave. I could see why such a dish would be met with gawps of appreciation at the suave sixties dinner parties of Chiswick and Carshalton Beeches.
The range of food on a Greek menu is extensive and this, along with the unique atmosphere of a Taverna, helps explain its popularity. For the carnivore there is grilled Souvlaki or slow roasted Kleftiko, that falls off the bone at the mere proximity of a knife. Then there are delicious dips made of yoghurt and chickpea or countless varieties of fish, squid and crustacea. The flavours are fresh, rich and distinctive. And the quantities make even a modest meal into a feast.
In Greece eating is an excess, indulged on a nightly basis. And nothing better illustrates this than a Greek coffee. Served without being filtered it is both drunk and chewed, as the grounds of beans are become wedged between the teeth. It is stronger than many spirits, like an untamed Espresso, with nothing tempering the almost acrid acidity of coffee. It warmed the back of my throat as a single malt Islay might have done.
Many are seduced by the Greek way of life. And after eating at Aphrodite I have some empathy with Shirley Valentine.