Food and Travel: Restaurant reviews: Taverna Athena and (a new) Sitar!

TAVERNA Athena is now Harare’s only authentic Hellenic restaurant; very authentic, in that like the dishes of Greece, itself and the Greek-run slice of Cyprus, helpings are on the embarrassing side of generous; often verging on outfacing.

I wondered aloud what “Meritacean Greco” was: an item, topping daily specials blackboard starter section at $6 and amiable proprietor Stavros Agnastapolis explained it was the name for Greek gypsy spits, but he couldn’t vouch for the spelling, transliterated into English.

 

Away from my newspaper desk, spelling usually doesn’t worry me and as I’d no idea how the hors d’oeuvre should be spelled in English or Greek, it was no train smash.

They were indeed, gypsy spits, a possibly off-putting name for usually cultivated button mushrooms, wrapped in lean bacon, drizzled with garlic butter, quickly nuked under a piping hot grill.

This was Tuesday night, I’d had a queasy stomach since the weekend and Meritacean Greco was probably not the most sensible return to eating normally after three days of chicken and pearl barley soup, dry bread or toast. Greek gypsy spits are even richer, juicier, more garlicky than those made by cooks of other nations.

The juice of half a large plump tart lemon to cut surplus grease, a little salad garnish and good unbuttered continental bread equalled a meal that really should have been enough.

But I’d already ordered mains of grilled (rather than pan- or deep-fried) hake and chips which, (I should have known) came served as two enormous fillets of the white flaky, meaty fish with a mountain of chips, cooked vegetables and more salads.

Tuesday is not the busiest night in Harare’s hospitality trade; indeed several outlets shut on Tuesdays. Stavros joined me for large slabs of the evening, chatting about the sector.

He had lost a former manager, Meikles-trained Ryan de Villiers, to Victoria 22 on one of my fairly recent visits; latest news was that Ryan had been head-hunted by a major outfit in Dubai and was on his last few nights at “22”.

Kelly Allison managed briefly: introducing the very popular credit crunch lunch special of highly Greek unauthentic pie, chips and salads at $5. She’s now at blue@2 Private Wine Bar.

“Stav’s” body language eloquently stated he was not impressed that after one triumphantly tasty hake fillet, I was down to picking unenthusiastically at what was left.  Feeling uncomfortably bloated after a few days’ starvation diet I soon surrendered.

After meeting, greeting and seating a few late comer walk-ins, and checking early diners had no complaints, we had a long talk about what was happening in the industry locally, nationally and regionally.
He chain-smoked like it was 1966 and I warily sipped cappuccino.

Almost at closing time I ordered a ”small” fruit salad, only to be served the same fairly enormous fruit salad everyone else gets.

Taverna Athena has authentic Greek island scenes in attractively primitive murals; there are Orthodox Greek icons and pleasantly under-stated Greek songs on a music system. They serve Greek specialist dishes such as mezze, moussaka and hugely popular delightfully tender lamb kleftiko.

They open lunch Monday to Friday; supper Monday to Saturday.

Taverna Athena, Kensington Shopping Centre. Tel   705617/8; 700415, 0912 295021

I first met young switched on locally born Asian chef Deena Magan when like Ryan de Villiers she was finishing training at Meikles Hotel.

Then again at Jaipur Restaurant, above Sunrise Sports Club, Belvedere South, when she was hostess at an impressive chef’s table.

She now cooks at recently moved Sitar Restaurant. After 30 years at Newlands Shopping Centre (which, since the extraordinary road diversion, looks more and more like a ghost town) Sitar has moved about 700 metres to the Patel family home in Cecil Rhodes Drive.

My main moan at the former Sitar was being surrounded by menacing street kids and adults pan-handling or offering to guard your car for $5. The unspoken threat was that if you didn’t “invest” $5 with one of these nuisances, damage would total much more than a fiver.

The day after the Taverna Athena supper, feeling much better, I drove into the Bollywood-style mansion alongside Atilio Vigoriti, the eminence gris of the local hospitality industry, another guest at the chef’s table. Soon afterwards fellow invitee, the sparkling Jackie Simpson, also swept down a long drive through manicured gardens overlooking an Eastlea vlei, which sadly looks like a land-fill thanks to anti-social fly-tippers.

We had drinks and snacks of pappadums and dips at a welcoming well-stocked cocktail bar and were joined by proprietor Kiran Patel. As I had to get back to demanding deadlines, we soon enjoyed starters of meat samoosa, pakoda (spicy potato and vegetable ball, deep-fried in a crispy batter) and chicken tikka (tender pieces of chicken breast, marinated in curd and spices and cooked in a tandoor.)

Entrees were sabzi ka pilao (vegetarian pilaf rice), with a selection of medium hot, medium spicy curries: prawn, mutton, makhani burg (butter chicken), and aloo sabzi (potato curry), all served with generous portions of naan (leavened bread cooked in the tandoor) and roti (thin un-leavened bread) accompanied by a variety of sambals, pickles and dips.

Kiran’s landlines and cellphone constantly buzzed with clients old and new asking how to find the new restaurant and several looked in for meals, including a former Cabinet minister and partner.

Jacky is the life and soul of any party and I was almost morose I had to gulp a selection of sweets (she doesn’t do puddings or coffee) and return to the office.

I certainly “do” puds and was spoiled for choice between kulfi (traditional Indian ice-cream), kela-roti (banana in a spicy cinnamon crust), jeelebi (hollow spiral shells soaked in saffron syrup) and gulab jamun (milk drops in a saffron syrup.)

Sitar has dropped the credit crunch lunch, but offers a wide range of discounts. They open lunch and supper each day except Tuesday.

l Sitar, 2, Cecil Rhodes Drive, Newlands. Tel 776857/ 2906169/ 011 616 562/ 0913 043 859

dustym@zimind.co.zw