TAVERNA Athena is now — as far as I know — the only dedicated Greek restaurant left in this country, but they serve a few dishes not specifically from the Hellenic peninsula or the Greek speaking side of Cyprus.
If there was ever any doubt of me feeling guilty about ordering a not particularly Greek, but very creamy, fungi-filled mushroom soup, followed by a homely chicken pie, chips and salads at lunch on Monday, it was dispelled when I greeted my old friend and ex-colleague, Costa Pafitis, entertaining at the next table.
He was about to tuck into the biggest, choicest rack of pork spare ribs I’ve ever. Ribs are a signature dish at Taverna Athena, going back to the days when the Kensington shopping centre-based outlet was the original branch of Mateo’s.
Costa and I were with the old Ministry of Information, Immigration and Tourism for many years. He had a much cushier berth than I, being “our man in the Mediterranean” during UDI. While I swanned around such exotic fleshpots as Chipinge (then Chipinga), Chiredzi, Chirundu and Chitungwiza in supposedly “mine-proofed” vehicles during the Bush War, he sent signals date-lined Athens, Rome, Zurich, Marseilles, Paris, Lisbon and Madrid.
Recalled on promotion to Head Office — and a born diplomat and multi-linguist — he was in rapid succession official spokesman for post-Independence bigwigs, including the then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, whom he accompanied on various state visits, including having an audience with the Pope.
Costa, who had been the Sandhurst Sword of Honour Cadet in 1965, then left government service to work with his old PE school contemporary, controversial entrepreneur John Bredenkamp. Was that going up or down in the world?
Taverna Athena doesn’t change much. Food is well cooked, nicely presented on professionally piping hot plates. It’s not the cheapest family meal around, but with outstandingly generous portions represents sound value for money.
The soup was one of a choice of three, including butternut and cream of tomato, all home-made and served in deep bowls, steaming hot, with a few croutons in the broth and a basket of good continental-style bread and butter or margarine. More-ish chingwa was still slightly warm: golden crust dashed with sesame seeds and a soft, white crumb. This starter course, which would be sufficient lunch for many, costs US$5.
I’m the first to admit a fiver is a bit steep for soup, when it can be bought in other restaurants between (rarely) US$1 and more frequently US$2-US$3, but I’d usually rather have one bowl of Stavros Anagnostopoulos’ potage du jour than two or three helpings of someone else’s.
As I don’t think Stav cooks any more, the soup is probably made by local head chef Patrick Pepe, under the stern eye of kitchen supervisor Costa Douglas (oddly, a Greek name pronounced nothing like the Scottish version!) Stav’s uncle, still grafting at 81.
Chicken pie wasn’t the greatest example of the pastry-makers’ art I’ve sampled, mainly because “someone” had slightly scrimped with the filling. Costa did later admit the pies (choice of three or four types) are bought-in; the kitchen merely cooks them and adds a portion of splendidly deep-fried, crisp, golden chips and comprehensive salad in a pleasantly piquant dressing.
That dish was also five bucks. Greek starters are between US$4 and US$6; salads: Greek, French, blue cheese or onion and tomato US$5-US$7, for gigantic helpings.
For real fans of Greek food, appetisers include kefthetes, souvlakia, melizanosalata, loukaniko, deep-fried haloumi, tarama, dzadziki, houmos and lunza. Other starters were mussels, chicken giblets, deep-fried mushrooms and chicken livers. My daughter, Adele, and her figure-conscious friends often used to prefer to order two different starters and skip conventional mains, when the eatery was behind the Holiday Inn.
Western-style mains include grilled chicken, plain or piri-piri, chicken cordon bleu and huku devilled, in a schnitzel, Kiev-style or garlic chicken.
The ribs that Costa devoured with relish were US$17 with chips, jacket potato or rice and seasonal vegetables; lamb cutlets with mint sauce are US$15, a daily special of oxtail US$16, steak Diane or monkey gland steak US$14, fillet, herbed fillet, Vienna schnitzel or veal lemonato US$12.
I must have been disturbed because I didn’t note the prices of Greek mains. However, all were in the low to mid-teens and included moussaka, soudzoukakia, pastitsio, yemista, dolmathes, kebabs, tava and mixed Greek meze (a platter selection from the starters).
I often moan about a lack of choice and colour in their fruit salad but, having delved below the generous scoop of strawberry flavoured ice-cream, there was much banana, apple, orange, melon and pineapple at US$6: the dearest pudding on a short list which includes that Levantine dessert which sounds like something you wear on your head on a cold night: or when robbing banks!
Adrian and Leslie Orford, chef/patrons at Alo, Alo, say they will be closed for annual leave from next Monday (July 26) until re-opening for lunch service Thursday August 12. I was due to eat there on Wednesday; a review will be here or in one of our sister papers next weekend.