I LEFT England in 1960, so I missed the sudden surge of Greek restaurants in London in the mid-60s, an event spurred on by the success of Zorba the Greek and, especially, the film's score by Mikis Theodorakis. Greek food didn't come into my life until 1972 - and even then only in a virtual kind of way, as we say nowadays: in a French crime movie, set against a glitzy Greek backdrop, that starred Omar Sharif and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film was called The Burglars and Sharif was the wily but crooked Greek policeman who was trying to trap burglar Belmondo and his associates who had stolen a fabulous collection of jewels from a millionaire's villa. There is a marvellous scene when Sharif invites Belmondo to dinner at a typical Greek taberna. Sharif orders a round of mezethaki, the appetisers for which Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine is famous, and what follows is as slick as a prize-winning TV commercial. We see mussels being expertly opened, the raw flesh extracted, dipped into batter and deep-fried. An oven is opened, a dish of moussaka is pulled out, a wedge is cut and put on to a plate. The tightly edited scene continues at high speed until seven or eight mezethaki are arranged on plates and put before Sharif and Belmondo. When we eat mezethaki we are dipping into a wide variety of small plates of food, as we do with tapas in Spain, and it is my ideal way of eating. So with that mouth-watering scene I fell in love with Greek food. But there were no Greek restaurants in Majorca, so I had to get some cookbooks from England and do my own Greek food at home. Greek restaurants were a tremendous success in England, but no one thought of opening one in Majorca until the early 90s. The island's first Greek restaurant was in Playa de Palma but the owners made it a classy up-market place (and therefore expensive) and it never took off and soon closed. There were no more Greek restaurants on the island until last year when one opened in the Festival Park complex at Marratxi. Then Elefterios Gakis opened La Taberna del Griego in Calle Murillo four months ago and Palma got its first Greek restaurant. Elefterios was born near Salonika but his family later moved to Athens where an uncle had four restaurants. At the age of eight, Elefterios was so interested in what was going on in the restaurant kitchen that he asked his uncle if he could help out. His uncle said a restaurant kitchen was no place for an eight-year-old boy, but he did allow him to observe the cooks at work from the safety of a kitchen window. Three years later Elefterios was still enamoured of the cook's life, and his uncle relented and let help out in small ways. In his teens Elefterios knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life cooking, so he went to Toulouse in France where Aristotle Onassis had a school that trained cooks for jobs in his chain of hotels and cruise liners.
ELEFTERIOS worked in the Onassis hotels and cruise liners for several years before going to New York City where there were dozens of Greek restaurants. After a spell in New York he took off for the other side of the world and spent a couple of years cooking in Australian restaurants. Then he decided to go to Argentina where he was able to open his first Greek restaurant. He made a big success of it, became famous in Buenos Aires, and even had his own cooking programme on television. But the Argentinian economy recently went downhill at a fast rate and Elefterios, like many others who lived there, decided to seek a new life elsewhere. He had been to Majorca on holiday and liked the island very much. So when he decided that he was coming back to Europe, Majorca was the obvious choice. He came here with his wife and daughter Anzula, spent about a year looking around the island for restaurant premises and finally settled for a place in Calle Murillo, on the corner of Avda Argentina, just up from the Avda Jaime III. La Taberna del Griego has a small dining room at street level which is made to look a good deal bigger with the clever use of a mirrored wall. There's a bigger dining room downstairs for those nights when they are really busy. The menu has an extensive list of Greek dishes, all of them with their original names plus a description in other languages. One of the dishes, stuffed chicken drumsticks, is called Anzula, named after the owner's daughter. Anzula serves at the tables and also does an exhibition of Greek dancing with her father on Friday and Saturday nights during which they break plates in the traditional Greek style. I VISITED the restaurant mid-week and we shared everything, starting with the meze (4 euros) which consisted of tiny amounts of nine dishes. There were two juicy and extremely tasty meatballs, one deliciously moist stuffed vine leaf, and spoonfuls of taramosalata, humus, tsatsiki, skorthalia, a broad bean purée, feta cheese and Greek black olives. This is a nice little introduction to the Greek meze: colours were bright, textures right, but I found everything a little on the bland side. I have always found Greek food full of well-defined rustic flavours and they were missing here. The skorthalia, a pungent garlic-flavoured spread, was particularly light and the humus (which isn't a traditional Greek dish although Greek restaurants all over the world serve it) also lacked flavour. I can only suppose that Elefterios is catering for non-Greek tastes by cutting down on the seasoning. But I think Spaniards, who will be his main customers, are able to cope with genuine Greek flavours. The Greeks make very good savoury pies with phyllo pastry, one of which is spanakopita (4 euros) with its filling of spinach and beaten eggs. I am always hesitant about ordering any kind of pastry in restaurants unless they are made to order in individual portions. Very few pastries can stand up to even a short reheating time, and phyllo pastry is especially unsuitable. So whereas the egg and spinach filling was moist and tasty, the pastry was dry and tough instead of crisp and brittle. But this spanakopita, eaten as soon as it came out of the oven, would have been a winner.
OKTAPODI krasato (7 euros) was a magnificent rustic dish of tender pieces of octopus done in a tomato-based sauce with vegetables such as celery. It was nicely flavoured with thyme and rosemary and I kept finding tiny bits if roughly crushed black peppercorns which caused delightful explosions of spicy taste when crushed between the teeth. This was traditional Greek cooking at its very best. Greek cooks make excellent lamb dishes so lamb should be an obligatory dish when we go to Greek restaurants. There are several to choose from and we picked a winner. It is called gurumaki fricase (8 euros) and was a kind of lamb casserole - but a superior one and with plenty of chunky pieces of meat. The lamb was butter-soft tender but still had a nice consistency and it was extremely tasty. There was also a myriad of flavours floating around in the background. I thought I could taste a mere hint of fenugreek and there were nuances of rosemary and thyme, two of the most popular herbs in Greek cookery. On Friday and Saturday nights, after everyone has been served dessert, Anzula changes into traditional dress and she and her father give a boisterous exhibition of Greek dances. At one point Elefterios comes in with a pile of plates and adds to the excitement of the dancing by breaking them into tiny pieces in the traditional Greek manner. Anzula also does a bit of plate breaking. Elefterios imports the plates from Greece by the thousands. They are specially made for this breaking ceremony and are about the size of English tea plates. They seem to be made of a very thin unglazed white clay and they break up very easily, although I'm sure there must be a knack to doing it.
PALMA finally has its own Greek restaurant and I intend to make the most of it. There are genuine Greek dishes here and I will be working my way down the menu. This restaurant is worth a visit just to meet Anzula, who bubbles, sparkles and effervesces like a glass of the best vintage champagne.
LA Taberna del Griego, Calle Murillo 1 (on the corner of Avda Argentina), Palma. Tel: 971-285319. Open every day for lunch and dinner. They have a menu del día but by sharing the mezethaki and the more economical dishes, you can eat à la carte at menú del día prices. On Friday and Saturday nights Elefterios and Anzula put on an exhibition of Greek dancing at around 11.30pm with the traditional breaking of plates. Customers can later join Elefterios and Anzula in communal Greek dances.
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