Friday, May 8, 2009
Meze! Meze! Meze! – Dining Out in Cyprus
Another venture well beyond Paris, this time to Nicosia, capital of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean within shooting distance of Beirut. Of course, I mean that in a photographic sense. I wish I had more to tell you about the restaurant experience, but everything happens so quickly, albeit over impressively long evenings (even by French standards), that I’m not sure I can do the experience much justice. You just had to be there.
Complicating matters is that the names of restaurants are written in Greek letters, so half of the time you don’t even know where you’re eating. And even if you did know, you probably would have forgotten anyway if, like me and Co. (Co. and I?), you chose to partake in a couple of 33cl bottles of ouzo beforehand at a café in the old city center. In fact, my favorite discovery in the old city was an outdoor café that took up two alleyways in addition to a couple decrepit interior rooms, including a second floor space with Internet wifi access. This was Mondo’s Café (9 Arch. Makarios Avenue), located just off the main pedestrian way, Ledra Street near the Green Strip, the UN-patrolled border crossing separating the southern part of the city from the Turkish-occupied northern part. As I was casually sitting at one of Mondo’s tables, leisurely sipping my ouzo and eating the accompanying olives, I pondered first why the US is so adamant about having Turkey join the EU, then my mind drifted to wonderment as to why every male at the café had long curly black hair and a beard, and, finally, I speculated as to where I could get my hands on the outstanding compilations of music wafting out from the café’s interior. As a cafe, I should add that most of Mondo's patrons were not getting blitzed from ouzo, arack, or some variation thereof, but were instead sipping large, savory, frothed iced coffees (frapes) through straws
. . . before moving on to ouzo, arack, or some variation thereof.
Adequately lubricated, the sun starting to set ever so slowly in the temperate late April evenings, it was time to move on to dinner. In each case, we opted for traditional Cypriot taverns and didn’t give second thought to the myriad alternatives, such as pizzerias, gyro dives, and the sporadic international dining spots. In each case, we were pretty satisfied. The main Cypriot dining experience is the meze option. If you’re not familiar with meze, think tapas translated into Greek. The typical meze dinner consists of numerous (up to 10-15) courses of small dishes comprised of a wide range of offerings, usually beginning with vegetable concoctions, moving on to grains and cheeses, and graduating to meats (e.g., grilled lamb and chicken). Dishes include melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), dolma (wine-stuffed wine leaves), haydari (a thick yogurt offering), pickled beets, vegetable and egg mixtures, taramosalata (cod roe or carp mixed with bread crumbs, lemon, and mashed potatoes). Trust me, these dishes tasted a lot better than they sound. Not surprisingly, you don’t order a meze dinner when dining out alone. The more the merrier, as we found during one evening when we were accompanied by several friends to the tavern Pais:Paradosiakes Yefsis, located just behind the Kleopatra Hotel. The problem is that for the uninitiated, it’s difficult to pace oneself – that pickled beets dish may be tasty, but if you eat too much of it, you won’t have much appetite for the dozen dishes that, unbeknownst to you, are to follow in extremely rapid succession.
Our typical initial reaction upon entering the traditional Cypriot taverns of Nicosia was ‘uh-oh.’ In fact, sometimes you have that reaction even before entering. This was the case one evening when we followed a few friends to the Agios Georgios Tavern around 8 p.m. One of our party mentioned how she had passed the place a few nights earlier and thought it looked pretty interesting. What we saw on our arrival was a large empty room with a couple of seedy looking characters apparently waiting to get to work. My initial reaction was ‘uh-oh.’ In fact, my full initial reaction was ‘uh-oh, I have a really bad feeling about this place’. Wrong again, although the dinner got off to a rather inauspicious start. Our waiter bore an uncanny resemblance to Chigurl, the psychotic killer of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent No Country for Old Men, as portrayed by Javier Bardem in the Joel and Ethan Cohen film adaptation. When we asked if there was red wine, he responded, ‘Wine.’ When we asked about the squid dish, his reply was ‘Squid.’ When he brought glasses to the table, the first to leave his hand dropped to the floor and shattered. I wondered if this was some sort of Cypriot symbol of welcoming. By the end of our dinner, the restaurant was packed to the gills, the atmosphere was casual and lively, some traditional Greek musicians had started up an improvisational jam session in the front of the room and played on long into the night, and we even caught Chigurl crack a smile.
Recommended Nicosia taverns:
Pais: Paradosiakes Yefsis
tel. 22665070 and 22665090
Agios Georgios (see photo top right)
tel. 22765971 and 99697835
Erodos (see photo bottom right)
Patriarchou Gregoriou 1
tel. +357 22752250
Note: Buy all the bottles of ouzo you want at the Larnaca Airport duty free shops for 10 euros or less. Or forget the ouzo, go back to France, and just drink the Frenchman's ersatz absinthe, pastis. Same concept. I picked up a bottle of 'Z' for zavinia at the duty free, an equally putrid grappa-like alcohol.