In the space of three months a couple of Greek restaurants have opened in the City Bowl. Last time I reviewed the relocated Marika’s (now on the border of Oranjezicht and Vredehoek). Today it’s nearby Maria’s, which has re-opened after being closed for two years. Maria’s flows out onto Dunkley Square, with tables outside under shady trees. Yes it looks out onto a parking lot a la Joburg but the greenery and heritage buildings are a far cry from a strip mall restaurant in that city.
+27 (0)21 461 3333
Inside the little downstairs dining room it is all understated beige and brown tones from floor to ceiling, creating a cosy atmosphere. Not as in a dark pub with wooden beams but brighter with large windows. Wooden chairs with curves in all the right places create a comfortable setting that encourages warm-hearted conversation.
While I wait for my companions I nibble on mucver, or deep-fried baby marrow balls. They’re a delight, the preparation bringing out the delicate flavour of this squash. The tzatziki (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic puree dip) so often screwed up is very good. The mucver are also a hit with the first of my friends to arrive. Often our marrows are rather watery and nothing like the quality ones of Southern France. These remind me of those I ate in farmhouse in the Charente (near Cognac), which I had served unadorned. They needed neither oil nor seasoning.
The vines wrapped around the rice-filled dolmades are among the liveliest I’ve eaten made from grape leaves preserved in brine, the sourness pared down in a way that other cooks struggle to achieve.
For mains the lamb with an ouzo, artichoke and tomato sauce softened with cream is certainly tastier than Marika’s. There it is differently prepared and comforting but rather bland. Here it is more like our traditional roast lamb in the sense that it has both tender and tougher parts of the joint, unlike the melt-in-your mouth dish up the road. According to the staff this ouzo version is also traditional.
While my family have no traditional Easter Friday dishes, apart from the ubiquitous bunnies, I am unlikely to eat the pickled fish so beloved by coloureds in the Cape or the fish of Catholics anywhere. Lamb, with its symbolism of sacrifice, is customary for Easter Sunday lunch, though I could devour it any day of this long weekend. Though I’m not religious, I would like to think I could slaughter a lamb any time of year to get in touch with the reality that an animal has lost its life so might I feast. Unfortunately I’m a hypocrite like most of us and usually buy a shrink-wrapped abattoir sheep, an act divorced from the reality of slaughter. At best my lamb has grazed on Karoo bushes and not been injected with growth hormones.
The rise of seasonal produce in the UK has seen a niche market of customers demanding spring lamb over Easter but as Nicholas Lander has written in the Financial Times Weekend, spring lamb (under a year old) is not that tasty. Boutique butchers and restaurants stock it to satisfy demand but would rather push the older hogget, or teenager.
Back at Maria’s there are also keftedes (fried meat balls with oregano and maybe mint) on the starter menu, a brinjal salad and tiropita (phyllo pastry filled with feta cheese) and other standard meze. For vegetarians the moussaka main with roast peppers and butternut is good.
Stemware – there isn’t any – you drink wine out of little glasses as you might in Greece.
I am only sorry they close for lunch on Sunday as it’s lovely under the trees. Will go on one of the last warm days of the season for Saturday lunch. While it is close to parliament, it may be beneath the station of the well paid MP’s who prefer Bukhara. Dining here at Maria’s is a lovely experience. It’s the politicians’ loss.
3/5 stars. Better than Marika’s on the evening and close to four stars.
Posted April 22, 2011