Greek favorites executed with panache
There is a huge swathe of land, stretching from the central Mediterranean all the way up to the Afghan border, whose inhabitants, if one goes by restaurant menus, eat minor variations of the same staples: roast meat, often lamb; hummus; roasted meat on skewers; meatballs; and spit-roasted meat, which the West knows as kebab.
This is probably as unfair an assessment of a region that spans vastly different cultures and terrain, as imagining that Panda Express or P.F. Chang in some way represents the variety and diversity of Chinese cuisine. But without an entry point, it seems that the outside world has to hover on a simplistic caricature at best.
Only Turkish cuisine is less of a cipher, partly because there is a large Turkish and Cypriot presence in London, and Istanbul has many restaurants that pay homage to its Ottoman legacy. But the rest of the region remains a mystery, represented in our imagination only by vast quantities of hummus.
The food at Greek Kouzina may or may not be authentically Greek, but most of the usual suspects from that repertoire are here: large chunks of meat roasted in a manner not far removed from that described in the Homeric texts; souvlaki (meat on skewers); and gyros (meat that was gyrated, or turned, while roasting before being sliced and wrapped in pita bread), which we know as shawarma.
But there is a surprisingly comprehensive selection of meze: melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), hummus, tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber), as well as numerous salads and sides, and then baklava pastries standing in for dessert.
This conforms to my foggy memory of eating in Greece (and in Northern Cyprus): a substantial but simple main course, great variety in the meze and the sides, which would then be
washed down with ouzo, a not-unpleasant Greek anise-flavored spirit, or retsina, one of the vilest liquids known to man.
The lack of complexity in contemporary Greek food is made up for by ambiance, which Greece has in spades: the picturesque rubble of the various ruins that make excavation of any sort impossible in Athens, or those whitewashed island towns drowned in Mediterranean light.
Kouzina is on the second floor of SM Aura, across the great classical vista that consists of Uniqlo and Forever 21, which, to my knowledge, has spawned fewer Grecian odes than, say, the landscapes of Thessalonia or Kalymnos. This isn’t a fault of the restaurant so much as a limitation of the cuisine, which, like many Mediterranean cuisines such as Tuscan or Provençal, is so tied to spirit of place: the scent of the oil, the sweetness of engorged tomatoes, the taut flesh of fresh fish.
But the food is at least bountiful and well-seasoned, and the lamb thankfully not afflicted by the stringy fattiness that plagues most lamb dishes served locally. The eggplant dip is excellent, smoky and smooth and aromatic. The calamari is nicely fried and (I don’t often say this) somewhat too abundant for an appetizer.
The meat on the skewers is a little powdery on the outside, which hints at being marinated a bit too long in an acidic tenderizer, probably yogurt. Incidentally, the tzatziki, which is very pleasant as an appetizer, surfaces several more times during the meal in various incarnations as an all-purpose sauce for meat, squid, etc.
At times, it seems that the flavors are a little overdone, rather than the clean, distinct flavors of Greek cuisine at its source, redolent of fruity, fragrant olive oil. I’m also a little puzzled by the bread, which is a bit more leavened than a pita should be (and didn’t have a pocket), but not quite thick enough to resemble one of the springy, oven-baked flatbreads from the Levant. But these are minor quibbles.
We admittedly order conservatively and stick to favorites we are well-versed in, which they execute with enough panache for us to want to go back to try some of the dishes we are less familiar with.
I can’t vouch for authenticity, but the food is generous both in spirit and in sheer volume, and it is miles ahead of other Greek and Mediterranean restaurants serving similar fare.
Greek Kouzina is at 2/F, SM Aura, Taguig; tel. 9643354