Fig ‘roka’ salad, ‘arni lemonato,’ ‘paidakia,’ baklava–one more Greek resto on the block
You must not fall into the tourist trap of Greek food, Greece’s restaurant critic Albert Arouh has advised. He calls moussaka, Greek salad and souvlaki “cliché” dishes for tourists. He also warns that hummus isn’t even Greek; ubiquitous tourist traps serve it as the quintessential Greek food only because Cypriots often run Greek restaurants abroad where they serve this Middle Eastern delicacy.
And yet when The Greek Gaydess, a Greco-American friend, visited Cyma three years ago, he loved the food, cliché though they may be.
“I can cook better,” he joked. “But it’s good!”
It’s the same sentiment expressed by many Cyma fans, who have followed its growth from a Boracay favorite to a recipient of Best Restaurant awards.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, then Robbie Goco, chef and creator of Cyma, must say thank you for the compliment that is Greeka Kouzina, a restaurant reminiscent of most things Cyma. Another friend whispered that Goco was upset that his menu was copied. But this is grapevine tittle-tattle and unconfirmed—either by Cyma or Kouzina.
Anyway, Goco need not be bothered because if indeed he was copied, it only proves he has blazed a trail. He may take inspiration from the Starbucks Siren, who remains the queen of quick espresso (and the Christmas planner) in spite of Figaro and Bo.
But Greeka Kouzina may keep the Cyma group on its toes now that it is on full operation. Clearly, it has been gaining an acceptable reputation through word of mouth, as the wait for a table may take as long as half an hour on a Sunday. And it doesn’t accept reservations on weekends.
At first glance, it is difficult to see why. The restaurant is out of the way, on P. Guevarra Street in San Juan, not even on J. Abad Santos (Little Baguio) where the quaint but popular restaurants are. And while the giant sign outside its doors helps, once you step in, you may be greeted by Greek chaos: a confused waiter, a guest screaming directions to the restaurant on the phone, hungry patrons sitting on the stairs waiting for a table, and a lady in shorts barking directions to the servers as to where to seat people.
Yet like a Mark Webb movie, chaos is juxtaposed against calm. There is utter disparity between those who are standing and those who are seated and have been served their food. It is as if the food on the table creates a bubble that confines seated guests to their space, suddenly oblivious to the rest of the restaurant.
That is, in fact, the magic of Greeka Kouzina’s food—enticing to the eye, alive in the mouth and effortless to digest, such that you are inclined to forget the chaotic world around you.
The fig roka salad, which astounds you with its size (good for four to six), becomes more impressive with its orchestra of flavors and textures: sweetness from chewy figs; saltiness from chalky Parmesan cheese; bitterness from crisp arugula and walnuts. As if all that wasn’t enough, sun-dried tomatoes are thrown in, too.
The watercress salad with blue cheese, though less snappy, is also laudable and proves with its pears that the restaurant does not scrimp on ingredients.
The hummus, origins notwithstanding, is an ode to the chickpea, not so giddily mashed as to become flavored Gerber the way other restaurants serve it. The lamb chop burger is juicy and well-executed.
The resto is proudest of its Arni Lemonato or roasted lamb, highly recommended by the servers, and rightly so. Roasted for five hours, it lives up to its menu-proclaimed description of meat that “falls off the bone.” It also maintains the gaminess lamb-lovers seek, while being gently refined by rosemary.
The lamb ribs, aka Paidakia, is also a delight. Be ready to nibble.
While the lamb appears to be the specialty, the beef is also very impressive. The beef souvlaki is even more tender than the Krasates (pork chops).
But other items are less stellar. As with the pork, the salmon is just okay. The Spanakorizo, Greece’s rice version of spinach risotto, is also just okay, especially on a Monday when it is less fresh than over the weekend. The stuffed zucchini and moussaka, like the gravy, bring back great memories—of your high-school cafeteria.
However, you will end on a high note with the baklava—that is, if you can appreciate the generous scoop of authentic yogurt atop it. (Be ready to explain to those not accustomed around you that the yogurt is not panis but sour, as it should be.)
Note also that this is not the drier baklava more predominantly seen in Mediterranean restaurants here. At Kouzina, it is thicker, more chewy and with softer filo. So the yogurt may be sour but it will be a sweet ending.
Be ready for slow service, mains delivered before the salad, and a frazzled waitress. But let it go. It’s a kitchen, as its name says, not a stage. It is Greek, not French. It is hot (literally, if you sit beside a window), not haute.
Plus, cliché as the menu may be to Grecian purists, the food served will succeed in making visitors appreciate the restaurant’s concept of Greek food. And in the end, that’s what matters.
Greeka Kouzina is at 285 P. Guevarra St., Little Baguio, San Juan; tel. 02-6245974. Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; and dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible for the ground floor. Limited parking.
Reservations accepted Mondays-Thursdays. First come, first served, Fridays-Sundays.
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