Marika's Restaurant Gardens (Cape Town)
176 Upper Buitenkant Street
Gardens, Cape Town
There is an oft repeated story in Europe that if you want to eat good Greek food – go to Lebanon. Many consider Lebanese cuisine to be among the world’s best along with French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Peruvian. The jibe at Greece is probably a bit unfair but reportedly the dedication of Beiruit’s residents and cooks to fine food is second to none (it certainly is a fair assessment of most Greek restaurants in South Africa).
The cuisines of the East Mediterranean and Middle East have much in common, sharing hummus, brinjal, whether as a dip or stuffed, tzatziki (yoghurt with garlic and cucumber) and lamb cooked on a spit (gyros in Greece or doner kebab in Turkey). For that we probably have the Ottoman Empire to thank.
Marika’s has a reputation for being the exception to the rule. To start here it’s grilled sardines and then dolmades from the mezze menu. The two cute sardines, which are locally often of poor quality, are just the right side of fishy, with raw onion rings and lemon to further cleanse the palate of the sea.
The dolmades, which means stuffed, come with the option of the traditional vine leaf wrapping or cabbage. The waiter says he prefers the cabbage version, presumably because the leaf is fresh while the grape is preserved in brine. I think I’ve only enjoyed dolmades once before as the bitter-sour taste of the preserved vine overpowers the rice. Young tender vines leaves should be used. Are the Cape Winelands vine varieties not good enough to use?
A more adventurous filling from the Eastern Med is seafood, such as mussels and calamari. Another traditional stuffing is chestnut, which is in season in the Cape now now. Would love it if our local cooks could play around and offer us try these variations.
At Marika’s the filling is minced beef with just a smattering of rice. Honest enough but rather dull. Our table of five all agree the garides phyllo prawns (wrapped in paper-thin pastry), with chilli mayo dip, are the best starter on offer.
We also sample calamari (both fried and grilled) and the tentacle ends pickled but none blow us away.
Early on in the evening the crowd is made up of those that have come for an after work drink followed by an early supper. Locals in the house include the estate agents up the road and one of the owners of the Piccolo café in the Gardens Centre. The other tables are taken up by cheerful and presumably regular customers of the restaurant, until recently perched above the sea in Bakoven next to Camps Bay.
As the airy white interior, dominated by glass doors at the entrance, fills up the frequent side-effect of minimalism strikes – a din of high pitched sound bouncing off glass and concrete. As in many restaurants there are no textured materials such as wood or fabric on floor, wall or ceiling to soften the blow. Admittedly this drives up costs. The ‘ladies’ bar’ at the Castle Hotel has a simple solution. Cheap hessian sacking material hangs from the ceiling though in this Oregan-floored old pub the sacking may be more of a ‘design feature’ than for an acoustic reason.
For mains Greek cuisine may be best know for its lamb dishes, though traditionally this was probably often a goat’s kid. With this in mind I order lamb baked with, thyme and lemon. Two thick medallions of what are probably slow-cooked hind leg (or fore leg) are placed in front of me. The meat is falling off the bone and thankfully the fatty bits, essential for flavour, are retained. (You don’t have to eat them.) But the taste is a little bland. After all this is a comfort food dish most of us could cook at home, which is not to say it isn’t authentic. (We may struggle to get it this tender.)
On the other hand the potato wedges are the best I have ever eaten: crisp and brown on the outside with the narrow translucent ends providing a crunch of solidified oil and spud.
Mezze we don’t try are skordalia (potato and garlic dip); kolokithakia taganita (crisp fried baby marrow); and the fried salty cheese, haloumi. Taramosalata (fish roe dip) we don’t sample either. I love fish roe and milt (sperm) of freshly caught trout on the braai but have rarely enjoyed taramosalata. Next time I will try it here to see if they can convert me.
Mains include moussaka, the mince brinjal and white sauce bake (with a vegetarian option too), and psari sto fourno (baked fish with lemon).
Wine list (no doubt purposefully) limited. Serious winos might consider taking a bottle from home.
Dinner: Tuesday - Sunday 18:00 - 22:00
Lunch: Saturday and Sunday 12:00 - 15:00