Saturday, February 11, 2017

Five Ages of Halloumi

Kitchen & Bar
After spending a few days last year binge watching Chef's Table on Netflix, I thought it'd be a great idea to open a high-end restaurant on The Rock that would allow me to channel my inner Bottura and wow affluent Russians with my inventive use of Cypriot ingredients. Five ages of halloumi anyone? That fantasy, however, ended up being rather ephemeral; I eventually woke up from my delusional slumber and recalled the shallow depths of both my wallet and culinary technique. Plus, I'm still not sure Cyprus is ready for thirty miniature courses chockfull of microgreens, fermented roots, trahana broth, spherified brandy sours, sous vide afelia and deconstructed pastitsio. Yeah, that last one sounds gross.

What has been great during the past few years is the upsurge in the number of taverns that have made it a point to serve creative Cypriot cuisine. Working within The Rock's preferred meze model, chefs at various eateries (Peiragmena in Lympia, for instance) have begun experimenting with local and seasonal ingredients, slapping bright tattoos, patches of facial hair and a black leather jacket on tradition.

Ribs & Commandaria
Last weekend, we headed to To Patrikon, a newish establishment in Tersefanou (near Larnaca airport) that markets itself as a modern and creative Cypriot tavern. Housed in an old house on the village's main road, the tavern is  sparsely decorated, sits about forty patrons and opens only on weekends. As soon as we sat, the manager/owner stopped by to make sure we understood this wasn't your typical Cypriot village tavern and let us know that everything was homemade except for the pastourmas. We nodded and food then arrived in waves with each dish being carefully described by our waiter.

Overall, the food was excellent and the level of inventiveness quite high. There was a fava bean puree topped with black olive powder, spring onions and a red pepper sauce, which was creamy and balanced. Fresh, warm halloumi—not grilled for once—was topped with a fig puree and fresh mint if I recall correctly. A wild mallow shakshouka with red peppercorns and runny egg yolks was a welcome and utterly comforting variation on the usual (and monotonous) scrambled eggs dish served at most taverns. Besides the standard Greek salad, our waiter also brought us a refreshing salad with wild bladder campion, broad beans, mustard greens and black sesame seeds. Finally, for dessert, a touch of playfulness with a deconstructed pumpkin turnover (kolokoti) served as a bed of sweet bulgur wheat with raisins topped by a fluffy, not-too-cloying pumpkin mousse and crumbled vanilla cookies.

Cauliflower & Tahini
As for the meats, there were thin slivers of wine-soaked bacon; spareribs slow cooked in Commandaria wine, which fell off the bone and were deliciously sweet; citrus marinated chicken legs and thighs grilled over charcoal like the good ol' souvla we all love and adore matched with roasted potatoes, taro root and beets, and; beef livers topped with wild greens. Thanks to The Wife Ph.D's penchant for vegetarianism, I was perfectly satisfied by the butcher's selection, but I can envision a traditional Cypriot caveman asking mommy to grill him a pork chop upon his return.

Deconstructed Kolokoti
However, three dishes shone above all others. The roasted cauliflower with chopped onions and tossed in a tahini and parsley dressing worked wonderfully well, with the usually bland vegetable a deserving conduit for the savoury, thick and nutty dressing. The trahana fritters elevated the fermented grain-and-dairy mix that's typically eaten as a soup and remains to this day an acquired taste. To Patrikon's interpretation of this Cypriot delicacy was crunchy on the outside, gooey in the inside and ate like a tangier Italian arancini. Finally, the bread was—hands down—the best I have ever had on the island. Piping hot, it had a hard crust covered in sesame and poppy seeds but a soft and cloud-like interior, almost melted-cheese-like in texture. Honestly, management should hire one of those roadside girls that dazzle men with iced coffee, have her sell them buns by the dozen and laugh all the way to the bank.

Chicken & Roots
If I had one complaint, albeit minor, it's that the wines on offer were overpriced with selections from both Vlassides and Argyrides running a good 5 to 10 Euros above standard restaurant prices. I do believe it's best industry practice for restaurants to charge two-and-a-half times the retail price and in this instance it was significantly more. Besides that surcharge, the wine menu was varied enough with a good selection of red and whites from Cypriot producers including Tsiakkas, Ktima Christoudia, Vouni Panagia, Vlassides and Argyrides, among others.

On the way out, I stopped to read a sign handwritten in chalk by the kitchen. It said in Cypriot: "Once you try this meze at To Patrikon, you'll remember it for the rest of your life." In this day and age, as Donald tries to tells us that McDonald's trumps Noma or Central or D.O.M. or Alinea, diversity, inventiveness and spontaneity become, to paraphrase James C. Scott, everyday forms of resistance. Yes, the meal was memorable but, better yet, that spirit to battle stagnation and the status quo shone through their food.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas.

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