Within footsteps of the beach sits an al fresco taverna, yet I feel like I am walking into someone’s home, albeit a rather grand one. Forget clichéd blue-and-white chequered tablecloths; instead, a row of miniature olive trees graces one wall, while another sports reclaimed shutters in natural hues. In fact, most of the furniture is reclaimed wood.
A large communal table is the centrepiece flanked by an open-plan kitchen, where tempting aromas waft from the charcoal grilled kebabs. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re in Greece, but no – we’re in Dubai at Eat Greek, a new casual restaurant in The Beach development in Jumeirah Beach Residence Walk.
This welcome addition to our rather embarrassingly small selection of Greek restaurants goes some way in mapping this delightful yet under-represented cuisine in the UAE. Dubai also has long-standing favourite, Elia in the Majestic Hotel Tower Dubai, but otherwise there’s only a Greek restaurant-cum-nightclub, plus a couple of fast-food joints in the country.
I may be slightly biased – I am half Greek-Cypriot, born and pretty much schooled in Cyprus – but why do we not even have a handful of Greek restaurants here, unlike its Mediterranean cousins, Italy, Spain and France?
Even the South-African born Greek-Cypriot Johnny Tomazos, the 29-year-old chief executive of FoodFund International who owns Eat Greek (as well as The Meat Company, Tribes and Bentley) is at a loss.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” he says. “My father [the company’s chairman] has been talking about this concept for the past six years and we were waiting for the right time and right location. It is close to our heart, we visit Greece all the time. We understand the cuisine.”
“We like to go against the tide,” Tomazos adds. “There’s a trend towards imported franchises here and a lack of a Greek-branded restaurant product that goes against the stereotype of blue tables with pictures of Santorini. Most people thought we were crazy to develop a Greek concept. That intrigued us because we knew it would be different and unusual. Our landlord, Meraas, was very keen as no one was doing it.”
The visual appeal of the restaurant and the open-plan kitchen with full view of the charcoal grill rotisserie for traditional kontosouvli, a chunkier spit-roast version of kebab, was integral to ensuring diners who may not have tasted Greek food beforehand, can see and understand it better. In fact, unusually at Eat Greek, flavour aside, dishes have been designed with playful presentation in mind, to the extent of encouraging customers to take Instagram photos – a proud motivating moment for staff, too.
The best-seller is gyros, shaved lamb wrapped in a pitta cone, and families stroll in from the beach for a bite. The mixed grill is served on hanging skewers; souvlaki kebab with a shovel; and loukoumades, hot crispy, gooey doughnuts drizzled with honey, in a pail.
Flown from Greece
The concept was born on a family holiday in Corfu. Tomazos visited, arguably, the leading restaurant on the island: the Michelin-starred Etrusko, whose Greek chef Theodoris Rouvas now helms the kitchen at Eat Greek.
“The man serving us was the owner of the restaurant, Ektoras Botrini. We said to him: ‘Let’s bring your innovation and flavours to Dubai with affordable prices,’” recalls Tomazos. “He got very excited so we appointed him as a consultant. We brought his chef here and the female sous chef is also Greek. In fact, seven of our staff are Greek. They wanted to give Greek food a twist and make it more exciting.”
For instance, a baked feta mezze dish is a spin on saganaki – usually fried and made with graviera, a Cretan sheep’s milk cheese. Topped with slices of tomato, slivers of pepper and a generous dousing of olive oil, it’s a must-order dish and a runaway favourite. Thankfully, the feta is the real deal: imported from Greece, a testament to its EU Protected Designation of Origin status. There’s even a decadent feta cheesecake. Jumbo prawns are fried in kateifi filo – a shredded vermicelli pastry traditionally reserved for desserts – and served with a strawberry dressing and fruity ratatouille. A burger is inspired by Tomazos’s favourite dish from his grandmother: moussaka – a dish both Greeks and Cypriots claim as their own. Here it arrives as a beef patty layered with aubergine, caramelised onions and a béchamel cheese sauce (see recipe).
While there are plenty of similarities between Greek and Cypriot cuisine and ingredients, there are some differences – with the cooking style of the former more refined and less rustic. And unlike popular perception, vegetarian dishes feature heavily in Greek cuisine such as the Turkish-influenced aubergine bayildi main course.
“When I go to Athens, we go to a little taverna with a papou [a grandfatherly gentleman] that makes dishes of the day and this bayildi is one of them,” Tomazos says. “I have to eat it as soon as I arrive. Aubergine layered with onions, tomatoes and oregano. So we took our chef there and he now makes this dish even better, if that’s at all possible, because he added a little honey.”
On the other hand, traditional fare is not neglected, with dishes such as souzoukakia, spicy beef and lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce, roasted lamb shank kleftiko and locally caught baby octopus, simply grilled and sprinkled with paprika and a drizzle of lemon oil.
“The Greek community has been very supportive, making suggestions as they always like to do. It needs a little more rigani (oregano), said one. A friend took me aside at a party to tell me the horta (wild greens) should be served warm not cold. It’s close to their hearts,” says Tomazos.
“Eat Greek is a symbol for the Greek community. Once we have opened the second floor in a month and got this one right, we will expand further in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and London. But no Eat Greek will be the same – each one will have a different decor and a different menu. We actually want others to open Greek restaurants here to increase awareness of the cuisine.”