Restaurants: Food for gods

High-quality taverna food in SW3
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What does "O" stand for here? After lunch at this very modern Greek taverna, recently opened in the heart of the Brompton Cross boutique ghetto (across the street from Daphne's, down the block from Joseph's frock-filled windows), we were no wiser.

Is it "O" for Olympus - abode of the gods, who feasted on ambrosia? Surely not "O" for dismal, pollution-choked Omonia Square in Athens? Nor "O" for Oedipus - most Freudian of all classical Greek tragedies? Although our waitress was a pretty young Australian in a blue-and-white striped boatman's shirt, chances were, we agreed, the Cafe O probably was not an allusion to erotic fiction, as in The Story of... Considering the bowl of salty black kalamata fruit placed on our table soon after we arrived, it could, I suppose, just stand for olives.

Although this is one of London's more glamorous shopping precincts, the Cafe O occupies one of the area's least auspicious sites, cheek-by-jowl with a rather eccentric Danish/Japanese sushi-sandwich bar. Set back from the pavement, it looks less like a restaurant than a shoe repair shop. But the Anglo-Greek firm of architects, Barr Gazetas (who are currently designing a new hotel on the island of Hydra for the Virgin group), have done an excellent job of transforming this retail interior into a stylish room that subtly evokes the Aegean with an undulating "loulaki" blue wall, rough tiled floor and bright, zinc-topped tables.

Equally evocative of Aegean island culture was the fact that, on the afternoon I lunched there, various members of the owner's family, including one dour-faced elderly matron, were seated and staring forlornly at the mostly empty tables. Undeservedly empty because, despite its problematic name and less than glittering site, the Cafe O served fine ethnic food, cooked with a light and innovative touch.

Having spent a year or two living on Greek islands where, after a day of typewriter-bashing, I dined in local "restaurants" every night, I know the taverna routine by heart. In the beginning, you accept the owner's invitation to inspect the kitchen where various blackened pans contain the menu du jour: stringy, overcooked carcasses of island chicken in a pool of congealed grease; clammy, rough-cut chips waiting to be re-heated; a mysterious stew containing bits of what the owner helpfully describes as kreas (meat - with no indication as to whether this means beef, lamb, goat or donkey), plenty of half-green tomatoes and dwarf cucumbers waiting to be chopped and tossed together with a bit of raw onion, a few olives and a white slab of native feta, then doused in olive oil - the ubiquitous horiatiki salad, so lacking in finesse, so wonderfully satisfying with a glass of astringent retsina.

Very soon on a Greek island you learn to avoid the disheartening trip to the taverna kitchen. After all, the menu rarely changes and a healthy appetite demands that you keep your culinary daydreams intact until the last possible moment.

In Greece, unlike France or Italy, families often operate restaurants that demonstrate not the slightest interest or talent for cooking; it's simply a good way to earn money from tourists. Taverna cuisine is generally as tedious as it is oil-sodden. But like most "home cooking" (and unlike a great deal of the cloned, trendy cuisine on offer in London's newest restaurants), it can be eaten night after night for weeks.

While there is a large gulf between what you are served in mediocre beach tavernas and the delicious dishes you will find on the table in a Greek household where someone is a gifted cook, I still find myself hopelessly loyal to taverna food. From time to time, I get an uncontrollable craving for a plate of "meat" in disgusting brown slurry, a salad of hacked-up tomato and cucumber, a bottle of industrial- strength retsina.

Cafe O offers a much higher standard of taverna cooking than usually found in Greece or the Greek-Cypriot restaurants that abound in London. The first sign of this comes with the bread. Instead of the grey-crusted slices that are the rule on Greek islands, here we were presented with colourful pieces of something resembling tea cake. In fact, to a very rich dough the chef had added shards of olive and red pepper and various herbs. This is some of the best bread I have encountered in any restaurant for a long time.

We started with all the old favourites (often unavailable in island tavernas, but always on hand in London's Greek tavernas): tzatsiki, taramosalata, melintzanosalata - the cold mezedes - and spanokopita, tiropita and kreatopita - the hot, filo-wrapped mezedes. All of these were prepared with real care and disappeared in a flash. In addition, there was a portion of piperosalata: cold roasted red peppers marinated in oil and herbs and very tasty.

As a further starter, we shared an order of sahanaki prawns - baked in a fresh tomato sauce with feta cheese. This is one of those dishes which, after three months in the Cyclades, you will take a ferry into Piraeus just to eat. It certainly was never served at any of the local island tavernas in my time. Unfortunately, the Cafe O version was a bit insipid, lacking the verve of oregano and wine that I remember from the best restaurants in Turkolimani, but at least the prawns were fresh.

The list of main courses at Cafe O includes all the basic taverna repertoire, but in more subtle form. Here the souvlaki - the ubiquitous shish kebab of the islands - can be ordered in a seafood variant that includes king prawns, salmon and cod; the roast chicken is filled with feta cheese and spinach in a parsley butter sauce, and there is even sea bass on the menu. My stuffed courgettes came with a very accomplished egg lemon sauce, while my companion ordered the lamb kebab and found it not only tender and moist, but seasoned with rosemary and lime. (The closest you'll ever get to a lime in the Cyclades is an unripe lemon.)

Unless you are a great fan of heavy, Middle Eastern baklava-style pastries, the best pudding you can have in an island taverna is a cool slice of pink watermelon. At Cafe O, there is fresh fruit available, but I ordered the kutaifi with ice cream. This is the pastry that looks - and usually tastes - like Shredded Wheat breakfast cereal, although at its best there is enough honey and minced nuts almost to compensate for a consistency of dried hay. Unfortunately, it was past its prime, but the vanilla ice cream was good. Next time, I'll stick to watermelon.

The wine list at Cafe O includes a good selection of both Greek and international wines and is fairly priced by London bistro standards. Our lunch for two, including two glasses of wine, cost about pounds 40, including VAT and 12.5 per cent service. While I still don't know what the "O" stands for, it certainly is not for "overpriced"

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