A traditional Greek ouzeri is the social heart of its community, a place where people go to unwind, to eat, and to raise a glass of ouzo. This was chef Nic Charalambous’s primary aim with new Cape Town eatery, Ouzeri – to champion that tradition by spotlighting Greek-Cypriot cuisine.
For Nic, it was imperative that he strike a fine balance between classic and contemporary Greek cuisine while drawing on his Cypriot heritage. ‘I think that, locally, there is an understanding of Greek cuisine, but not necessarily Cypriot – and this is where Ouzeri comes in,’ he explains.
Food and family go hand-in-hand at Ouzeri, and Nic looks back on his formative years thoughtfully – ‘Sunday lunches – whether in South Africa or Greece – are always my fondest memories. And connected with that are warm olives. We always had some sort of warm or roasted olive, and it has become such a nostalgic thing for me.’ In homage, he serves warm Manzanilla olives, which he gets from O for Olive in the Karoo, cooked over coals and served with paprika oil, coriander seeds and a spicy citrus paste.
The eliopita on the menu is also deeply rooted in family. A traditional Cypriot olive-stuffed pastry that his yaya used to make, Nic combines pastry and potato bread dough to make these globe-like buns, finished with anchovies and roasted garlic cloves intended to be squeezed and slathered atop.
Then there is the lamb manti, originally from Macedonia but adapted by northern Greeks. This ravioli-dumpling hybrid is blanched in chicken stock and served with burnt tomato butter, crispy soujouk (a Cypriot-style dry, spicy and fermented sausage made by Richard Bosman) and crisp dill yoghurt that cuts cleanly through the rich filling.
But it is the halloumi that, when pressed for an answer, Nic confides is the dish to order. Made by dairy entrepreneur Maria Van Zyl, founder of Cream of the Crop, who has two cows on her parents’ farm in Bo-Piketberg that are dedicated to Ouzeri. She worked closely with Nic on numerous halloumi recipes before finding the perfect texture, size and flavour. ‘Maria puts fresh mint in the centre of the halloumi, as well as Khoisan sea salt, and we serve it grilled with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon and oregano. For spring, she is working on using a combination of goat and cow milk, which is closer in flavour to the traditional Cypriot halloumi,’ he says.
As a staple ingredient in Greek cuisine, it was also important for Nic to dry his own oregano, which he does with the help of Iming Lin at Meuse Farm in Hout Bay. ‘Conscious sourcing of produce is how traditional ouzeris operate, and it was important for me to replicate that here,’ he explains.
Ouzeri’s dedication to supporting the right sort of farming – local, seasonal and sustainable – extends through the kitchen and to the wine selection, with a keen focus on natural and low-intervention wines. Partnering with Jasper Wickens from Swerwer Wines to create their own white and red barrel wine served in traditional carafes was inspired by the retsina barrel wines of traditional taverns in Athens.
Nic also had a clear-cut vision for the interior design of Ouzeri to be both sophisticated and nostalgic and to all-importantly reflect the Greek-Cypriot influence of the food – a vision he shared with Yaniv Chen from Master Studio. ‘Nic set the precedent with his translation of historical dishes into a contemporary context. We took this idea and were able to create a design that reflected the ingredients, heritage and, of course, tone,’ says Yaniv.
Cyprus’s rich artistic heritage provided a springboard for Yaniv to dive into myriad influences, rooted in the island’s diverse textiles and architecture while attempting to view it through a uniquely South African lens. ‘We endeavoured to find links in traditional Greek architecture and the vernacular of the West Coast. There is a strong link in the technique of the fisherman houses in Yzerfontein and the Ionian Island plaster work. We like to find these links so that it is a local, place-specific variation on the traditional Grecian style. Links, materiality and place are very important to us. It creates touch points with history,’ he says.
Traditional ouzeris exude community and warmth, which is precisely the type of environment Nic and his team have created through the considered menu, interior and ambience of this pioneering Greek-Cypriot hangout
Images: Jan Ras Photography and Julia Freemantle
Written by Tecla Ciolfi