Roll up to enter the Taramasalata Championships 2020.
I shall be staging this ultimate food trial as I have held other such competitions over the years. Some of you may recall The Great British Scrambled Egg Challenge I ran in 2018 (won by Rose Prince), others my contest for The Most Useful Cookbook of All Time in 2005 (won by Simon Hopkinson for Roast Chicken and Other Stories…). Then there was The International Biscuit Dunking Challenge in 2004 (won by a ginger nut with its Optimum Dunking Threshold of 2.9 seconds).
You see I have form here. And my recent trip to Suzi Tros, a Greek restaurant near London’s Notting Hill Gate, prompts me to stage this new contest.
You may think me frivolous, but there is serious cultural intent in my enterprise. I seek authenticity and excellence – and if there is an obvious candidate for focus, it is taramasalata.
Should it choose to enter the competition, Suzi Tros would be a strong contender. From the open kitchen – which is at the front of the restaurant and where there is a small bar for dining at – comes a plate of the stuff which passes the first threshold for authenticity. It is white. This will of course surprise many who have been eating taramasalata for decades and think that it’s pink. This is not your fault, of course. Because it’s not just supermarkets that sell maliciously inauthentic pink stuff. Virtually every taverna I have dined at on every Greek island from Corfu to Leros serves it pink. It’s an international conspiracy and one we must put a stop to. Hence my competition.
At Suzi Tros, not only is it white and soft, but gently fishy and served with delicious thick bread, charred and drizzled with olive oil and oregano. It was one of several lovely starters that included a delicate plate of yellowtail sashimi with tomatoes, a little basil leaf, a slice of jalapeño and a drizzle of tarragon oil. The chef also served ‘Dakos’, a Cretan meze that the waitress sold as being like a Greek salad but without the red onion and cucumber, set on soaked dried bread. Pimped with smooth, whipped feta, it was a triumph.
There was similar success with a whole grilled calamari; the squid cut hasselback-style and beautifully tender. And a pair of lamb chops were pink, delightfully sweet and sprinkled with herbs, albeit brought to the table on a thinly sliced tree trunk.
Less successful were a pair of stuffed courgette flowers with a meagre tomato sauce and rice mixture which didn’t justify their £14 price. And a sliced aubergine coated with honey and blistered under the grill was so sweet, it was like a failed attempt at a clever pudding. And while I’m having a moan, the main restaurant room itself – at the back of the building (there’s a small, cute bar also downstairs) – is a dull, overlit concoction with ugly brown banquettes and cheap kitchen chairs.
Which is strange given the winning decor in the Greek restaurant next door but one – Mazi – owned by the same people. This is a Greek-island vision, all whites and blues, with a beautiful garden. I’m unconvinced as to their creation of two restaurants, one aiming to be posh, and this one with smaller plates and supposedly more casual. Be done with it, I say. Knock through (I’m sure the neighbours won’t mind), keep the design of Mazi and combine the menus.
Meanwhile, the service is on a par with the starters. And I must declare my love and adoration for our (Italian) waitress. I couldn’t decide which of the six Greek wines to order so, as I guzzled a glass of beloved retsina, she brought me a taste of every one of them. To save you the stress of choosing, go for the delightful, salty, mineral Cretan vidiano.
I may glug that with my panel of judges as we choose the perfect fish roe dip at the food event of the year…