The Rhodes less travelled

Greek food is too often judged by the lowest common denominator, but the restaurant Mavrikos, in Lindos, is an epiphanic experience

Restaurants
Lindos, Rhodes: Epiphanic (©Saffon Blaze via www.mackenzie.co. CC BY 3.0)

The house looked perfect on the website. A Lindian villa built in 1929 with a vine trellis over the grey and white-pebbled courtyard, steep wooden staircases, a scattering of artful antiques. It seemed worth taking the 5 a.m. “vomit comet” (so named because the Faliraki crowd spend all night drinking at Wetherspoon’s at Gatwick before flying) to Rhodes for. My friend was coming from her home at Korinthos via the Athens boat; we arranged to meet at a bar overlooking the village. The atmosphere had everything you’d want in a Greek restaurant — HP sauce, Sky telly and a lovely lady called Brenda from Preston who made me a fried-egg sandwich. After that, Spiti X had a lot to live up to.

There was, indeed, a vine trellis, though the owners told us immediately that the grapes were on no account ready. And there were indeed steep staircases, though we were warned not to use them as they were perilous, often the case with staircases which are rotten and falling out of the wall. We pointed out that this might make it rather difficult to go to bed. We also pointed out that there was no bathroom, despite the two advertised, no bedsheets, no pillows, and no stove. At least, there was a cooker, but it was disconnected. There was, however, an embarrassment of slut’s wool draped over the antique furniture like Miss Havisham’s hairpieces and a vibrant colony of cockroaches.

“There is an electrical device,” announced the owner gravely. He brandished a small travel kettle. “No one in Greece uses a stove in summer.”

My friend asked why the house was filthy.

“It’s the 15th of August. It’s impossible to get a cleaning lady.”

“But we booked the house in June.”

I tried to appeal to the owner’s wife, who was placidly enjoying her 15th fag since our arrival.

“Smoking is not permitted,” she observed.

The owner banged the door of the pebbled courtyard. Some time later he came back and waved a handwritten contract, which he required us to sign forthwith. The contract bound us to leave the premises immediately on the grounds of our unreasonable demands. My friend desperately Googled nearby hotels, while I asked the owner if we could have our money back.

“Certainly not,” he said. “Sign here.”

His wife lit fag number 20.

We retired for a conference to the perilously-accessed bedroom, where a small miracle awaited us. On the bare mattress, conveniently located next to the lavatory which stood in the middle of the floor, was a bottle of aftershave, a used tealight, an unopened Durex and half a packet of Marlboro Lights. Mrs Owner smoked Mayfair.

“Aye aye,” said my friend.

We asked the owner if he would care to step indoors for a moment.

“Perhaps you forgot these? When you were last here?”

“Ah.  Ladies, it appears there has been a dreadful misunderstanding.”

We never got a working bathroom, but there are worse things than taking a shower with a hosepipe on a terrace with a view of the Lindos Acropolis and the not-so-distant coast of Turkey. And by next day nothing mattered anyway, because we had discovered Mavrikos.  The restaurant has been in the same family since 1933 and the present chef, Dimitri Mavrikos, is reckoned to be the best on Rhodes. Not that there’s anything fussy about it — from the outside it looks just like the many other tourist restaurants in Lindos, and it’s certainly at the wrong end of town, at the top of a crowded square by the donkey pound, where day trippers mount the poor beasts to haul their selfie sticks up to the Acropolis. The only hint that the whitewashed courtyard, shaded by a vast, ancient fig tree, is any different from the other moussaka-and-souvlaki joints is that there are no garish photos of the menu outside. We popped in for a few mezze on the way to the beach, and ended up staying all afternoon.

Like all exported cuisines, Greek food is often judged by its lowest common denominator. Dolmades, kebabs and monotonous iterations of feta cheese and cucumber are what’s expected, and very nice they can be too, but Mavrikos was epiphanic. The staple taramasalata came with the cod roe blended with sweet pumpkin, refined, tricksy, superbly complex and a million miles from the garish pink gunk slopped out by the bucketload for the grockels. That and some perfect grilled flatbread would have made a delightful lunch, but we added fennel braised in sweet wine and artichoke à la grecque, which came not as we had experienced, in a thick tomato sauce, but a delicate saffron broth, rich with cumin and fenugreek, the flavours far more Indian than Mediterranean. After that we had to try the black butterbeans in carob sauce, a treacly, earthy glaze akin to Mexican mole, and the octopus cannelloni, fat tubes of briskly al dente pasta twined with thin bunches of pinkish tentacles in a sauce as deep and unctuous as a Venetian canal. I’m still dreaming about that octopus. But we were also fascinated. What did these divine, ancient flavours have to do with hummus and stifado?

Mavrikos proves definitively that the concept of “authenticity” in food is an affectation, if not an absurdity. The world is just too old; the dialogue of flavour was begun long before Pythokritos carved his great bow-prowed ship into the cliff above Lindos. From the Phoenicians to the Knights of Rhodes who made the temple of Athena their fortress, to the waddling tourists who insist on wagyu beef and pulled pork sliders, to Brenda and her bacon sarnies, everything we put in our mouths draws us into a skein of complex community vaster and slower than any empire. The food at Mavrikos didn’t seem alien at all when we recollected that Hellenic influence had once spread as far as the Hindu Kush, those dark spices inching their way west over the centuries even as Apollo travelled east to morph into a member of the Vedic pantheon. Earnest anthropological reflections aside, it was also so delicious that we had to go there every day, for the rabbit with apricots, the triple-stuffed calamari, a mandarin mousse that might have been a sherbet from Kashmir and, perhaps most curiously of all, the finest filet au poivre I have ever eaten.

We kept the aftershave hostage until the last day of our visit, but we had fallen in love with Spiti X’s eccentricities. It’s already booked for next year, which leaves a mere 300-odd days before I can return to Mavrikos. I’m counting them already.