When Christina Mouratoglou opened a Greek restaurant in London last summer, her father found himself doing her a curious favour. On the rocks by the sea near his house outside Thessaloniki grows kritama, a green salty plant that is “half way between seaweed and a herb”. Mouratoglou, who with her partner and co-founder Adrien Carre spent months in Greece combing for fine producers, wanted to put this unusual ingredient on the menu: “My father hand picked it and sent it in boxes … there was a great demand but he came back and said there isn’t any more, I picked it all!” It won’t make a return to Mazi, the Notting Hill restaurant run by Mouratoglou and Carre, until June, when it’s growing again on the rocks.
When so many Greek restaurants seem only to extol the country’s classic bounties – feta, honey, olives, fried fish – this seems unfeasibly adventurous. But it’s the precise mission behind Mazi (Greek for “together”) to be authentically Greek but not predictable. “One of the first things I said to Christina when we met was there are no high-end Greek restaurants in the UK, and there’s a gap in the market for that … we wanted to do something that would be better for the London crowd,” says London-raised Frenchman Carre.
In a fitting reinforcement of their point, Mazi took over the site of the old Cypriot restaurant Costas Grill, and redesigned it with chic white metro-tile wallpaper, blue banquettes and garden tables at the back that fill with beautiful Notting Hill people in the sunshine. Only a few seaside trinkets hang discreetly as concession to the rough charms of a classic taverna. “As a Greek Londoner, you miss Greek food,” says Mouratoglou, who has lived in the UK for 10 years. “There was not even one Greek restaurant I’d go to. Every time it was getting worse and worse. [At these restaurants] I had a major issue with hummus, which is Middle Eastern not Greek; Cyprus is closer to the east and adopted it. Then pitta bread – again, it’s Cypriot.”
Unsurprisingly, neither hummus nor pitta bread feature on the menu at Mazi, which was put together with the restaurant’s executive chef George Venieris, one of the proponents of the “new Greek” food movement that has slowly taken off in Greece in the past decade. Instead it has dishes such as lamb baklava, lobster with orzo and lemon, and feta tempura with lemon marmalade and caper meringue: “We do the tempura with black sesame seeds, and it’s not as heavy [as feta in filo pastry], with a Japanese batter. We have the sweet element of lemon marmalade instead of honey.” It’s a bestseller; the moist, soft feta unrecognisable to dry, crumbling supermarket slabs.
There’s also a well-crafted Greek wine list (“a lot of Greek reds are awful,” admits Carre), Santorini vinsanto, cocktails with mastiha spirit from Chios and Mount Olympus tea.
So what of the crisis in Greece? Mazi is apparently flooded with CVs from would-be waiters as more Greeks look for work in the UK, but the couple say it is sourcing products at competitive prices that is proving to be the biggest problem. “From wine to feta cheese to olives – it’s really expensive [to buy from Greece],” Mouratoglou says.
“We’re trying to make deals … but many products are not competitive. We want to help the country but they’re not helping us.”
They now use a Greek delicacy supplier in London to secure better deals for bulk orders of items such as olives and feta, while retaining the individually sourced products such as thyme honey.
Brace yourself, too, for the Greek “hotdog” – a pork sausage with graviera cheese, sweet bacon and tomato chutney which will be on the brunch menu that launches in early February. The Greek brunch will also include green salad with dried figs and Manouri cheese, and the filo-wrapped, cream-filled bougatsa served with a jar of chocolate milk. It’s a far cry from the inescapable, stodgy pastries of Greek holiday breakfasts.
The investment from the couple and their respective families appears to have been a successful gamble. “We were fully booked by the second month, and started making good money straight away. But any given Friday and Saturday we’re refusing 30 or 40 people,” says Carre, who also points out the natural advantage of many wealthy Greeks living in the area.
The couple say they have been courted by hotels and other restaurateurs with offers to expand. They are not ready to move yet. For now, “the Greeks are really excited; the most common comment is that finally there is somewhere to take business dinners and friends. A home away from home.”
Mazi, 12-14 Hillgate Street, London W8 7SR; 020 7229 3794; mazi.co.uk. Weekend brunch starts on February 2