By Alexander McCowan
My jazzy grand-daughter, Charlotte, said ‘try The Gym, it does very nice coffee’. So again we plunge into the boulevard that was once the no-go after dark area of downtown Nicosia and is now wall-to-wall restaurants and cafés: Onasagorou Street.
The restaurant is near the end and shields its customers from the hoi-poloi behind a curtain of trailing ivy. We arrive early on a Wednesday night and although I had reserved an outside table we were told it was unavailable and were shown to a section of the establishment that didn’t seem connected to the rest of it. After being ignored for ten minutes I received a phone call from the management asking why I had booked a table and failed to arrive; I explained that we had been in place for ten minutes but no sign of service; we continued to be ignored.
When we tried to occupy an empty outside table we were told it was reserved. Eventually another waiter enquired why we were not sitting at our reserved table and moved us to it. By then we had been on the premises for nearly twenty minutes without sight of a drink or menu.
The place is packed: couples, families, groups; clearly a very popular venue. It is so busy the customers have to ambush the staff to get served. We are given a menu and a cocktail list; ‘is there a wine list?’. Certainly there is, you just have to ask for it, which is surprising because it has been compiled by someone who clearly knows and cares about Greek and Cypriot wines; there are two from Vlassides Estate private collection, and the Gaia Agiorgitiko 2000. For the more modest palate there is a good range from Santorini as well as our own Petritis and Tsiakkas offerings.
The menu leans towards the sea so a bottle of the recent Petritis Xynisteri seems in order and is always a good choice when sufficiently chilled. The menu offers four salads, two platters, eight starters and eight main courses; the first salad is with crispy goat’s cheese, baked peaches and lavender honey; the companions, one an old friend visiting from the Tate, decided to share this dish, which drew me away to the starters that included such imaginative dishes that must be shared with the readers.
First up was a cold salad soup, next a Mozzarella bocconcini with quinoa and baked tomatoes; I can’t remember the last time I saw a Beef tartare on a starter menu in Cyprus. The card continued with fresh tuna and mashed aubergine; saute squid in black rice, but my attention wandered to the crispy shrimps rolled in kataifi with saganaki sauce and marinated feta with herbs. There were also some Portobello mushrooms and baked vegetables, but the shrimps won the day – great choice, dish of the evening.
Madame from London ordered the tuna, my regular companion chose the mysterious fresh croaker – my Fisheries friend thinks it’s a kranios – with pureed broccoli and other vegetables. The main card was as bright as the starter menu with dishes including lots of shrimps: in linguine, risotto, and paella. It’s a bold chef that will offer paella – such a classic. There was fresh salmon, lamb shank – if I hadn’t roasted a leg earlier in the week, I would have chosen it – fillet steak and chicken fillet; all with interesting accompaniments.
With the exception of the paella, I thought it was glutinous and lacking, the food was first rate. The sweet menu lacks imagination with three offers: Tiramisu; bitter chocolate ganache and cheesecake. We had the first two and thought them nothing outstanding.
It is difficult to assess the evening: the kitchen is something special and soon it will require a week’s booking in advance; the prawn in pastry is a genuine rip-snorter. However, there was an element of chaos in the service, which could be offputting – albeit, probably only discernable to those over fifty.
Lazaros, the manager, who has two decades of experience behind him, is a true culinary devotee; his menu is excellent, his choice of wines top class; maybe the staff had won the lottery and were distracted.
The company behind The Gym supports a group of charities and is assembling an art gallery behind the restaurant which we were shown before leaving. I noticed the bill included a minor donation to ‘Sophies Fund’ which seems an excellent way of making us more involved.
WHERE The Gym, 87-89 Onasagorou, Nicosia
WHEN Open 7 days, lunch and dinner. Cocktails and coffee
CONTACT 22-002001. Booking essential
PRICE Not cheap