There’s something wonderfully refreshing and liberating about eating surrounded by green. Even just thinking about a meal enjoyed in a garden fills me with positive vibes.
That said, the opportunities of dining among the lush vegetation in Cyprus are quite scarce. Near the sea, definitely. In the mountains, possibly. In a cool garden, now that can be tricky, particularly in dry and busy Nicosia, But, on a warm evening in May, the English School came to my aid.
No, I did not enjoy my meal at the school cafeteria, but a couple of friends, real connoisseurs of the dining scene of the capital, introduced me to a tavern that opened a few years ago behind the school premises.
The official name of the place is ESOBGA (English School Old Boys and Girls Association) and, as it says on the tin, it belongs to the school’s alumni association. Regardless of how off-putting the name is – let’s be frank, it is! – both the ambience and the food are well deserving of praise.
As far as alfresco dining is concerned, few spots in the capital can beat ESOBGA. The well-maintained garden, the secluded location away from the hustle and bustle of Nicosia’s dreadful traffic and the dim candle lights placed on each table all contribute to a soft, relaxing atmosphere that is rarely seen in traditional taverns.
Because, after all, that’s what the place is, a tavern, perhaps coated in a paint of refinery, but still a place where the standout dishes are the ones found in mezes all over the island. I mean no disrespect to the simple pleasures of the Cypriot traditional cuisine. Souvlakia, sheftalies and halloumi are still the best of what the island can offer in terms of food.
Still, the feeling you get when enjoying a meal at ESOBGA is somewhat different, more Athenian than Cypriot.
Onto the serious business. Myself and my three dining companions ordered meze for four to mark the occasion of our first dinner together after the hiatus imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The waiter suggested ordering for three, a piece of advice we decided to follow.
Alas, that was perhaps the only mistake of the evening. Maybe to better fit into the more elegant mood, portions at ESOBGA are smaller than other taverns in Cyprus, so, if you go for meze, order it according to how many people sit at the table or risk leaving the place still slightly hungry.
As for the dishes, no complaints whatsoever there. The village salad was fresh and rich, the dips thick and varied, the pita crispy and warm. Extra points for the lovely grilled mushrooms, among the best I’ve tasted so far on the island.
The mains featured the usual tavern suspects. A serving of pork souvlaki, perhaps a bit too well done for my liking, but that is different with every palate, one of sheftalies, one of crispy lamb chops and one of juicy, aptly spiced chicken thighs, which was the real surprise of the meal.
Find a place that makes you enjoy the humble chicken as much or even more than any other dish on the menu and never let it go, for that is the mark of true cooking savviness.
Visiting taverns around Cyprus I found have generally found that desserts were superfluous, a mere courtesy from the establishment, but, as this time I was not completely full, I decided to go for a galatoboureko, a Levantine dessert of semolina custard baked in filo. Not usually a fan, but I must admit it was delicious.
Upon leaving the place, relaxed and cuddled by a lovely breeze, I couldn’t help but think that in ESOGBA I had stumbled across one of Nicosia’s best-kept secrets.
SPECIALTY Cypriot traditional food
WHERE Agathonos 4, Strovolos, Nicosia
WHEN 5pm to midnight from Monday to Saturday, Sunday closed
HOW MUCH €15 per person for meze, €4-6 per starter, €7-10 per main
CONTACT 22 316861