It’s been said that cleanliness is next to godliness and friendliness is next to neighbourliness – or something along those lines. Bibles and broomsticks aside, the opportunity to spend an afternoon with friends both old and new while sampling some legitimately delicious food of the Mediterranean persuasion simply cannot be passed up. Although us native Capetonians might have known the locale by a few different names over the past few years, the folks that run Love Thy Neighbour have got the idea of community down pat. In a place as varied and often exclusive as Bree Street, Love Thy Neighbour is a haven that always seems to have seating, free tables and friendly service. How many First Thursdays have we all spent crammed into an eatery like beans in a burrito, or skulking around the borders like stray dogs, eyeing each patron with dislike and using mental telepathy to get them to finish their croquettes faster and give up their table.
Sheltered by a large awning that grants access into the cavernous interior, Love Thy Neighbour is original all the way from the building that houses the restaurant to the refreshments it serves. Make your way through the intimately-lit dining area and you’ll find a secret bar in the back that appears to be inspired by some early Twenties speakeasy. But I’m not here to talk about fast men, loose women and moonshine – I’m here to talk about food.
Love Thy Neighbour specialises in the cooking of the Med. This isn’t Greek food, this isn’t Turkish food – it’s an authentic amalgamation of Chef Nick Charalambous’ childhood spent living in Cyprus, along with the island’s own colourful culinary history. Think the fire of Turkish fare combined with the cool simplicity of Greece and the rich decadence of Italy. Eating outdoors always proves to be most popular, as the long tables and festoon of fairy lights overhead make this the perfect spot for larger groups looking to avoid the samoosa platters and sandwiches so often served to companies greater than 6. Because the food served at Love Thy Neighbour is predominantly cooked over open flame, there is the feeling that one could be at a farmer’s market in Mykonos – all scented smoke and activity. Patio heaters add warmth in winter, and wine poured in abundance helps too. The exposed masonry of the historic building that Love Thy Neighbour calls home only increases the feeling that one is feasting inside a centuries-old taverna.
I was one of a number of foodies that were invited to partake in the sumptuous spread of Mediterranean dishes that Nick had laid on for us – which meant that while we received the full media treatment, something told me that he would treat each and every patron to Love Thy Neighbour with the selfsame hospitality we enjoyed.
To begin, a selection of mezze tempted the appetite – creamy Taramasalata made with preserved lemon and devoid of any pinky hue was served topped with green olives and sumac, whilst a Fava bean hummus of sorts was complimented by buttery shallots roasted over the fire and finished off with tangy capers and nigella seeds. Herbed flatbreads made the tastiest kind of utensil for eating the dips and a side of white anchovy fillets in olive oil and garnished with fresh celery and crunchy almonds provided a balance of texture and umami saltiness. After this initial snack, the dishes didn’t stop coming; julienned aubergine battered, deep-fried and topped with whipped feta, molasses, sesame seeds and mint was followed by sweet-savoury Saganaki cheese with candied pumpkin and crushed walnuts.
Although rapidly reaching satiation, the mains proved too tempting not to try. Lamb and chicken, slow-roasted souvlaki-style over the coals and basted liberally in garlicky olive oil came with lusciously smooth tzatziki, a crisp green apple and celeriac slaw, sheftalia (pork meatballs in a herbed dressing) and fascinatingly, a whole cabbage – roasted gently over the fire since 7am that morning and served sliced with a tahini drizzle and muhamarra, a Lebanese red pepper and walnut dip that is not dissimilar to romesco sauce. Approved by vegetarians and omnivores alike, the cabbage was the charmer of the entire spread – tender and juicy with a distinctive meaty flavour, I can assuredly say that from now on, I won’t be cooking my brassicas in any other manner.
Two of the dishes that have had me salivating every since were the Ricotta Dumplings and the Loukamdes – the former a comfortingly creamy bowl of Greek-style ravioli in a yoghurt-based sauce with chard, sumac and an abundance of burnt chilli butter. Delicate and yet satisfying, I briefly considered raiding the kitchen for any spare helpings. The latter arrived in time to gratify everyone’s sweet tooth – loukamdes are small Grecian doughnuts, drenched in orange blossom syrup before being enthusiastically dipped into a rich hazelnut chocolate sauce. For the second time that day my fantasy of kitchen theft recurred. Can you blame me?
Personally, the ambience of an eatery doesn’t come down to food alone – now nicely warmed by a few glasses of excellent Reyneke Organic Shiraz and with Chicago crooning softly in the background, I noticed the elementary typography and nostalgic hue of the menu, branding and coasters. I’m sentimental for the stark style of the Sixties and Seventies and Love Thy Neighbour’s logo of an open door is reminiscent to me of the family-run Greek eateries of a Cape Town nearly 40 years prior. All rickety tables, stone floors, dusty photographs of the Old Country – and probably the best dolmades you’ve ever eaten. While soppy about such places (yes Ari’s Souvlaki in Sea Point – I’m talking about you) it’s refreshing to see that people like Nick are forging their own legacy through both mood and food that is so evocative of days gone past. The only difference is that it contains all the ingenuity and creativity endemic to the present. In short, the best of both worlds.
And I can’t wait to return.