The first wave of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants arrived in Athens in the early 2000s, bringing a new eating culture with them. This was a time of prosperity in Greece and consequently the first South Asian restaurants, such as the now-defunct Pak Indian, were welcomed with open arms by Greeks who were willing to experiment. It helped that an enormous number of young Greeks had studied abroad in the 1990s and early 2000s, mainly in the United Kingdom, where they were introduced to the cuisine of the Subcontinent.
A decade on, notwithstanding the heightened racial tensions that the country is currently experiencing, there is a great deal of interest in Indian restaurants. South Asian cuisine is perhaps the only ethnic cuisine in Athens that has such a varied dining scene, ranging from places catering primarily to local immigrants (Dhaka Palace, Rajdhany) and cheap, fast-food-style Indian joints (To Indiko tou Barba George) to trendy fusion restaurants (Bollywood) and fashionable establishments (Indian Masala, Indian Kitchen). (Note that many Indian places in Athens tend to go for milder versions of classic dishes, so if you are after the real deal in terms of the spice factor, make sure to tell them – they are always happy to oblige.)
The newest arrival on the scene, Red Elephant, has managed to outshine most of its predecessors. The owner, Mr. Imran, a gregarious, rotund man who speaks excellent Greek, arrived in the country in the late ’90s but only became well known when he opened his first restaurant a few years ago. Located in Metaxourgeio, Noor was well loved until the neighborhood became run-down and, despite his best efforts, Imran was forced to close the venue.
For his new venture, Imran chose a rather quiet residential neighborhood near his house: Panormou. Once dubbed “the downtown island” due to its strip of bars lined up next to the metro station, the area is full of places that serve cheap food in order to soak up the alcohol – hardly a culinary Mecca. That is, until Red Elephant arrived.
The interior of the restaurant is an offbeat mix of styles. The walls are decorated with extremely bright pictures of Indian gods – leading to scenes of expats, students, couples or other locals eating under an enormous stick-on picture of, say, the goddess Kali in almost fluorescent colors – but the heavy tables and chairs are on the classical side. There are two rooms, one next to a semi-open kitchen where you can spy on the cooks making their dishes and the other literally right on top of the sidewalk, which feels almost like you are eating next to the cars racing by. It’s also worth noting that Imran has a cleanliness fetish. Certain things, such as water glasses, are brought to the table by servers wearing surgical gloves. (Meanwhile, the restroom alone could earn an award for being the cleanest in the city.)
To start with, each table is given a small plate of papadums with three sauces, on the house. The meat dishes are all excellent and, unlike at many Indian places in Athens, the meat is high-quality, served without bones or fat, cut into manageable chunks and swimming in sauce. We love the chicken tikka masala, an explosion of flavors, including tomato, coconut and paprika, with a coriander aftertaste. The side dish of raita is made with Greek yogurt and cucumbers that sing. The rice comes in hefty portions; we strongly recommend the pilau, which has a strong yellow color from the saffron used and a wonderful aromatic taste from the cardamom. The naan breads are an ode to fluffiness; the best is Red Elephant’s version of peshwari naan: filled with coconut and raisins, it’s a good choice for cooling off the burn from the other dishes.
It is the lack of tricks so often seen at other Indian restaurants in the city (at Red Elephant, water is served gratis from a jug, instead of being sold in bottles, for example), generous portions, and the use of high-quality, fresh ingredients, as well as Imran’s deep respect for his customers, that make this restaurant truly stand out and have solidified its popularity. That’s an immigrant success story that diners of all culinary backgrounds can appreciate.