In Athens, apart from traditional or nouvelle Greek, you can find almost any kind of cuisine you crave, but usually not under one roof. Thanks to the influx of immigrants and diaspora Greeks in the past 20 years, the city’s roster of foreign restaurants is no longer confined to Italian, French and a sprinkling of swanky Asian and Indian places with white tablecloths. But suppose you’re in the mood for Korean BBQ, your husband wants tandoori chicken, your kids are screaming for quesadillas or your in-laws can’t decide between chop suey and falafel? Then there’s only one spot in town where you’ll find peace: Mama Roux, in the heart of what has become Athens’ liveliest food district.
Because we were a bit dubious about the eclectic approach – could all those dishes be equally good and genuine? – we decided to find out for ourselves. After happily consuming two meals, one consisting of a medley of mezedes – chili con carne, salsa, guacamole, hummus, liver pâté with caramelized shallot jam – and the other a classic American burger with perfect frites and a side of delicious salad, all of which we washed down with the more than passable house red, we spoke to the owner, who not surprisingly turned out to be American with an eclectic background himself.
John Higgins, a native of San Francisco, spent a big chunk of his life in Iowa, before moving on to New York City, where he went to Columbia University at the advanced age of 38 and met his Greek wife. When their daughter was four, they shifted gears and settled on the island of Lesbos for five years, before coming to Athens. That was when he decided it was time to open a restaurant. Though as a semi-professional jazz pianist, he could have opened a music bar instead.
Tall, gray-haired and craggy-faced, John has had a long relationship with the food business. For 25 to 30 years, from the early ’70s to the early 2000s, he worked in the natural food trade.
Mama Roux took a long time to materialize, given the challenges first of finding the right place, narrowly averting strangulation by the welter of red tape, and then fixing the place up, before finding the right chef and the right approach.
“At first, being from California, I’d been thinking of Mexican food – it’s solid, good, spicy, and we bring key ingredients from California – but that seemed too narrow in terms of product. My wife and I had been used to New York’s choices and loved so many other types of meals: Arabic, steak and frites, Asian, curries.
“It took a lot of courage to go international. Our first chef was negative, we weren’t sure it was going to work, but we also saw it as an opportunity, to create a restaurant that was expressive of our own lives, taking the cuisines that we were familiar with and bringing amazing flavors from all over the world at prices that people can afford to pay, if not every day, then several times a week.”
John took a sip from his glass of Tempranillo and went on.
“It seemed to me that too many airs were associated with the international food scene here in Athens. It was treated with undue preciousness, served at high prices in gaudy settings. Whereas to me international food first exists as street food – this is the real modern cosmopolitanism and where better to have it than in Athens, an ancient crossroads, where people from every culture meet today.”
The décor here is minimal, improvised. John points out the tabletops – all of the wooden surfaces we had thought were pine turn out to be slabs of different woods from all over the world. They create a warm, personal ambiance, enhanced by the red cushions on the metal seats. Other bits of color come from the blackboards, where desserts or the plats du jour are written in pastel chalks, and a wall-sized painting at the rear.
“I can’t emphasize how lucky we’ve been with our chefs,” John said. “Sandra Bertin, a Belgian artist who’s a great home cook, put Mama Roux on the map, whereas Vassilis Sporos, who used to work for the Food Company and graduated top of his class at Le Monde cooking school here, brought a professional background when he joined us a year later. For a while, we also had Ahmad from Syria, who put Arab foods on the menu. Their incredible talents took our simple cravings to a really high level.”
Which brings us to the question, what are Mama Roux’s most popular dishes? Tandoori chicken, just spicy enough and never dry; the classic American hamburger, served with homemade mayo and a big bottle of Heinz ketchup; falafel, “much better than the stall down the street,” which comes with tabbouleh and hummus; the chicken tikka burger; plus quesadillas and burritos. John says there are always two or three Mexican dishes in the top 10.
And then there’s Sunday brunch, which has a separate menu that includes Eggs Benedict with homemade English muffins, croque-monsieur, bagel with lox, pancakes with Vermont maple syrup and pain perdu as opposed to French toast. John grins with pride. “Our chefs have taken it way beyond the standard American institution.”
What about the name?
“Mama Roux is a song from New Orleans by Dr. John that I love. She was queen of one of the Indian Mardi Gras tribes, and it reminds me of the funeral parades, where the mourners carry umbrellas, and after the burial, they dance away the pain. It’s such a bright, creative way to react. We didn’t plan it this way, but Greece was such a disaster when we opened – everything was closing – and I like to think of this restaurant as a bright spot when things were going wrong.”
Outside on pedestrian-only Aiolou, where every table was occupied on this warm Wednesday afternoon in early March, it did indeed seem like a bright spot. The air was filled with the hum of animated conversation, while above the diners, attached to a red ceiling, hung an array of umbrellas of all colors of the rainbow – Mama Roux’s trademark, chasing away the blues.
Note: This April Mama Roux will be opening a second restaurant in Glyfada that will add Southern BBQ to its international menu. Chef Vassilis Sporos, who will be in charge, has designed a huge smoker to replicate the tastes of this delicacy, as yet unknown in Greece.
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