At the heart of Bonifacio Global City, along 5th Avenue and overlooking The Fort Strip, is a restaurant named Souv. One part of the restaurant that will easily catch diners’ attention is a wall at its far end, painted in bright blue. Part of it has been converted into a shelf for plates and wine bottles. The upper part of the wall, however, is full of words likely unfamiliar to a lot of people. Written in turquoise paint is the word lavraki, the European sea bass. Right next to it is the word mizithra, or Greek white cheese, written in a different shade of blue. And nearby is a word painted and highlighted in green: kalamarakia, a fried squid recipe.
Only when one sees what’s painted on another part of the wall do these words make sense. For right below the words is a map of Greece, its islands painted in various colors. All the words on the wall are actually Greek dishes or key Greek ingredients. Customers will also find the names of Greek dishes and ingredients on the back of the restaurant’s menu. This, of course, was not a coincidence.
“We actually want the customers to remember them,” says chef Robby Goco, who owns Souv and 17 other restaurants in Metro Manila. “There was a time when Filipinos were unfamiliar to terms like sashimi and sukiyaki,” he adds, “But now, you look around and there are Japanese restaurants everywhere in the country.” Chef Robby hopes that the same thing will happen to Greek cuisine here in the Philippines.
Different yet similar
Years ago, he saw a list of the 10 most popular cuisines in New York. Ranked number one, unsurprisingly, is Chinese cuisine. Some of the other cuisines that made the list are American and Italian cuisines. All of those have already been introduced in the Philippines. But also making the list at number 10 is Greek cuisine. Filipinos view Greece as a must-see travel destination, but they are mostly unfamiliar with its food. Chef Robby saw an opportunity to introduce Greek cuisine to the country because, as he says, “Whatever’s popular in New York will soon be popular in the Philippines.”
So Chef Robby diligently studied Greece: its food, culture and geography. “At first glance, there aren’t many similarities between Greece and the Philippines,” Chef Robby notes. “But actually, there are.”
Despite Greece being located in Europe and the Philippines being situated in Asia, both countries are archipelagos, like Indonesia, the Caribbean islands and Japan. There are similarities in the land of the countries, the crops that are grown, and the way that people eat their food. Some of the most popular vegetables in Greece, according to Chef Robby, would read like a list of vegetables readily available in marketplaces in the country: eggplant, beans, okra and sitaw. After conducting his research, Chef Robby knew that the Filipino palate was ready for Greek cuisine. All he had to do was introduce it.
To nourish and flourish
Souv, however, was not the first restaurant specializing in authentic Greek cuisine that Chef Robby opened. It was actually Cyma Greek Taverna which he first opened, way back in 2005, in Boracay. Cyma, after the Greek word which means “to flourish,” is a traditional Greek restaurant. But why open it in the island of Boracay? “Because there was already a market there, since there are many foreigners who visit the island,” shares Chef Robby. Another reason was the fact that he personally wanted to relocate to the picturesque island. Only after the success of Cyma in Boracay did he open other branches in Manila.
Now, there are eight Cyma restaurants in Shangri-La Mall, Greenbelt 2, TriNoma, Eastwood City Mall, Robinson’s Place Manila, Robinson’s Magnolia, The Terraces Mall in Cebu, and the aforementioned branch in Boracay. Its website proudly proclaims Cyma as the “best Greek restaurant in the Philippines,” and with loyal customers and several branches across the country, it’s not hard to see why.
After opening Cyma, Chef Robby also opened Green Pastures, a restaurant specializing in organic food that is entirely locally-sourced. Unlike Cyma, it is not limited to a single cuisine, as it serves Filipino, American and Korean dishes. “If Cyma is a traditional Greek restaurant, Green Pastures is more of Chef Robby’s playground where he could try more recipes,” says the restaurants’ operations and marketing assistant, Elise Wong.
New city, new concept
But during Chef Robby’s recent travels in Greece, specifically the island of Mykonos, he saw something fascinating. “Greece is an old country,” he says, “and yet it is modernizing.” That includes its food. Cyma, however, is traditional, and a brand that has existed for more than a decade. “It [Cyma] already has a loyal base of customers, and those customers patronize our time-tested dishes,” adds Chef Robby. “We wouldn’t be faithful to our concept of ‘traditional’ [if] we introduce modern dishes.”
That’s where Souv comes in. The restaurant, which opened in early July, serves modern Greek dishes. That is also part of the reason why it is located in Bonifacio Global City. Chef Robby saw that there was no presence of a Greek restaurant in the area, and that since it was a relatively new city, it would be “fitting for a new concept.”
Souv actually comes from the Greek word souvlaki, which means to cook large cuts of meat – such as lamb, pork, turkey and chicken – on a spit over an open fire, as in a rotisserie. Like the Philippines, the farm animals in Greece are working animals, making their meat hard. So the Greeks, just like Filipinos, cook them thoroughly to soften the meat. “It’s an unpretentious and a straightforward way of cooking. If you want to uncomplicate your life, this is the way to cook,” explains Chef Robby.
Traditional and progressive
Souv is a progressive restaurant, where Chef Robby can experiment and introduce new dishes. However, Chef Robby also ensures that Souv stays true to its roots, as the restaurant doesn’t serve any dish that isn’t served in Greece. As to ambiance, the restaurant’s interior is vibrant, with colorful plates mounted on the walls which Chef Robby himself brought home from one of his travels in Greece. The equally colorful menu, he says, is designed for millennials, with common Greek ingredients printed in large fonts at the back in tiles of different colors, reminiscent of American artist Andy Warhol’s pop art creations.
If Cyma’s menu consists of several pages, Souv’s menu, in contrast, is simple and straightforward. Its lunch menu, for instance, consists of three different kinds of roasts meats: lamb, pork and chicken, with a vegetarian choice also available. The roast meats can be served in three different ways, depending on the customer: as a wrap with whole wheat or pita, as a salad with kale or romaine, or in a bowl with quinoa, brown rice or spinach.
And since some of their customers are professionals who work in nearby offices and need to get back to their desks quick after lunch breaks, the speed with which the food is served is remarkable. “Cyma is a full-service restaurant that has long lunches that last an hour or an hour and a half,” says Chef Robby. “In Souv, you only have to wait five minutes before the food is served.” But while the food is served quickly, that doesn’t mean that its quality is sacrificed, as the meats are prepared and cooked for about eight hours before they are served.
The price is another difference between Souv and Cyma, as the prices in Souv are friendlier, since customers here will not have full course meals more commonly served in Cyma. And with the food served quicker, the menu being simpler, and the prices being more affordable, one of Chef Robby’s goals is to have his customers eat at Souv everyday. He says that while customers could eat once a week or once a month or during celebrations and special occasions at Cyma, his intention for Souv is different and more ambitious. “That’s why our hashtag on our social media accounts [for Souv] is #EverydayGreek.”
The results have been delightfully encouraging. “We already have repeat customers just days after opening,” shares Chef Robby, who is already looking to open more branches for Souv, just like he did with Cyma, Green Pastures and his other restaurants. With the success of Souv, it proved what he already knew when he opened Cyma more than a decade ago: that Filipinos can take and have warmed up to Greek cuisine, and that it won’t be long before dishes like yiouvetsi, spanakopita and kakavia become common food choices in the country.