Warwick Road, Carlisle
Even the best laid plans can sometimes go awry. We are travelling home from North Wales to Edinburgh, by train – on my birthday. A restaurant is booked for the evening of our arrival. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, plenty as it turns out. We haven’t factored in the possibility of near-biblical weather conditions that put an impenetrable flood between us and our home city. At Preston, we manage to fight our way aboard a train heading north but we are warned that it cannot possibly go any further north than Carlisle, a place we’ve never visited.
Once ensconced in a frantically-sought hotel room, we remind ourselves that I’m supposed to be enjoying a birthday meal tonight, so we put out an online shout to various groups asking for recommendations in Carlisle. We get plenty of suggestions but one name keeps recurring. Alexandro’s Greek Restaurant. And, as it transpires, humping our baggage in the direction of our hotel, we happen to walk right past the place. Kismet? Perhaps. At any rate, I venture inside and am able to secure a table for two.
A few hours later, we’re back, suitably fortified by a couple of drinks at the rather swish (but very friendly) Barton’s Yard, just a few steps away. The place is busy – it’s a Friday night after all – and we settle down to look at the extensive menu, while the unmistakable sound of bazoukis twang happily away in the background. Memories of tavernas on remote Greek islands come drifting back to me. We notice that, for thirty pounds a head, we can order a three course mezze – a chef’s selection of all the best dishes on offer. This absolves us of the responsibility of actually making a decision so we order that and settle back in our seats. We don’t have to wait long.
The starters arrive in a cluster because they’re all designed to go together. There’s a delectable trio of dips, freshly made hummus, tzatziki and taramosolata, with a bowl of fresh bread and a grilled pitta .There are kaserokoketes, deep fried croquettes stuffed with mixed cheeses, there’s sarmadakia, vine leaves stuffed with rice and raisins, as well as a bowl of fasolia fournou, a delightfully spiced stew of butter beans with tomato, chilli and oregano. Of course, I’ve eaten all of these before – usually on Greek holidays – but they are perfectly executed and mouthwateringly indulgent. We polish them off very quickly indeed.
The main courses follow swiftly on. There’s a generous platter of barbecued chicken on skewers, succulent and delicately spiced, and a beef stifado, slow-cooked until it virtually melts in the mouth. There’s moussaka (of course there’s moussaka!) but this is better than most I’ve sampled over the years, full of flavour and splendidly aromatic. Then there’s a wonderful Horiatiki – a Greek salad, which features chunks of some of the best feta I’ve tasted on this side of the Mediterranean, and just in case we can find room for it, there’s also a bowl of saffron rice.
We’ve often observed that it’s generally the puddings that let a restaurant down, but happily this is not the case here. The final platter features chunks of baklava, given a festive twist by the inclusion of mincemeat. This is a substance I usually dislike but not so here, because the result is gorgeously gooey and rather splendid. So are the karydopita, slices of walnut and cinnamon sponge soaked in vanilla and lemon syrup and topped with crushed walnuts. Add a couple of scoops of homemade ice cream and a selection of soft fruit and we are struggling to finish, but reluctant to leave so much as a crumb.
Alexandro’s is a family-run business that nails its objectives with aplomb. The staff are friendly and informative, and the atmosphere is relaxed. I really have no complaints. Should you find yourself in Carlisle with time on your hands, a visit to this fabulous Greek restaurant should be high on your ‘to do’ list. It doesn’t entirely make up for being stuck in the wrong city at an awkward time of year, but it certainly helps.