Kostas Souvlaki

Monday, June 13, 2011 0 comments

It’s not everyday that I lose total self control and give in to the temptation for Greece’s classic “junk food”—souvlaki. But when I do, there is only one place worth sacrificing self-esteem and birthright for: Kosta’s.
A tiny, hole-in-the-wall with a large following and an even larger queue, Kosta’s has been around for a few generations, serving up this Greek classic to legions of Athenians who happen to work or live or stroll in the immediate vicinity of Syntagma (Constitution) Square. The place, almost nondescript from the outside, is nonetheless pretty easy to recognize because a line of mostly men of the round-belly body type starts to form around 11.30 in the morning and doesn’t ease up until late afternoon. They  typically leave with bags full of Kosta’s souvlaki, to share over a beer with their work buddies.
One caveat: The wait for a 2 euro souvlaki is an exercise in zen patience. It could take up to a half hour. Over the grill, where Kosta the younger (the original owner’s grandson) tends to skewers, hangs a sign that says, simply (in Greek): No Anxiety!
The wait is worth it because every component of the souvlaki here is perfect. The pita bread is grilled and smokey, just on the cusp of crunchy, and nothing like the greased-up pita wraps of other, lesser, souvlaki joints. Lamb is the meat of choice here, grilled over coals, juicy, tender, delicious. The fixings give Kostas’s souvlaki the brush strokes of culinary brilliance. First there is the yogurt, which is as thick as ice cream and unapologetically sour. Tomatoes are fresh and sweet, onions pungent and plentiful, parsley properly refreshing, and cayenne pepper spared no quarter for anyone who asks for it. Add to this the fact that the place is spanking clean, a rare thing, indeed, and what you get is the ultimate recipe for success. A, and one more jewel in this souvlaki’s crown: He will gladly prepare Greece’s national street food for…vegetarians.
Kosta’s Souvlaki
Mitropoleos & Pentelis St. 5
Tel. 210 322 8502
Price: 2 euro each
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Magemenos Avlos (Magic Flute)

Sunday, June 12, 2011 0 comments

The Magic Flute
It was quite by accident that I ended up dining at the “Magemenos Avlos” (Magic Flute), one of Athens’ oldest, and most history-filled, tavernas. To eat here is to step back in time.
The place, located just off Plateia Proskopon (“Scout Square”) in Pangrati, not far from the Hilton and the National Gallery, is as it was in its 1960s heyday, when it was the hangout for Greece’s most famous artists and musicians, including the internationally known composer Manos Hatzidakis, for whom the Magemenos Avlos was something of a second home.
The menu has the decided flavor of nostalgia, too, harking back to a time when dining out in Athens meant either an indulgence in Greek Sunday classics like braised rooster with noodles, or a foray into the continental (i.e. French) cuisine of the time: fondue, Tournedos Rossini, Viennese schnitzel, crepes, paillard, and duck a l’orange. Here and there are a few nods to “contemporary” Greek cuisine, in the form of chicken breast cooked with Chios Mastiha, which was actually pretty good.
The classics are competent: the rooster was a little dry but flavorful. The duck a l’orange was retro even in its plating, with rice and steamed vegetables. A green salad livened up with avocado, grapes, and sesame seeds was good. A plate of German-style sausages may not have a place much longer in the hostile-takeover atmosphere of Athens circa 2011!
The atmosphere is worth indulging in more than any plate we had. Dinner is still served with a serenade or two, performed with dramatic flair by the singer of the house and her two-man band. The walls are filled with pictures of a Greece in more innocent times, when people still danced in the aisles and on the tables and when the boundaries between common folk and the country’s rich and famous were not separated by barbed-wire and infra-red cameras. Around 1 a.m. the owner, with a group of friends, started crooning along with the singer. The repertoire seems to be religiously devoted to the music of Hatzidakis.
Despite the less-than-stellar food, we spent a most pleasant evening here basking in the retro glow of happier times for this beleaguered country.
Magemenos Avlos, Amynta 4, Pangrati
Tel. 210 72 23 195
Prices: 35 – 40 euro a person

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Thama is Greek dialect for miracle. The miracle of sorts that Thama represents is a Greek-crisis-born trend, the arrival of which has long been overdue: the mushrooming of reasonably priced, nicely appointed neighborhood restaurants with good, decent, even interesting, food.
If you’re willing to take a metro ride to the Nomismatokopeio station, about 10  minutes from Syntagma, you might want to venture here. Thama is virtually next to the station.
There’s a bonified chef in Thama’s kitchen, and he draws much of his inspiration from the southern Peloponnese, land of citrus, olive oil, olives, and more, which happens to be the owners’ birthplace. The region’s legendary olive groves, sprouting of sheer rock in an almost lunar landscape, are what have given inspiration to the simple, pared down décor here, too. Each table is decorated with an olive branches. A few potted trees hold court in the corner. The décor is plain and the lighting maybe a tad too bright, especially for evening meals.
At Thama, despite the fact that it’s really “just” a neighborhood restaurant, the plating is artful and the flavors marks above average. One plate we liked a lot were the stuffed eggplant. Don’t imagine a drooling imam bayaldi (eggplant halves overflowing with ground meat sauce). Here, stuffed eggplant comes cut like cups and filled with chunky, shredded, aromatic braised beef. Four pieces stand tall on beautiful, long plates. A broccoli “soufflé” comes served in small, individual terrines. The vegetable’s herbaceous character comes through loud and clear. A baked potato stuffed with cheese would win the hearts of any tater fan. It is literally dripping with a variety of Greek cheeses. Zucchini fritters were a little starchy, maybe because the vegetable was out of season in early spring, when we visited, and so a little more watery than normal. Mixed with flour, this turns to gum. The flavor, redolent of mint and other herbs, was good. There is also a host of regional, s. Peloponnese dishes to try here, from the tomato omelet, kagianas, to the grilled Kalamata sausage to the babanatsa, a local barley rusk salad.
Main courses were a little less focused. I liked the veal cutlet with feta sauce, although presentation-wise it was tired (plain rice).
A chocolate tart was as thick as fudge and came served with caramel ice cream.
Thama, Mesogeion 242, Holargos
Tel.: 211 013 9951
Prices: 20 – 30 euro  
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Optimism in Greece is in short supply these days, so visiting a new restaurant filled with hope (and people) was refreshing to say the least. Fishalida is one such place.
The recipe for “success” at this new fish restaurant in Pangrati is as old as the hills: Location, location, location (very centrally located at a short walk from the Hilton and the Evangelismos Metro stop); a bright, original, and inviting interior that communicates lightheartedness; a good relationship between price and quality and a menu filled with playful, tasty dishes created by two young chefs.
The space is done up in shades of sea blues and coral, with funky lighting fixtures, bubble motifs and a general, all-around, happy feel.
As the name implies, the fruits of the sea fill the bowl here. We loved the house-marinated anchovies, plated to resemble a star, crisp and clean in flavor and perfectly toothsome in texture, the result of having spent just the right amount of time in salt and vinegar to “cook” without toughening up. The grilled bread, aka bruschetta, topped with crabmeat was simple and cutsy. The taramosalata was excellent: silky, sharp, balanced with proper acidity. I loved the smoked mackerel and lentil appetizer, cooled by a bed of raw, shredded, marinated zucchini. The combo of beans and smoked or grilled fish or seafood is one that has been evolved over the last few years here as chefs look to tradition but also to contemporizing the classics. A squid-ink risotto with strips of cuttlefish was delicious and bravely black. A heap of fried tiny Simi-island shrimp was as easy to eat as popcorn at the movies. Other specialties include retty damn good Greek fries, sun-dried octopus, and aromatic tsipouro (Greek fire water) from Thessaly.
Fishalida: 2 Naiadon & Antinoros street
Tel.: +30 210 723 4551
E-mail: fishalida@gmail.com
Website: http://www.fishalida.gr

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011 0 comments
The vicinity of the new Benaki Museum, on Piraios Street in Redi, an old, industrial part of Athens that is slowly being gentrified, is still a gastronomic no man's land. After a recent visit to the museum, to see the work of the Greek architect Pikionis (he designed, among other things, the stone pathway leading up to the Acropolis), we ended up at Skoufias, a traditional taverna right across the street.

Skoufias has good energy. Young but traditional, filled with old and new chachkas and contemporary Greek art, it has just the right artsy feel for an apres museum outing. The menu, hand-written in a traditional school notebook, is simple. Most familiar dishes have a twist.

Out of six salads, we tried two, the potato salad with oranges, inspired by the use of oranges in the southern Peloponnese region of the Mani, and the Mesogeiaki (Mediterranean), basically a slaw with yogurt dressing, the main difference being that the cabbage was cut in large, unwieldy strips that were hard to pierce with a fork and even harder to fit in your mouth! A plate of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) was of the vegetarian kind, stuffed with rice, raisins and pine nuts and served "yalantzi" --with yogurt. They were tender, flavorful, and good. The fava, a puree of yellow split peas, was nothing out of the ordinary. It is served cold, which I have a pet peeve about. Grilled pleurotus mushrooms were simple and competent, while the pita kaisarias, a buttery (quite so) mass of phyllo pastry, pastourma, tomatoes, and kasseri cheese was a little laden, but the combination is always seductive to me. A prasotigania (pork and leeks cooked in a small skillet) was a little tough.

Main courses were simple and competent, with nothing stellar to recall. A pork loin stuffed with peppers and feta and wrapped in grape leaves was a little dry; the salmon with eggplant cream, a special the day we went and a take on the classic Anatolian Greek dish, hounkiar begendi, typically made with lamb or beef, suffered from an overly sour eggplant cream that knocked the flavor balance off kilter.

The atmosphere, lively, urban and artsy, is definitely more of a reason to try this fun little place than is the actual food.

Dessert was a totally over scoop of kaimaki ice cream (flavored with mastiha) and spoonfuls of the Greek sour cherry preserve, vyssino.

Skoufias, Megalou Vasileiou 50, Rouf
Tel. 210 341 2252
Prices: 17 - 22 euro per person with wine

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011 0 comments
Flavours of Northern Greece: FLAVOURS OF NORTHERN GREECE: A CULINARY JOURNEY: "Wine Roads of Northern Greece: An 8-Day Culinary Journey Greek Food Guru Diane Kochilas and Greek Food Blogger Peter Minakis (a.k.a. Kalofa..."
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011 0 comments

Anyone who wants to get a sense for how the well-to-do party, Greek style, should take a cab ride about 6 km (4 miles) north of central Athens to the suburb of Neo Psychico. Here you’ll find the chichiest shops and some of the city’s most crowded restaurants, cafes and bars. On the main strip jutting out from the big A/B (pronounced Alpha-Beta) supermarket everything from traditional fare to Sino-Greek fusion, to Italian food can be samples. My last visit here was to the newest addition, Adamo, a bustling be-everything-to-everyone place that is part cigar bar, part café, part enoteca, and part restaurant.  It sits in a space once occupied by Dioskouroi, in its heyday a very well-known Greek taverna. We sat in the quietest spot in the restaurant, at the one table inside the glass-enclosed cava, but it was still hard to hear my neighbor.
Adamo is for ears more resilient than mine, or maybe for diners who also don’t mind donning ear plugs. Is it worth the trek north for this? Probably not. Better, much better, Italian food can be found downtown.
All the classics are on the menu, from carpaccio of bresaola, to the married-forever duo of prosciutto and mozzarella (buffalo), to vitello tonnato.
Most of what we tried was a little heavy-handed; much of it was drenched in oil. A plate of grilled vegetables with thyme vinairette and buffalo-milk mozzarella was denser and wetter than it needed to be. Vegetables grilled included red peppers, zucchini, and carrots. I would have tried the scallop (fresh from the Aegean, but where? Are scallops a native of Greek waters?) carpaccio with truffles, but a 93 euro price tag prevented me ordering it (as a starter BTW). I love vitello tonnato, but skipped it here, mainly because my dining companions opted instead for a few risotti and more. An appetizer of hot radicchio stuffed with mozzarella, prosciutto, parmesan, and arugula, dressed in the all-powerful balsamic turned out to be better than expected, the pleasant bitterness of the vegetable playing nicely against the sweet, almost syrupy consistency of the dressing.
It’s hard to go wrong with the intoxicating aromas of a truffle risotto, even if it is a bit played out. This one was competent. So was the Milanese risotto, if a bit staid and run of the mill. (It happened that I had just tasted another one, at the new Fuga near the Athens Music Hall, which was ethereal.) The tagliata with greens come served on a sizzling hot plate. The meat was a little tough.
Desserts included a tiramisu, a chocolate soufflé, and a lemon tart. Everything here was designed to be a risk-free collection of classics that satisfies the average Joe, even if he’s driving a Porsche Cayenne.
Dim. Vasileiou 16, Neo Psychiko
Tel. 210 671 3997
Prices: 35 – 50 euro a person 
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There are very few real neighborhood places in Athens, hang outs where office types congregate after work for a beer or a glass of wine and something to nibble on. Efimeron is one such place, located right around the corner from the brand new Onassis cultural center, Stegi Grammaton & Technon (Center for Letters and the Arts).
Efimeron remonds me wholeheartedly of a Parisian tabac. It’s smoky, there is a large catalogue of cocktails, wines, and beers to choose from, and the food, although simple, is a lot better than I anticipated.  Of course, you can also just sit and enjoy a coffee, at prices much less than those at the Ledra Marriott across the way. Its location is a boon, since all around the neighborhood, up and down Syngrou Avenue, office buildings crowd the streets.
If you’re here for breakfast, indulge in an omelet; for lunch a decent club sandwich might be the thing; for that time in between lunch and a typical Greek dinner (never before 10 p.m.) there is a fair amount to pick from.
A chicken salad with croutons, parmesan, bacon and cherry tomatoes was a little leaden thanks to a syrupy dressing. But the portion was generous enough to be called a main course. The beef (is it really veal, as stated) burgers, biftekakia in Greek, are pretty good and pretty juicy. A pasta with salmon surprised us. It was prepared with whole wheat pasta, for one, a rarity on restaurant or snack bar menus. There was no cream in the sauce. And the fish, smoked salmon, was plentiful.
We shared a bottle of Palivou rosé, with a luscious body and plenty of texture, and we reveled in a scene unfolding where 30-somethings unwound after a tough day at the office. This was a sliver of Athens I had never really known.
Efimeron, Evridamantos Street 15
Neos Kosmos
Tel. 210 9324414
Prices: 15 – 20 euro per person
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This is about the defrocking of a cult hero!
About 20 years ago, when we first moved to Athens, Valentina, in the boondocks of Kallithea, a working class neighborhood that is home to many of the most recent Greek immigrants from the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union, used to be the place we escaped to for real food from one of Greece’s least known regional diaspora populations, the Rossopontioi (Greeks from the Black Sea). The place was refreshingly unadorned. Décor consisted of just a plain glass exterior, white curtains, a few chatchkas, and busty older blonds with mile-high twists of hair sipping tall glasses of vodka and Fanta. Their better halves smoked stinky cigarettes. Borscht, garlicky carrot salad, meat-stuffed cabbage leaves, and the best skewered meat in Athens were among the dishes we flocked here for. Driving to Valentina 20 years ago was an experience that combined food and social anthropology.
Then the place burnt down, suspiciously.
Then its owner and his family rebuilt it. The new, improved version was really just an updated rendition of immigrant bland, without any real character, less so than before, actually. The menu remained exactly the same.
That could have been a good thing, except that when you have fond taste memories of unique food, a 10-plus-year lapse requires either a leap of faith or a fall into the simmering hostilities of gustatory disappointment. We had the latter and came home with our memories bruised.
The shredded carrot salad with a watered down mayo dressing was so garlicky it repeated on me for two days. The “rossiki”—a Russian-style potato salad that has long been popular in Greece—consisted of, well, chunks of boiled potatoes. Frozen peas dethawed and cooked, carrots and mayonnaise. Like much else, it fell flat on this palate. The pelmeni are like raviolis but with absolutely no finesse. They must buy them frozen and cook them straight from the freezer. The flavor was totally flat and the meat inside popped out like little knobs with the slightest touch of the fork. Blinis, basically crepes, filled with a sour creamy cheese, were the best starch-cheese combo by far. I ordered a bowl of Smetana, which is a silky yogurt dip, to go with the lamb kebab, called saslik. Saslik is also made with turkey (a new addition to the menu) and with pork. It was pretty good. The meat marinates for a long time before it hits the grill on long metal skewers. When served it comes topped with ample shavings of raw red onion and a sprinkling of cayenne.
The garlic in everything haunted me for days afterwards. The meal left me feeling heavy and dense, with none of the ethereal pleasures I had remembered from Valentina’s more youthful days almost two decades ago.
Lykourgou Street 235, Kallithea
Tel. 210-9431871
Prices: 14-18 euro per person
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KOUZINA Breeze Cafe


Restaurant finds are a rare thing in Athens. The kind of places you simply stumble upon that turn out to be great are few and far between. Breeze Café is one such place.
Situated on the lower plaza in the Agia Paraskevi suburb (a place that once was home to Athens’ very first pizzaria), Breeze Café serves forth haute Greek cooking at affordable prices, turned out by one of the city’s most talented young chefs, Gikas Xenakis, who did a stint at the Michelin-starred Spondi. The venue itself might confuse a casual passerby at first. It looks like all the other “all-day” cafes on the strip, with an outer wall of movable glass that opens in summer and a very casual aura. In fact it is open all day, for coffee and snacks, but at night it morphs into a fine dining restaurant. There is a bit of a disconnect between the quality of the food and the energy of the space, but the owners are moving along with some design changes to sync the room and the menu more harmoniously.
Our first plate was a gorgeous “millefeuille” of Portobello  mushrooms and goat’s cheese, stacked over a thin pool of fire-engine red (but sweet) pepper sauce. An ersatz pizza-tart came loaded with whole small roasted tomatoes, prosciutto in billowy folds, boccancini balls and arugula, a peasant dish that went upwardly mobile without losing its soul. I loved the special of the day: squid cut into disks that were meant to look like scallops and did, served over a carrot foam and on two small tasty dollops of roasted eggplant salad. The chef plays with a pan-Mediterranean palette. Paella is on the menu, in spirit if not in form. Here it is made with orzo not Valencia rice, but all the right flavors are there, right down to the think rounds of chorizo that add a land-lubber’s richness to the shrimp and baby squid. It was wonderful. Ditto on a rabbit dish that came deconstructed and rebuilt in two ways: as a fritter, all crunchy and golden on the outside, and as two lobes of tender white rabbit meat served in an orange sauce over soft, comforting, cooked wheat. The ossobuco won me over, too, but for one thing. For some reason, Athenian chefs like to serve this hero’s cut without the bone, losing all sense of drama in its presentation. Xenakis serves the meat, which is meltingly tender, over a bed of polenta. The dish is delicious but its presentation is literally flat.
I loved the acidic, puckish lemon curd tart but could have done without strawberies in January. The tiramisu was topsy-turvy in a martini glass, rich, aristocratic, and velvety.
Breeze Café is a little out of the way for the average visitor in a downtown hotel, but now with the metro stop a few minutes away, it’s easy to get to and well worth it.
Dinner here costs somewhere around 40 euros, most of the time with wine, too. It would be double that if this place were downtown.
Agiou Ioannou 102, Agia Paraskevi
Tel. 210 6009092.
Prices: 35-45 euro per person 
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