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Dakos

Thursday, December 18, 2008 1 comments
Wednesday night in the middle of December isn’t typically a great night to go on restaurant outings in Athens. Most places are pretty quiet. But we set out to visit friends who had just moved downtown and we wanted quiet. A place to talk and eat at a reasonable price. So, we opted for the new cooking at Dakos.

Dakos, which refers to the round Cretan barley rusk that once took every Athens’ restaurant menu by storm, is a chain concept started by Greece’s pork kings, cold-cut makers Creta Farm, who patented a method for taking some (not as much as one might think, despite the hype) of the fat out of its pork products and replacing it with olive oil. They began the Dakos concept about a year and a half ago, and had worked with several top name chefs before snatching up one of the biggest names of all, Christoforos Peskias, whose restaurant 48 closed its doors despite uncountable accolades.

Dakos is not exactly a fast food restaurant and not exactly a family-dining concept. It aims to be an upscale chain that projects the aura of healthful, casual, but somewhat gourmet dining. There are several outposts. We visited the original one on Tsakalof Street in the heart of Kolonaki.

You walk down a few steps into a large, cavernous space decked out in whites and beiges. An enviably huge wooden table occupies the middle of the room. A mural of a sprawling olive tree decorates one wall. The room is divided by an oversized “fish tank” seemingly filled with gurgling olive oil. Most seating is along the wall on comfortable banquettes.

Peskias has created a menu in various segments, which our waiter promoted with nonstop, intrusive references to his own opinions about what goes best with what. For example, he tried to steer us clear of the cabbage salad with carrots, apples and dill, because the ginger was out of sync with the rest of what we ordered. The salad, by the way, was delicious.

Under the menu heading “trendy small eat [sic],” is a listing of various miniature barley rusks (dakos) with upscale toppings. Some, like the octopus, wild fennel and olive garnish, take their cue from classic Cretan cuisine. Others, like the foie gras and apaki, a traditional Cretan cured pork product also made by Creta Farm, speak of the chef’s penchant for mixing and matching various seemingly incongruous raw ingredients. We tried the eel with honey, which was good but stingy on portion size at 10.90 euro; the salmon tartar with Greek wild mountain tea (6.10 euro), worked very well, with the dako a good foil for the fattiness of the fish. The marinated anchovy topping with the chef’s signature roasted tomatoes and kafkalithres, a Cretan green, was delicious at 5.70 euro. Some of these came as small finger-food bites, others in one 10-cm dako that was not so easy to divide four ways. The pricing is weird. Why 10.90 and not 11 euro, for example?

My dinner mates sampled some of the fish entrees. The salmon with a wild greens crust was well-cooked, tender and crunchy but slightly burnt on top. I wasn’t crazy about the unctuous overcooked vegetable medley that accompanies it. The breaded pan-fried lavraki with lime sauce didn’t work as well for me. The potatoes, supposedly fried in olive oil, are pretty good.

The mix of classics with a twist and more creative fare gives Dako a pretty clear identity. We finished the meal with a wedge of cheesecake made with Cretan cheese and a sweetened dako base. It was a little weighty for its size, but the orange lightens it up.

Dakos is a modern Cretan restaurant that aims to spread the wings of Greece’s most famous regional cuisine. For the most part it works, but without any of the soulfulness that real Cretan cuisine communicates. The sense I get is that it’s a job for Peskias, and hopefully a lucrative one, but it’s not a mission.


Cuisine: New Age Cretan cooking from one of Greece's most famous chefs, Christoforos Peskias
Athens Area: Downtown - Kolonaki
Decor: Olive motifs, light furnishings, comfortable
Service: Can be a little intrusive opinionated but overall competent and efficient
Wine list: Cretan and other vintages
Prices: More than you’d think! Around 35-45 euros per person
Address: 6-8 Tsakalof str., Kolonaki, Tel.: 2103604020
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Aleria

Tuesday, December 16, 2008 0 comments
Besides being the name of an ancient Greek colony and, when spelled with two Ls, one of the strangest games on the internet, Aleria is the name of a relatively new restaurant in the coarse but chic neighborhood of Metaxourgio. The restaurant is a testimony to the transition this once poor industrial neighborhood is in the midst of. As we got out of the car, a drunk appeared begging for a little money. Across the road an old house sparkled new, recently renovated and obviously inhabited by cool, urban adventurers. Arab men clustered outside a cafeneion on another corner. Aleria, all sparkling, newly refurbished stone, shone from a distance.

The restaurant is housed in an old building that must have been in dire shape before the owners undertook the task of refurbishing it. It’s spacious and inviting and surprisingly ornate. One wall is covered with big flowered wallpaper. A meter-wide strip of glass borders the bar covering a kind of indoor, sub-ground “garden” with knick-knacks and gravel. One room is a lounge, with white leather couches. The floors are a mish m ash of wood, tiles and cracked marble. The light fixtures vary, from the main one, from which dangle forks and spoons, to others, hanging from baskets and little metal flower pots. There is nothing lean or minimalistic about this place, and the same holds true for its menu.

We sat in the spacious garden, waiting for about 15 minutes before our pleasant waiter had organized himself enough to bring us the basics: napkins, a menu, etc. Once he got started, the service was fine. That’s the thing about this place—the intentions are good, and they win points for trying!

The menu is impressive because it’s obviously the work of someone trying hard to be original. (It’s also very hard to read, because the print quality is poor.) The dishes all seem filled with good intentions, unusual ideas, but unrefined execution. The chef likes fruit, which he uses in a handful of starters, like the sesame-crusted feta Saganaki with vyssino and the cannelloni stuffed with bulgur and served with mango and pineapple sauce. We tried the latter: four upright cylinders of cannellini housed a filling of bulgur, shrimp and mussels. There is too much starch in the dish, the filling was loose and fell apart, the pasta was undercooked, even for this al-dente tongue, and the sauce light years away in terms of sweetness and overall compatibility. The plate, all black and shiny, looked pretty. We tried a stuffed mozzarella, which sounded unique but somehow got lost in translation: a beer-batter, fried ball of fresh mozzarella, stuffed with artichoke and sun-dried tomato. The filling was hardly noticeable and the cheese was unevenly heated, with one bite cold, almost frozen and the other warm. There is a technique issue that needs to be resolved! I liked the fruit and lettuce salad with smoked eel, although the mangos came unpeeled and the strawberries unhulled, making it a hassle to eat.

There is a host of pasta, risotto, meat, chicken and more. We settled on two fish dishes, the first a sfyrida fillet with ouzo sauce and spicy kritharaki and the second a fillet of sole cooked in a cheese crust. The sfyrida didn’t really work, mainly because the alcohol in the ouzo had not cooked off and the kritharaki added a heavy-handed component to a dish that could have been light and summery. I liked the sole and thought it came closest to bridging intentions with execution: crusted in parmesan and fried, it had nice texture, at once crunchy and tender; the fresh tomato sauce worked and the lime that seasoned it added just the right amount of spark.
Dessert was an unusual look at the old idea of halva ice cream: thin slices of frozen semolina halva stuffed with ice cream. It was, like so much else here, a really interesting idea but one that needed refinement in presentation, portion size, and flavor balance (way too much cinnamon).

Alleria was interesting because the menu is unlike anything I have seen in Athens recently. But the cook needs to step back and subtract, not add, to his repertoire of unusual, original dishes. The lesson here without a doubt, good intentions and all, is that less is more.


Cuisine: Modern Greek/Hip neighbourhood
Athens Area: Downtown
Decor: modern baroque with a lot of different design elements competing for attention
Service: Friendly
Wine list: Greek & good beers
Prices: 40-45 euros per person
Address: 57 Megalou Alexandrou str., Metaxourgeio,Tel. 210 52 22 633

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Elaia

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Hope springs eternal--even when it comes to dining in the Plaka. And hope I had, indeed, as we set out battling the pre-election, pre-school traffic standstill to actually get downtown, the three-deep taxis outside the GB, the parking and even the political speeches of one ND member of parliament whose promises (or was it the TV cameras?) caused a crowd to block passage on one narrow corner of Navarhou Nikodimou. Our goal: the recently opened Elaia, on Erechtiou Street, just across the way from the taverna tou Psarra, which happens to be owned by the same folks.

Honestly, I don’t know what possessed me to go to the Plaka for dinner, beyond blind (some might say stupid) hope that this one restaurant with easy Greek name that rolls off the tongue and the wherewithal to actually send a card announcing its opening to members of the Greek press, might just buck the trend. It might just be the place for Greeks to go in the Plaka, away from tourists, away from croaking accordion players and rheumatoidal bouzouki players, a place that might actually make me feel like a Greek in the heart of Greekness.

It wasn’t quite so.

We had to climb and climb and climb, passed several levels of tables, to get to our ultimate destination, the rooftop. On the way up, I peeked into the dining room, with its bright murals faintly reminiscent of something idyllically ancient: brightly painted portraits and bucolic scenes, columns, etc. All the accoutrements of Plaka kitch, updated to circa 2007. The rooftop was lovely, though, with a fairly panoramic view of our chaotic city, and simply appointed, in contrast to the main dining room two levels below.

The place wasn’t too busy, but whoever was there, from what I could gather at least, was not Greek but a tourist.

Unlike the clientele, the menu here is extremely Greek, classic in its selection of tzatziki, melitzanosalata, Horiatiki, vrasti salata, fish of the day, grilled meats, and a few casseroles. There isn’t an ounce of imagination in any of the menu offerings, but there are a few funny translations. Rabbit Stifado, for example, is translated as “bunny” stew. Bugs or a Playboy version, I wondered….

We sampled a few of the classics, among them the simple beet salad, which was thoroughly bland. The beets themselves seem to lack their own basic character—not a hint of the earthy sweetness that makes a beet a beet. These were an insipid bunch of chunks on a plate, totally unseasoned before they left the kitchen. The boiled zucchini and horta had a little more going for it, in terms of texture and taste. The Cretan onion pies were the tastiest thing we had all night, simple, fried pastries filled with onions and fennel. Someone might actually back there making them, or, at the least, they’ve found a good source for the artisinal, frozen kind. I wanted to try the tyrokafteri to see if it was homemade, and it did seem to be mainly because it was smoother and creamier than most of the commercially prepared stuff.

The classic taverna dish of cheese-stuffed grilled squid was OK; the squid was a little tough and the cheese filling a little too dense, with barely a hint of any other layers of flavors. Even in this simple, classic dish, when it’s done well, it can be great. Here it was passable. I felt the same thing about the beef stewed with eggplant, a classic prepared competently but still lacking character. The sauce had no flavor nuances, none of the underlying sweetness from spices like cinnamon and allspice, to make it interesting. The eggplant was sufficiently tender and still kept its shape, but the meat was a little stringy.

We skipped the syrupy desserts.

Surely Elaia isn’t the worst example of Plaka fare, and I suppose in this day and age of something that’s not the worst could also be considered pretty good. Not by this critic! Elaia can—and should—be so much more. Instead it has succumbed to being one more soulless place in the Disneyland version of Greece: the Plaka.


Cuisine: Traditional Greek
Athens Area: Plaka
Decor: Plaka kitsch
Service Competent
Wine List: Decent
Prices 35-45 Euro per person
Address: Erehtheos 16 & Erotokritou Str., Plaka, Athens
Tel. 2103249512
Category: Greek/Tourist Schlock/Plaka

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Almyra

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It’s great to discover easy, relaxed neighborhood places where the food is good, the service decent, and the prices totally human! There is, in fact, a dearth of such places in the environs of this idiosyncratic city. All too often I am drawn to the places that work under the limelight of fame. More often than not, they disappoint me! So, when I stumble on a place that toils away in the shadows of anonymity, humbly, putting out competent, tasty dishes for a loyal, albeit local, clientele, for a place not found in most restaurant listings even though it’s been around for three years or so, I get a particular sense of satisfaction/ .

I was more than pleasantly surprised a few Sundays ago when friends in Argyroupoli took us to Almyra. They knew the menu, they knew what to recommend, they knew the waiters and owners.

Almyra is light, comfortable, and thoroughly local. The garden is pleasant, set in blue and white, as is the inside, with the exception of the open-floor, barrel-storing cava, covered by glass and a great hit with my kids, who happened to be with us that Sunday afternoon. There is even a table down there, for private dining, I assume.

We sampled a bunch of mezedes, from the fava, which was very good, whipped to a smooth, velvety finish. The gavro cooked in grape leaves was not exactly what I had anticipated. The gavro was chopped and stuffed, dolma-like, into the leaves, which in turn were a little undercooked and tough. The execution of this dish needed a little work, but the idea drove home the fact that someone is back there in the kitchen actually thinking though dishes at this easy, neighborhood place. The shrimp with tsipouro and cream is a little more upscale, a rich dish, perhaps with a little too much cream sauce—even though we managed to use up our last crumbs of bread wiping the dish clean. The shrimp is whole and large enough to make for a filling portion. The plates looks pretty. We all liked the kavouropitakia, too, with their creamy seafood-crab filling and their crisp, fried phyllo, folded into triangles and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The grilled sardines were plentiful and very simple, with none of the fanfare that accompanies them, say, in the tavernas of Thessaloniki. No parsley, no onions. Just the fish, grilled and whole, perhaps a little dry, but that’s hard to control when the yard is hopping with people.

I liked my little sojourn to Almyra—I think because it reminded me of better days in this town, when you could get a decent meal in a pleasant place up the road from home, without paying through the roof for a little Sunday afternoon leisure.



Cuisine: Fish Taverna
Athens Area: Halandri, 20 minutes from downtown Athens
Decor: Lovely garden, classic interior
Wine List: Greek
Prices: 25 euro per person
Service: Friendly
Address: 39 Filikis Etairias str., Kato Halandri, Tel.: 2106819109
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Zefkin

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A down and dirty, fun, very local Greek place where tourists can see firsthand how Greeks have fun, on weeknights, but especially on weekends and at Sunday lunch.


Where do a carload full of nostalgic islanders head when one of the clan is leaving to go back to New York for the winter? In the case of a family of Ikarians, only one place in Athens would be appropriate for a family farewell on a wintry Sunday afternoon. Zefkin.

The menu promises: fagopoti, glenti, parea, kaloperasi, and that’s exactly what we got, in addition to a pretty wide range of well-executed mezedes, enough to keep Tsantiris’ wine flowing without worry. The chef-owner, Nikos Politis, just left his secure hotel job to invest more time in his young restaurant and also to work on opening a place in the tourisy town of Armenisti, on the island.

The place itself is extremely simple, with minimum décor, a few paintings depicting characteristic views of Gialiskari, and not much more. But the atmosphere is lively even mid week, when the customer base is not necessarily related to the island. The crowd is a mix of young and old.

Politis’ menu offers a wide range of mezedes, many classics and a fare amount of dishes with his own touch. His chef’s skills at the skillet are especially noticeable—everything we tried that was fried was light, crisp and very well executed.

The basics, like melitzanosalata, fava and tzatziki all have their little twists: a handful of walnuts goes into the eggplant sald; carrots and orange flavor the fava; carrots go into the tzatziki as well. The flogeres zefkin were a delicious combination of pumpkin (tamboura to islanders), spinach, leek, marathon and the island’s kopanisti. Kolokythakia come fried as “maridakia” after the way they’re cut, long and thin. The pan-fried feta is seasoned for tsipouro not wine—with olive paste and tomato. The tigania, an easy dish to make but a hard one to make well, to get the meat at just the right point of tenderness without overcooking it and all the while keeping the whole thing juicy, is here a simple, tasty, succulent dish made for bread dipping.

Not everything is Greek. We liked the chili shrimp tempura, with a spicy Asian sauce. The chicken tortillas got a little lost on me-there was a lot going on inside a small wrap filled, of course, with chicken, but also with feta, tomatoes and eggplants. Some of Zefkin’s dishes, such as mushrooms a la crème, hark back to another era and seem a little out of place, but from a quick look around the room I could see that people had ordered it. It’s a tough call for any chef to take things off the menu that sell! The biftekia with cream sauce, another one of those dishes that recall another era, were good!

Zefkin

Cuisine: Taverna and meze fare
Athens Area: Alimos, southern suburb
Decor: Simple, rustic
Wine list: Greek, house wine, Ikarian wine
Service: Friendly
Prices: 15-20 euro a person
Address: 46 Eleftherias Ave., Alimos, Tel. 210 98 55 795


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Oil Resto

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This daring, contemporary Greek restaurant is full of fresh ideas matched by very few other restaurants in more mainstream locales. Unfortunately, it's in the boondocks of one of Athens' working class suburbs and hard to get to. Current chefs, Dimitris Soutsou and Vasilis Tsaldaris bring spark, vigor and finesse to some of the most traditional Greek products and have an obviously well-honed knowledge of techniques to support the kind of boundary-breaking food they execute.
The space is minimal but cozy and almost modular, with four separate dining rooms, each decorated similarly and yet distinct.
It had been a while since I had visited a restaurant with a menu of so many unusual-sounding dishes it was actually hard to choose. At least one dish I wanted, the giouverlakia with trahana and manouri Sifnou, was finished by the time we arrived. But there was plenty more to sate us. Lots of the food was modular—in other words one main part and various accompaniments. One such dish is the chick peas, cooked traditionally like a thick stew except flavored with orange and Tahini, and served with thin slices of delicious prosciutto Evritanias and fresh orange wedges. The flavors worked so well together that I wondered why the chef didn’t simply marry them in the same dish. We loved the favokeftedes, too, which were really light to the point of breaking on the fork, and we loved the caper salad that accompanies them, which is really a mild, aromatic dip to be scooped up with each bite of kefte. The mastello cheese Saganaki with sweet olive paste was the least interesting of the mezedes mainly because the semolina crust wasn’t really that crusty and because the plate didn’t have the same refined presentation that other dishes had. The ladenia Kimolou is like a cheeseless pizza, more bread than anything else, with a topping of slightly dried tomato sauce and onions. It comes with an accompaniment of antrakla salad and smoked shrimp that were each delicious on their own but the trio together seemed a little disjointed to me, with the shrimp overpowering the other two. The contrasts in texture, sharpness of flavor etc. were not there as they were, say, with the chick peas. For me the winner among the appetizers was the dish of roasted leeks with tiny specks of singlino, orange sauce, rosemary and feta foam, which was really more like a creamy, mild cheese mousse. The leeks were a little underseasoned and fell too sweet against the stronger feta but with a little more salt the dish worked really well together. We loved the spinach salad with Mastiha dressing, too.
The main courses impressed us just as much. The karavida (langoustine) risotto, for example, is spiked with cardamom, which provides a sharp flavour shift from the round Italian flavors people expect in a comforting dish of risotto. The fresh cod was perfectly cooked, four pearly-white chunks in a light, aromatic tomato sauce, the flavour of which is heightened when you scoop it up with some of the caramelized onions on the plate. The tagliatele with herbs, lemon confit, tomatoes (we didn’t see any) and sage oil needed some punch, and maybe a little salt.
The bougatsa ice cream, named after a northern Greek cream-filled phyllo pastry, sounded more intriguing than it was. Essentially vanilla ice cream and phyllo in a very un-Greek small portion.
I really liked Oil Resto circa 2008. The food is totally Greek and yet totally original. The chefs work within an accepted vernacular and take it to new limits without disenfranchising the diner or making him feel lost in a sea of plates. I wish there were more places like this doing original Greek food with a flair, because that’s exactly what’s going on in the kitchen out there in the far off suburb of Liosia. Bravo. It’s worth the taxi ride.


Cuisine: Contemporary Greek
Athens Area: Ilion, westerb suburb
Decor: Lovely old house with enclosed garden, an urban oasis
Wine list: good and Greek
Prices: 40-45 euro per person
Address: 93 Idomeneos str., Ilion, Tel. 210 2693230
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Naxiotiko Kafeneio

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Naxiotiko Kafeneio

For the first time in a long time we spent a Sunday afternoon wandering around Psirri, attracted by the artwalk and also by the perfect weather. That ability to sit outdoors and eat on a February day pretty much sums up all the reasons why the Mediterranean, and especially Greece, is such a human place to live!

Finding a place to eat, though, on a crowded Sunday without a reservation is quite another story. We got lucky at one of my favorite places, the Naxiotiko Cafeneio, and found a table right away. The place was packed.

After weeks and weeks on end of dining out at this city’s “creative” cooking establishments, I wanted something simple, something that wreaked on “patrida” (pou myrise patrida), something down to home and back to basics and I found it right there on that crowded sunny corner, on the cramped, uncomfortable chairs of this well-known taverna, with the waiters shouting orders back and forth to one another over our heads, with the bread and drinks flying out of the kitchen by a busboy who looked like he was ready to drop, with orders late to be taken and late to arrive, but when they did they were worth waiting for. Here is a Greek classic in all its raw gruffness. Despite the crowds and the wait, I relished the change from all the stuffy, overwrought snobbery that persists in so many “fine” restaurants.

Unlike so many tavernas these days, the Naxiotiko Cafeneion at least still holds its own in terms of preparing home-made specialties. The roasted eggplant salad is a good example: smokey and speckled with small bits of roasted red pepper, it definitely comes from their own kitchen. We wanted to graze that Sunday and so did what you’re supposed to do in a classic taverna: order half the menu and share it among half a dozen people (our parea). The black-eyed pea salad, just a simple, boiled to al dente doneness, black eyed peas with a hint of vinegar, a fair amount of olive oil and a smattering of dill is lovely. The giant beans in the oven, classically done up with tomato sauce, were also baked to a delicious, buttery finale. The fava is dense and almost cuttable, comes cold and topped with just the right amount of raw onions.

While we waited for the table to clear before sitting down, the smell of octopus on the grill beckoned. By the time we sat down we were dying for some and so ordered three plates of this timeless favorite. It was excellent. I also savored every bite of the crisp fried cod and and skordalia, although the latter could have been a lot more garlicky. Finally, the pork with celery Lemonato, another all time classic, was also pretty good.

Granted this is not a place to come for fine service or gourmet strivings. It’s simple and that’s fine. It’s the Mediterranean Diet of great raw ingredients, disorganized social orders, and fun in the sun on a delicious February afternoon.



Cuisine: mezedes, traditional Greek taverna fare, Naxos specialties
Athens area: Psirri
Decor: Very simple, with a happening outdoor scene when the weather is good
Service: rough around the edges but part of the overall spirit here
Wine list: house wine, Greek wines, beer, ouzo
Prices: 15-20 euro per person
Address: 1 Christokopidou Str., Psirri, Athens, Tel: 210 321 8222

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Thisavros ton Gefseon

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It’s not every week that a charismatic young African-American wins his 10th in a row U.S. primary, that a charismatic 80-year old Fidel Castro steps down as the longest reigning leader in the Western world, and that a small land-locked country in the middle of Europe declares independence. All that and more required some serious conversation around a table filled with food that didn’t pose unnecessary quandaries. A taverna. As simple a one as possible, which is how I ended up with a group of journalist friends at a small, humble place with a big name: O Thisavros ton Gefseon (The “Treasure Chest of Flavors”) in Halandri. It’s a place so humble and nondescript that I had passed it many times without noticing it at all. At the insistence of one friend, a regular customer, we went.

The owner, k. Apostoli, is the arbiter of taste and kitchen here, warning us not to order excessively. He was right, of course, and confident that his fish soup would be perfectly sating, which it was: a lemony-yellow, light, carrot-and-celery filled traditional fish soup as good as my sailor-cook dad used to make, with pearly white pieces of sea bass floating within. On the side, we nibbled on Apostoli’s lovely Taramosalata, creamy and silky, made with white Tarama, which we spread over toasted oregano-and-oil flavored bread slices. His boiled winter salad is a taverna classic. Grilled pleurotus mushrooms brushed with olive oil, oregano and lemon juice added an earthy tone to the meal. The small sardines on the grill, a little dry, are another taverna classic that we savored happily. My friend did the unthinkable and ordered youverlakia (rice and ground meat balls) after her fish soup. They were good, tight and juicy in a nice lemony broth. Greek grandmothers would approve.

The best thing though was the dark, dense not-so-sweet halva served in two large cubes on a plate.

To all of the above, we added a fair dose of spiced up conversation about the current state of the world and to all of the above we clinked glasses with a simple, white house wine. Simplicity is a good thing in these exciting times…




Cuisine: Fish taverna
Athens Area: Halandri (suburb, 20 min. from Syntagma)
Decor: As simple as it gets
Service: Friendly
Wine List: Greek and house wines
Prices 15-20 euro a person
Address: 46 Vas. Georgiou str., Halandri, Tel: 210 6845261
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Kanella

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Gazi, on a Wednesday night: Roaming around Gazi just the other night gave me the feeling I sometimes have when I’ve been away for a week or so, come back, and notice that my children have grown. It had been a while since I had strolled around the old streets of Keramikos and Gazi, and in my absence the area had flowered. From the era of Gazi as a neighborhood with one hip taverna (Mamacas, the groundbreaker just a few years ago) it has blossomed into the hottest, most happening part of the city. Between Skoufias on Meg. Basiliou Street to Kanella on Konstantinopouleos, there must be 50 other bars and restaurants in between. Some of them were bustling, some of them were too well-lighted to attract the young crowd that congregates down here. Some of them clearly catered to the gay scene.

I took my chances and wandered around oscillating between Skoufias, which was quiet, Gazohori which was too packed with 20-somethings, and Kanella, which was busy and looked like it a mix of clientele: gay, straight, young, old. I also liked the idea of going to a place that bills itself as an oinomageirio, proud to have a traditional open kitchen where the day’s food is on display and yet modern and hip in design.

The room is simple. Colored bottles in the windows lend the closest thing to a design element in the otherwise pared down space. Tables are covered with butcher’s paper not cloth, the seats are squeezed in pretty tight. The waitstaff is friendly, maybe a little too much so, interrupting the taking of an order for example, to joke between themselves, or, even more audacious, to make out behind the meatballs on display, which we happened to be sitting right next to.

The food is simple and friendly, with small touches that set some things apart. Classics like Cretan dako (barley rusk), fava (yellow split pea puree) and fried potatoes are all here. Some classics come with a twist. The roasted eggplant salad, for example is a toss of chunky roasted eggplant, raw red and green bell peppers, and so much garlic you can’t really taste anything else. It looks pretty but it’s very strong. The lentil salad with carrots and feta is simple enough: al dente lentils, cubes of feta, and slices of carrot tossed together in a light dressing. In both the eggplant salad and the lentil salad the oil was less than virgin. We ordered a Saganaki, too, which is made with a semihard cheese dipped in batter. It’s good taverna fair, crunchy on the outside and stretchy within.

Under the Daily Dishes that Mom makes, we tried the soutzoukakia smyrneika and the politico spanaki. Both were ok. The soutzoukakia had a little too much bread in them to achieve that depth of cumin-filled flavor the best renditions of this dish boast. My chef friend and I angsted over the mashed potatoes: are they or aren’t they homemade? The Politiko spanaki is a mixture of chopped spinach and ground beef cooked together and served over an oversupply of strained yogurt. It didn’t have much flavor and there was way too much dairy on the plate, but the idea was interesting.

The best thing Kanella served us that night was a lemon cake, which was moist, dense layers of some kind of phyllo pastry and semolina, with a texture that was somewhere between ravani and bread pudding. It was good, homey, original, cute.

Kanella serves up a cuisine totally in sync with its prices: simple, straightforward, easy food that has one foot in tradition and one foot in downtown hip. The wine is bulk Nemea, the plate ware is laiki agora mix and match. The service is casual and the crowd hip.


Cuisine: taverna and traditional Greek fare with flair
Athens Area: Keramikos
Decor: Cool, artsy
Wine list: Greek and house wine
Prices 20-25 Euro per person
Service a little too friendly
Address: 70 Konstantinoupoleos & Evmolpidon str., Gazi, Tel. 210 34 76 320
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Nea Diagonios

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When you walk into this new restaurant in the heart of Kolonaki on Lykavitou Street, the first thing that you feel is how perfectly suited to the neighborhood it is. A well-lit, well-designed, perfectly urban restaurant that takes up three whole floors and yet exudes an air of stately, modern calm. The designers knew their tans and beiges and wood finishes, turning each of the three floors here into comfortable, simple spaces faintly reminiscent of the browns and beiges on a meat lover’s plate (the specialty here is flesh!). They succeeded, with such a pared down color palette, to design a space that is conservative without seeming boring.

Nea Diagonios is a well-known psistaria (grill place) in Thessaloniki to which I have not been but have read and heard about. All good things. From what we tasted, the kitchen team has also succeeded in bringing to the capital a menu built on classics that isn’t in the least bring or dull. Standards like Horiatiki, boiled vegetable salad, and simple lettuce salad are all here, in generous portions, but so are a few more interesting salads, all of which come in exuberantly large portions, wisely so, to counter the kreatofageia that follows. The politiki salad is as colorful as a Christmas tree, glistening with olive oil and sparkling with colored peppers. We liked the use of the smoked pork from Evritania instead of traditional bacon in the spinach salad. On the dip front, out of curiosity, we ordered the “paprika,” which was not what I anticipated. It was stodgy and gummy as if from overworked starch, and flat in flavor despite the hot pepper. It is also huge: it comes served heaped into a large dish, way too much as a meze.
By contrast, the grilled hot pepper, indeed hot, were the epitome of lean, pure, perfection to this spice-loving palate. The portion sizes are actually an issue here; they are actually too big! The grilled haloumi, for example, is a plate of three massive pieces of cheeses, topped with large roasted tomatoes, and, as if that’s not enough, strips of grilled pork loin as…garnish! The hand-cut fried potatoes are good. A few things seemed oddly out of place, like the sauteed veal liver with imported French organic rhubarb marmalade. Why?

I had to try the two specialties that put Nea Diagonios on the map to begin with, t hey gyro and the soutzoukakia and both were excellent. The gyro, a plate of crisp, grilled pork bits with a healthy sized garnish of raw onions and parsley, was excellent. The meat was beautifully browned, crisp without being dry, tender without being fatty. The soutzoukakia, four to a plate, are not the smyrneika kind, but instead sauceless, better so that the taste of the meat itself comes through. They were very good.

We weren’t crazy about the vanilla-flavored kazan tipi with which we ended our meal here, but overall, we liked Nea Diagonios for what it is: a self-respsecting, if a little excessive, meat haven, with Macedonia-sized portions, a lean urban look, and a price range that makes the every well-sated customer feel like a winner.


Cuisine: Grilled meat in all its glory with great accompaniments, Greek classics
Athens Area: Kolonaki, downtown
Decor: Contemporary, sleek, urban chic
Wine List: Good
Prices 25-40 euro per person
Service: good and attentive
Address: 14 Lykavitou str., Kolonaki, Athens, Tel: 210 361 7821

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Cilentio

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I had set out to go to one of the new restaurants in Kolonaki when, totally by chance, we passed Cilentio and I remembered that a friend had recently recommended the place. So, cell phone in hand, we cancelled our plans and walked into the oh-so-civilized, gleefully quiet, homey, charming little restaurant on Mantzarou street . At least ten years had gone by since I was last here.
Cilentio is situated in what must have been a grand old urban home, three floors, fireplaces, carved ceilings and all. A feeling of warmth permeates everything, thanks mainly to the deep salmon-colored walls, the leather chairs, and the friendliness of the waitstaff. Unlike other restaurants, here you’re not introduced to the menu via a basket of bread and a few olives but via a warm bowl of homemade soup. The night we were there it was a cauliflower soup, light, delicate and subtle.
The menu is mainly Mediterranean , with a few more narrowly focused Greek dishes such as lentils with singlino (cured pork from the southern Peloponnese), pasturmadopites (pies with pastourma) in the form of phyllo rolls, eggplants rolled up with Mastello Chiou (a cheese from Chios), and tsipoures (sea bream) with artichokes a la polita. A few errant offerings are dressed with soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, shitake mushrooms and other Asian touches. The presentation on every plate was impressively attractive, nothing over the top but everything set out with thoughtful aesthetics and elegance.
One such plate was a simple salad of arugula, beets and Chevre. The greens were pressed lightly in a ring mold and all around sat the beets, very thinly sliced, with a pine nut-balsamic dressing. The goat’s cheese was warm cap right on top. It was really good. The tart with caramelized onions, thyme and goat’s cheese was another surprise, mainly because so many restaurants kill tarts by over microwaving them and by using them as an excuse to hide bad cooking. This was thin, with a crepe-like pastry crust. The cheese was subtle and so were the onions. We loved it. We also love the hat-shaped stuffed pasta (capellini) with a sweet sauce of mushrooms, chestnuts, and truffle cream. Not a cutting edge dish, but a soul-warming one to be sure. I can’t resist a risotto with porcini and truffles and the version at Cilentio was pretty good. Even better though was the lavraki with fava. The piece de resistance on this simple dish was the subtle garnish of plump sultaninas and capers over the fava and the contrast between the crunchy golden lavraki filets cookedin a skillet and the silky smooth delicacy of the fava.
We indulged on the desserts, opting for the mousse of fountoukia and chocolate, which was, unlike all the delicate dishes that preceeded it…turbo charged!
It’s always so sweet to be pleasantly surprised by a restaurant that isn’t on the radar screen of all that’s hot at the moment, but rather that has weathered the times with charm, grace and civility and has cultivated an obvious fan club, if the fact that by 10.30 on a Wednesday night the place had filled up. Even more than the food, the one thing I adored here is the sound level, which is totally human.




Cuisine: Modern Greek and Mediterranean
Decor: Romantic, Homey, Quiet and Civilized
Athens Area: Downtown Athens, Kolonaki
Service: Good
Wine List: Good
Prices: 35-45 euro per person
Address: 3 Mantzarou & 54 Solonos str., Kolonaki, Tel.: 2103633144
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Tirbuson

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Konstantinoupoleos is the ever-growing hot spot for Athens’ restaurant and bar scene. Most of the places down here are characterized by their casual, easy approach to food, their simple menus, their equal emphasis on drinking and eating, their younger (than me) crowd. Tirbouson shares all these descriptions and it’s a place I would easily return to just because it’s relaxing and inexpensive, with a competent menu and professional service. I also happen to like trains, and the night we went the tracks back and forth toward Stathmos Larissi were busy with cargo and passenger trains chugging along noisily. It was fun to watch.

The dining room is small and contemporary, with a large chandelier made up of upside down wine bottles. Lights play a part in the red and white décor. The deck outside is pretty spacious for such an urban locale. “Tablecloths” are a large piece of parchment printed with the wine list. On this, the first hot night of the season, we opted for a couple of those great organic Piraiki beers, which are fruity and delicious.

The menu is easy and not terribly original. Actually, the restaurant hound in me saw more than a few borrowed ideas from at least one chefs, Nina Ismirnoglou, for whom the owner worked for a while. Marinated raw zucchini is one such borrowed dish. It was perfectly ok but lacking in that touch that marks the difference between fine and good. The slices were a tad too thick and jumbled together in a deep bowl, which isn’t the best choice for presenting a carpaccio style dish. Parmesan and pine nuts add body to the zucchini. The eggplant rollups stuffed with haloumi didn’t really work, first because the cheese got hard but more importantly because the eggplant itself was tough. But the owner came over to our table, apologized, and didn’t charge us for the dish. That’s good service. The waiters also knew the food, something too often sorely lacking in other Athenian restaurants.

The black eyed bean salad with spinach and finocchio was also ok. Black eyed peas are so satisfying on their own, but the salad needed some spark, maybe a little chile-driven heat. The mussels steamed with leeks, scallions, finocchio and white wine were really fresh and very tasty.

What I liked most about Tirbouson, besides the name and the trains, is the friendly, informed service. The waiter steered us away from too much food, suggested things that worked, and generally knew what he was selling. With a little more originality on the menu, Tirbouson would fly.



Cuisine: Greek taverna fare
Athens Area: Downtown Athens, Keramikos
Decor: Hip, happening, funky
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable
Wine List: Greek, Competent
Prices: 25-40 euro per person
Address: 104 Konstantinoupoleos str., Keramikos, Athens, Tel: 2103410107
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Milos Athens

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Some things get better with age. Milos is definitely one of them.
Thursday afternoon is not a propitious time for lunch in this city of night owls gearing up for the weekend’s food and drinks splurge. So, it was a surprise, to say the least, to see Milos Athens’ stunningly spare dining room filled nearly to the brim with what seemed to me like pretty loving and loyal customers. More than a few local stars, from glittering socialites with royalist leanings, to intellectual heavyweights to old family progeny filled more than a few seats. This is, obviously, the place to be between the hours of 2 and 5.

So be it. It’s the best deal in town, too. For a mere 20.08 euros, you dine like a king on a prix fixe lunch that includes one of two excellent salads (either classic tomato-onion-and feta “tis hyras” or a crisp, fresh endive and radicchio salad. A burger, a pretty generous piece of grilles salmon and almyrikia and a vegetable dish make up the three choices for a main course. A choice of two desserts ends what is, by all measures, a most satisfying, civilized meal.

Not being able to withstand the temptation, I ordered off the other, bigger, menu, too. I wanted to try the cabbage salad with orange pieces and bits of krassotyri Kos . It was a subtle, beautiful salad, a tad too salty, but I thought a great, light way to introduce one of the most pungent of Greece ’s regional cheeses. Other regional touches take the same elegant, subtle approach: the Evritania sausage served in yogurt sauce, the lakerda, the Kythera goat baked in a gastra.
Milos has always done the simplest foods best, by sticking to a tried and true formula that relies on great raw ingredients. That’s exactly what this elegant, light, delicious meal was all about.
The star of the afternoon was, by far, the delicate rosettes of a Japanese fish called aftokratoras, served raw and marinated in a light mix of olive oil, lime, salt and pepper.

My only regret is that I let so much time pass since this and my last visit.


Cuisine: Fish par excellence and a mean steak, too
Decor: Sleek, modern, gorgeous, a place to see and be seen, located in the Athens Hilton
Service: Excellent
Wine List: Excellent, Greek and International
Price: Prix Fix lunch and earlybird dinner at 20.09 euro per person, a la carte in the 50-80 euro range
Address: 46 Vas. Sofias str., Athens Hilton Hotel, Ilisia, Tel.: 2107281000
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Mavrikos

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3/7/2008
MAVRIKOS

Cuisine: Excellent Greek Fair
Area: Lindos, Rhodes
Decor: Warm and welcoming, excellent views
Wine List: Excellent
Address; Lindos, Rhodes
Service: Professional and friendly
Prices: 30-40 euro per person
Address: Main Square, Lindos, Rhodes, Tel. 22440 31232

Quick Bite:


I make a call. Arrange a taxi. And, two hours later, I land in the main square of Lindos . Our destination isn’t the temple but Mavrikos restaurant, right there on the square where it’s been for the last 70 years. Mihalis Mavrikos greets us, guides us to our seats against one wall of the inner garden where characteristic ceramic plates hang from the wall and an overhead trellis provides the greenery. The place is simpler than I expected.

It doesn’t take but a few minutes before he’s showing us pictures of young, Dark-Side-of-the-Moon era Roger Glimore, who owns a house nearby, or a picture of Jackie O just a year after Kennedy’s assassination. It takes but a few minutes, too, for the first of many fine plates to make their way out of the kitchen, domain of his partner and brother Dimitris Mavrikos, who appears now and then in starched whites, smiling.

Our first taste of this first-rate restaurant is a mound of a deep-rose-hued dip made with local tiny shrimp and seasoned with chile and ginger. It’s a perfect match for the chilled CAIR Velvet brut that sparkles in our glasses. We are tempted by dishes like giant beans with carob syrup, feta-ricotta mousse, various eggplant creations but settle instead on lighter fare. A chick pea puree seasoned with orange and cumin is a deep dark mustard color and comes fanned out like a giant cockle shell on the plate with whole chick peas embedded here and there. Delicious. The fresh marinated sardine is excellent: firm and fresh, cured for just a few hours to “cook” it, and served with thick slices of raw onion, flecks of boukovo and a drizzle of vinegar-honey-petimezi reduction. We try the home-cured kolios, too, served in a similar way. I loved a simple dish most: the perfectly cooked, al dente pligouri mixed with finely ground octopus “kima”, seasoned with a little tomato and just a taste of orange, one of this chef’s favorite flavors. He uses it in many dishes.

Every dish comes with a story, like the one about the perfectly cooked squid ink risotto garnished with two golden strips of orange zest. Mavrikos was served the dish by a chef in the Venetto who was trying to impress him, only to say that the dish, black and shiny like onyx, was something his grandmother in Rhodes used to make. Another favorite was a squid dish with tender rings cooked in two sauces: one, subtle and sweet, the color of bougainvillias but made with beets and another made with saffron. The last we sampled was also excellent: a thick piece of magiatiko, charred on the grill but tender and flaky inside. It is served with grape leaf pesto, a very subtle, very fine sauce essentially drizzled on with olive oil. Our taxi beckoned. Out came a few balls of homemade mandarini sorbet. I can still taste it as I write this…

I could have stayed in this garden for hours, talking about the finer points of Greek cooking. At some point Mr. Mavrikos sr., helped by Mihalis’ wife, made his way with two canes across the garden, taking up a perch by the kitchen in full view of the yard. The patriarch,” chef Dimitri lovingly called him. Mavrikos is one of those rare restaurants where family traditions and the spirit of the times find a perfect balance. I would gladly come back here, from Kastellorizo, or anywhere else.
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Galaxy

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One of my favorite places in all of Athens is the top of the Hilton. First because it brings back so many memories of my first trips to Greece in the summers of the 1970s but also because the view is pretty spectacular. That said, one of my least favorite places in all of Athens is also the top of the Hilton. For dinner, that is.

While the Galaxy is a great place to enjoy a cocktail (an expensive one) while marveling at the panoramic vistas spread out before you, it’s also a place that has to compete with one of the best restaurants in town, just a few stories down (Milos), and it pales in comparison at every level. The service was forgetful, the food was hotel kitchen at Michelin prices.

We were there one recent weeknight, eager to savor the luxury of rooftop dining in this hot summer city.

The menu is a potpourri of Mediterranean – inspired dishes. A few haute-cuisine musts are also on the menu, such as caviar, foie gras and lobster. We tried the latter, as an appetizer, with zucchini salad. The plate was nicely presented with a parmesan crisp and a light dressing of olive oil spiked with hot pepper, which we couldn’t taste. The parmesan crisp was hard as Pendeli marble and the lobster was a shameful shadow of its tasty self, cooked to the consistency of tire rubber. The flavor had gone out of the dish somewhere between the kitchen and the rooftop, but the price, 26 euro for an appetizer, somehow stayed right there on top. One of the gimmicks of the Galaxy is to offer a few dishes that are seared right in front of you on a metal hotplate. One of them, a shrimp satay, sounded interesting, with coriander, grilled calamari and lime-coriander salad. The lime coriander salad was hardly visible and the shrimp itself was ok, maybe because we cooked it ourselves (and paid 26.50 to do it!). I also wondered about the name of this dish, since satay refers to a sweet peanut sauce, which was nowhere to be found.

The main courses were in the same price stratosphere and, sadly, in the same flavor sphere, too. I tried the chicken with truffle oil, oven roasted beets and ricotta, which sounded promising. What came out was a drier than necessary breast (even though it was corn fed according to the menu), redolent of truffle oil but lacking in finesse. I am still trying to figure out where the promised watercress (kardamo) on the plate was. My dining companion chose the lavraki with pistachio crust, with steamed spinach and mussels. This was a hodge podge of too many things not connected to one another, with a piece of fish that had been cooked to death.

I didn’t intend to bring the Galaxy back to earth with such a crash, but I fly off like a loose missile when the price tag in a restaurant is so egregiously out of sync with the quality of food, service and overall experience.



Cuisine: Modern Mediterranean hotel fare with Greek sprinkles
Athens Area: Hilton Rooftop
Decor: Great view, sleek design
Service: Competent
Prices: In the stratosphere, 60-70 euro per person
Wine List: Good, International
Address: 46 Vas. Sofias, Hilton Hotel, Athens, Tel. 2107281000

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Galazia Akti

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I have to be motivated on a hot Saturday night to set out from the northern suburbs all the way to Lagonisi. Motivation came in the form of, what else, a restaurant. Not just any restaurant but a small, very chic, very expensive, very good restaurant whose seats and tables are sprayed by the sea and whose kitchen is manned by Thanassis Roussas, the talented sous chef who works closely with his well-established boss, Yiannis Baxevannis, whose signature is on the menu. The restaurant: Galazia Akti at the very exclusive Lagonissi Resort.

Galazia Akti is small, a minute jewel of white and Aegean blue enhanced by the lights artfully placed under the water right at the restaurant’s edge. The menu is well thought out, with an interesting, unusual selection of starters, salads and main courses. At this hotel, where prices range start in the mid hundreds of euros for a room and go north from there to five figures, the prices for a meal appeal to those with deep-sea sized pockets. Starters range from 20 to 37 euros, main courses from 30 to 55. The wines are pricey.

Baxevannis’ love affair with fresh herbs is everywhere in evidence on the menu. Basil, citronella, marjoram, arbaroriza and more grace many dishes with subtle, ethereal flavors and perfumy aromas. The chefs show a particular fondness and imagination in the salad selection: sea urchin salad with seaweed and crayfish veloute comes served in a glass where various temperatures and textures jump around playfully on the palate. It was delicious. I liked the play on traditional Aegean fish pichti, here made with sfyrida, salmon and eel, and served with a medley of xinolahano, apples and celery. The red mullet in an orange crust was a very fine and delicate plate, served with roasted eggplant and herbs. One odd thing in this dish: the fish didn’t have that characteristic “muddy” flavor that is the trademark of the red mullet. I loved the seafood giouvetsi main course, which is a gentrified version of this homey Greek dish, but here presented beautifully. The fish on a crust of tea with asparagus-basil puree didn’t work for me, even though it sounded fascinating. The asparagus was fibrous, which gave the puree an unpleasant texture. The grouper with artichokes a la polita is a classic take on a classic dish, well-prepared, with surprisingly good tasting chokes, that made me wonder if the chef buys them in season and freezes them himself.

All said, we did have a really good meal here, wining and dining under the moonlight, lulled by the gentle slap of water against the shore. If there are a few comments to be made, from this nitpicker’s perspective, they have to do less with the food and more with a few details that seemed overlooked. Translations into English on the menu were sloppy. Louiza, for example, isn’t citronella but lemon verbena in English; kavourma isn’t pastrami (it doesn’t translate), xinogalo isn’t sour milk, which sounds singularly unappetizing in English, but buttermilk, and xinomyzithra is a far better cheese than the cottage cheese it is translated as and that most English speaking natives associate with a horrible diet food sold in plastic containers. If the chefs can convince their hotel-keeper landlords to fix a few of the rickety tables and to provide slightly better directions to this lovely place once inside the labyrinthine hotel complex then Galazia Akti will just be better. It’s already very, very good.




Cuisine: New Greek cooking by Yiannis Baxevannis and his talented sous chef Thanassis Roussos
Area: Lagonissi, one hour south of Athens along the coast
Decor: Kissed by the Sea
Service: Very attentive
Wine List, very good, very expensive
Prices 100 + euro per person without wines
Address: Grand Resort Lagonissi, 40th km Leoforos Athinon-Souniou, Tel. 2291076000

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Ta Kioupia

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With a handful of foreign visitors in tow, my choice of where to dine had to be narrowed down to Greek and only Greek. But the question then became: traditional or contemporary? One friend wanted to try the latest in Greek food and one wanted to try the oldest. It was time to go to Kioupia. I hadn’t been to this well-known restaurant since it closed its doors in Politeia a few years ago and opened anew, in what is arguably the best house in Athens, a perfectly preserved neoclassical mansion built in 1927 on the corner of Deinokratous Street.

I had remembered the restaurant for its over-the-top approach to classic Greek food and recalled that forced-feeding feeling I had waddling out of the place after more food in one meal than I typically consume in a week. But that was years ago; these are leaner times. The menu now represents a twofold take on Greek cuisine: for the most part dishes are much lighter, with contemporary brushstrokes to move even molecular chefs to excess. But that unique Greek sense of unyielding hospitality as expressed in a plethora of food is still the modus operandi of Kioupia. Dinner, at a fixed price, includes a whopping 16 starters and sixmain courses!

The classics that gave Kioupia its good name to begin with are still very good, especially that chunky, smoky eggplant salad.
Much of the food here is rooted in the traditional cuisine of Rhodes, where the owners come from and got their start in the business some 30 years ago. Dodecanese inspired dishes include a delicious pork chop (fileto) where souma meets the southern Dodecanese pasta, makarounes. It’s not quite a dish for 40 degree summer nights in the city, but the weather will change soon enough to make it a must-have. Rhodian trademarks like cookes seskoula and barbounofasoula with plenty of olive oil and rich undertones from the copious amount of onions were delicious.

The fava with caramelized orange wasn’t the best attempt to modernize this taverna luminary that I’ve ever tasted. The soutzoukakia were a little too gentrified for my peasant roots, but good. The melekouni, with its gentle hint of cumin, which is how this Rhodian pasteli is seasoned, is a lovely end to the meal. Unless, after 16 starters and a choice of six main courses, you opt for a few sweet killers, like ice cream with grape spoon sweet and almonds, or samali (delicious).

Would I come back here? Yes, yes, yes. But only after a starvation diet.


Cuisine: Traditional Greek in copious amounts
Athens Area: Kolonaki
Decor: Light, clean renovation of a neoclassical mansion with all its glories intact and updated for the 21st century
Service: Accommodating
Wine List: Very good
Prices: 54 euro per person for prix fix “non stop” dinner; 32 euro for prix fix lunch; a la carte 35-60 euro per person.
Address: Dinokratous & 22 Anapiron Polemou str., Kolonaki, Tel. 210 740 01 50.

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Piato

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25/9/2008

Piato
Category: Casual Greek/A 20 minute taxi ride from downtown to one of the city’s better suburbs
Atmosphere contemporary, pleasant
Service good
Menu casual greek contemporary cooking
Wine list small but variedPrices 25-30 euro a person
Address: 8 Parashou str., Halandri, Tel. 210-68.00.058


This is a casual place that is worth the trek only if you happen to already be nearby. If you’re staying anywhere between Alexandras and Maroussi in the northern parts of Athens, then by all means try it and savor a simple, casual night out with friends.


It’s pretty good when you get together with three girlfriends on a Friday night, and the table at which you’re seated just happens to be literally with arm’s reach next to a fishbowl size jar filled with spiced liqueur. I left Piato happy…

I would have left pretty happy even without six of those little shot glasses at the end. This friendly, accessible restaurant on a side street in the heart of Halandri serves up exactly what’s right for the times: casual food in a casual setting at prices most people can afford. The owner comes to the task of bringing good stuff for reasonable prices from his years at another popular, but now defunct, restaurant, Asklipiou Gonia.

Piato’s menu is filled with familiar choices, but whatever we tried had its own flair and personality. Cheese is important on the menu and offerings include: stamnagkathi with katiki Domokou, a great combination; fresh myzithra with honey and pepper; kaskavali with sweet and sour figs; roasted feta with boukovo; anthotiropitakia; smoked cheese pitakia, mastelo Chiou on the grill; Saganaki and various vegetable pies where cheese is an ingredient in the filling. We tried the eggplant soufflé, served in a slice, which was very salty. The Russian salad was light and really homemade. We loved it! The shrimp and ginger wrapped in kataifi is a little démodé but good. The risotto with parmesan and thyme was surprisingly light, simple and pretty good. The pitakia kaisarias were more than competently made.

That all took about three hours to consume, which has nothing to do with the quality of the service, which is friendly and fast, but with the depth of conversation when three um, 50-something chicks congregate at a table! A few bottles of wine and many hundreds of calories later, the dessert course, a soft, comforting chocolate mosaico, was most welcome. And then there was that liqueur, and the ladle, and the proximity.

We liked Piato!
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Topos Gefsis Kriti

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9/10/2008

Topos Gefsis Kriti
Category: Cretan Cuisine/northern suburbs
Atmosphere: pleasant and friendly
Menu: well-prepared greatest hits from the mother of the Mediterranean Diet!
Service: attentive
Kava: OK
Prices: 25-30 euro per person
Address: 13 Evaggelistrias str., Nea Erithrea, Tel. 2106250345, 2106250305



Worth the trek for those seeking an authentic experience out off the tourist path.

Everyone wants to find inexpensive places to eat these days, even well-heeled friends in the northern suburbs with expensive cars and big homes. Economy is the spirit of the times.

Finding reasonably priced restaurants north of Farro isn’t always easy though! One place we recently tried and liked is a small Cretan taverna in Erythrea called Topos Gefseis Kriti.

The space is simple, a small room with a few token Cretan artifacts placed strategically to give the room a traditional (but not cluttered or kitch) feel. The owner, mustachioed and dressed in black, looks the part of a gentrified mountain shepherd, except that he’s a former singer who grew up in Maroussi not Sfakia and has nothing to do with the birthplace of Zeus beyond a keen business interest which he executes very well.

We tried lots of traditional dishes here, all prepared by the traditional chef who does have roots on the island. The dolmades, for example, redolent of wild fennel and tender, were excellent. The revithada, with bits of crumbled feta melting over the surface, was delicious. We liked the dish called “kai ftes kai den ftais,” which are well-made, light zucchini fritters (kolokythokeftedes) also perfumed with herbs. The apaki was irresistible—thin slices of vinegary cured pork that made the raki go down like water. The mixed platter of kalitsounia, some with cheese, some with greens, were also quite good, lightly fried, and aromatic. I loved the pancake thin marathopites but also the schioufichta – zymarika – with mushrooms and pork. It’s the kind of dish you want to eat on cold nights. The gamopilafo isn’t the best I’ve ever had in Athens (that encomium probably goes to a small place in Holargos called Tomata), but it was pretty good, even thought the meat reminded me too much of the vrasta a la panaygyria which we “feast” on all summer on another Greek island.

Overall, though, Topos Gefseis Kriti is a place I’d go back to because it’s pleasant, quiet enough to have an evening’s worth of conversation without a struggle to hear, and well-priced. The owner, Cretan or not, has a keen sense of Cretan hospitality, noticing from afar that we wanted some fruit that wasn’t on the menu and sending over a nice big plate with which we finished our meal.
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Mamacas

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30/10/2008

Mamacas
Category: Modern taverna/Downtown
Atmosphere: Modern
Food: Taverna fare that could be a lot better
Service: Competent
Cava: Decent
Prices: 25 euro a person
Address: 41 Persefonis str., Gazi, Tel. 2103464984

For those who go to restaurants just because they’ve read about them! The food is a lot less than mediocre although this place is famous. The neighborood is fun and offers more interesting places to dine out.

I don’t know what we were thinking! On a balmy October midweek night, we found ourselves wandering around Gazi. Tables outside were full. A few friends were heading to Urban, Having recently been there, be opted for the best-known taverna in town, a place I had not been to in many years—almost since its opening around a decade ago. Mamacas. Then, despite the overcrowded outdoor dining space and the relatively empty dining rooms of most nearby restaurants, I remembered why I had given up on well-known Mamacas so many years ago. The food just isn’t good.

For anyone who’s followed this column recently, you’ve surely noticed the turn toward places that offer a good balance of value for price. It’s the spirit of the times that demands that, and restaurants are hurting. Especially the high-end ones. But the middle of the road places that appeal to the pleb in all of us (even the rich, once, ate their fava and bakaliaro skordalia at laikes tavernes) still need to provide a comparable relationship between price and value. That said, my inner red light goes on when I see a lentil salad for 7.60 on the menu!

We ordered a slew of mezedes at Mamacas and imbibed just a few glasses of house white wine. Even the simplest stuff needed help. The melitzanosalata was passable but very acidic. It was the best of the handful of dishes we tried. The eggplant baked with cheese, which came highly recommended by the waiter and is, after all, a classic taverna dish, was awful. Flat in taste, color and texture and covered with the same over salted fat strips of grated regato as the peppers baked and stiffed with cheese. Both dishes tasted almost identical! The pie of the day was a cheese pie, far from homemade by mom’s hands or anyone elses! The crust flew off the filling as we cut it and the filling was one solid slab of cheese the color of alabaster. The last thing that came out was the bakaliaro croquettes, three hearty pieces of extremely bland fried salt cod that tasted like “freezer.” My friend, a chef, who often dines with me, noticed the whiff of almonia in the fish, too.

Five mezedes, one glass of wine and a cup of chamomile tea came to 56 euros. That’s not bargain when much of what we had was mediocre at best. As we winced and wondered, though, folks kept piling in, glad to be here digging their teeth into what has become the paradigm for modern taverna fare.
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Kallisti Gefsis

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20/11/2008
Kallisti Gefsis

Category: Contemporary Greek fare/Central Athens
Decor: quiet, civilised, renovated, neoclassical house
Service: good
Wine list: good
Prices: 30-35 euro per person
Address: Asklipiou 137, Athens, Tel. 2106453179, 2106445476

Quick bites:

Enjoy a civilized meal based on traditional Greek dishes served up in a quaint, subdued house-turned-restaurant.

Kallisti probably doesn’t need an introduction. One of the first real restaurants to serve Greek food and to promote regionality, Kallisti has long been a bright spot on the Athens dining scene. Civilized, low-key, steady. Somewhere along the line the restaurant seemed eclipsed by all the flashier Greek food that the generation X chefs have been churning out. Olive leaf-shaped pasta and halva ice cream, two signature dishes, suddenly seemed oh so passé.

Timos Petrides and Yiogors Kallos, Kallisti’s owners recently decided it was, indeed, time to pass on the torch and so they sold the restaurant to two young women chefs who have made a name for themselves in some of the same generation X kitchens that overshadowed this lovely, stately restaurant. Niki Tresou and Evdokioa Filakouri are Kallisti’s new owners and they have revamped the space and the kitchen to answer to the needs of the times. Timos Petrides has stayed on in the capacity of restaurateur emeritus, helping them get started in the space he built.

Kallisti’s fresh face includes the new color scheme—sea green and soft white in its spacious, old-world rooms. The kitchen has been renovated. Much of the artwork of yore is still on the walls, but it is still timely and attractive.

I like the small menu, which is a sign of seriousness and the intent to control what comes out of the kitchen. I like the prices, too, which are very reasonable. The service is still a little raw, but we were there when the new restaurant had not been operating for more than a few days.

The revithada with proscioutto Evritanias is a dish I had tasted before from Tressou’s able hands. It’s delicious and is a great example of the elegant simplicity that is Greek food’s best character trait. The chick peas are al dente but also buttery and the specks of cured pork a well-balanced foil. The shredded cabbage salad with chestnuts and pomegranate is a heftier salad than we imagined. It could stand a little better plate presentation and a slight twist in its dressing, but the basic idea works well. The mushrooms fricasse were very good but not exactly what I expected: no avgolemono in this fricasse. Just plenty of various wild mushrooms in a lovely light brown sauce. I rarely meet a pasta I don’t like and there are several on the menu, all good. The papardelles with chard pesto and frsh myzithra is delicious, but so is the very tangy, deep-flavored shrimp Yiouvetsi. My friend Yiorgo tried the rooster with noodles, a homey dish simply presented and well-prepared.

Desserts were not as strong as they could be and not as Greek either! The rice pudding with orange and star anise was a light and a little loose. The two chocolate ganaches, white and dark, worked well. The orange-blossom-water ice cream over kataifi is a dish that’s been on Kallisti’s menu since just about day one, and no wonder: it’s still a great soul-warming dessert.

Tressou and Filakouri are right on in this casual, comfortable but stately place, with a menu that is at once accessible and artful. If anything, they could be a little wilder!
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+Ousia

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28/11/2008

+Ousia
Category: Taverna/Piraeus



Address: 5 Paleologou str., Terpsithea Square, Piraeus, Tel. 2104222005

Another down and dirty place where working class Greeks with good palates like to dine. If you’re waiting for a ferry to the islands and have an hour or more to kill, it’s worth the walk from the docks.


Niki mentioned it to Mary and Mary mentioned it to my sister. The Ikarian connection at work here, since +Ousia, a tiny place in the center of Pirea is a stopping point for islanders en route to the island via ferry. I admit, I never would have found this place or even bothered to eat here, but when I did a few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised.

The restaurant’s main space is very small and pleasantly retro, with old maritime prints, crocheted curtains and an air of gentility from a slightly past era. We sat outside, in the enclosed tent which takes up a part of the pedestrian way on the plateia.

The menu is centered around some of the classic dishes of Crete (despite my Ikaria connection to it), with things like dakos, kallitsounia and fried snails. There are a few “international” offerings, such as a double burger, a chicken burger, and spaghetti Carbonara. One of us did in fact order the Carbonara, which was competent and very rich thanks to the generous addition of cream (a no-no in the traditional version).

The Greek fare is good and homemade. We loved the cabbage dolmades, which were cooked to comfortable softness and did not contain meat. (They come with a spoonful of yogurt.) The htipiti is spicy and the lima beans in tomato sauce, a classic, is very good. A house specialty which we liked, too, were the fried mushrooms with rosemary, a pleasant break from the ubiquitous grilled pleurotus that appear on every menu in Athens. I liked the fact that strapatsada is considered a main dish on this menu; it was pretty good. But by far the winner of our cheap and easy night out were the Greek fries, cut into rounds and perfectly fried so that they were both puffy and crunchy. I hadn’t had potatoes that good in a long, long time.

I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to head to +Ousia all the way from the northern suburbs, but if it’s not too far and you’re in the mood for good home – cooked fare in a pleasant, off-the-beaten path kind of place, that’s cozy and offers prices for most people’s pocket, then +Ousia fits the bill.
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Brown Betty

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4/12/2008


Brown Betty
Category: Euro-Greek pub/Central Athens
Atmosphere: dark wood, large bar, a place made for the aimlessly leisurely
Service: enthusiastic
Menu: Potpourri of tabac best sellers, Greek food, Bruschetta, sandwiches and more for light dining any time of the day or night
Wine List: Pretty extensive
Prices: Anywhere from 10 to 35 euros per person
Address: 33 Dimitriou Soutsou str., Ambelokipi, Tel. 2106465180

Quick bites:

This odd place seems out of the loop. It’s more a bar than a restaurant and yet it offers a pretty full menu. If you just happen to be in the neighbourhood near the American Embassy or Plateia Mavili the simple lunch fare is pretty good. Otherwise, don’t waster a night here.

Brown Betty is a fruit, spice, and bread dessert that dates to Colonial America; it’s also the unlikely name for a new restaurant-bar concept that sits just off Plateia Mavili on Soutsou Street , up the street from the gleaming offices of the Greek National Tourist Organization. There is nothing remotely American about the place, so I suppose its name comes from the simple existence of a brown-betty like dessert (the apple crumble) on the menu.

Brown Betty is a curiosity as far as Athens eateries go. It’s very cozy and has a decidedly Euro-slacker air to it; it’s a kind of French tabac, replete with croques monsieur and madame on the menu, and plenty of dark wood that helps create the sense of aimless leisure that permeates the atmosphere. We were there at night, midweek, not a lively hour on the dark side of Soutsou and the place was relatively quiet. A few diners sat at a handful of tables on the second floor. A mother-daughter date enjoyed wine and dinner at the table next to us. I assume that when the GNTO bustles with the shuffling throngs of civil servants escaping office boredom, that Brown Betty bustles, too. A spacious, high bar with high stools makes one want to stop for an organic beer (the only kind on the menu) any time of the day. The open kitchen is always a welcome sight.

The menu is unusual in its variety and emphasis on organic or regional Greek ingredients but there is a certain excitement over the concept on the part of the waiter (at least ours) that doesn’t always translate to excitement in the food. For one, the few things we tried were all very under-seasoned (EF analata) because, as the chef explained for a whole 10 minutes after I happened to mention that I didn’t like the mashed potatoes, “Salt is prohibited.” By whom? I wondered. In my book, the art of seasoning properly is much more difficult than towing a no-salt dogma.

As for those mashed potatoes, which were seasoned with chives (according to the chef) but tasted like ginger (which the waiter confirmed they indeed contained), they lacked not only in salt but in creamy soul-warming mashed potato texture. They also arrived cold. “Ah, it’s the organic potatoes. You’re not used to them,” the chef pointed out, not knowing that my kids eat mommy’s organic version of Robuchon’s pureed potatoes about once a week.

I hate when cooks make stupid excuses for mediocre recipes and maybe that’s harsh for a place that aims to be as much bar as eatery but given the care taken to procure organic ingredients and the space devoted to pointing that out on the menu, I thought the food could be a lot better here.

Sandwiches hot and cold, eggs and omelets, salads and breakfast take up a pretty large part of the menu. We tried the simple green salad, which was also lacking in salt. Its promised pieces of grapefruit were small mushy bits of the fruit; its marinated cucumbers were thinly sliced pickles as far as I could tell. We were warned off the organic leek pie because it’s a dish delivered for morning consumption and so not so fresh by 10.30 p.m. when we sat down. In its place, we tried two bruschetta: one with a spread of hummus and Mytillene sardines, which was pretty good bar food, and the other with melted aged Naxos graviera, which lost all reason for existence by the time it came out: cold and covered in dried out grilled mushrooms. Too bad. The salmon with sezchuan pepper was cooked to just the right texture but it also needed salt.

For what it’s worth, I really like the idea of this place. I just think owner and cook need to take a step back and, well, add a little seasoning to what seems like a great cupboard full of raw ingredients. The atmosphere doesn’t inspire long, drawn out Mediterranean meals, but a great sandwich, a great croquet monsieur and a cold beer are always welcome.
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Aris

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11/12/2008

Aris
Category: Upscale Greek contemporary food/ Thessaloniki

Address: 8 Kalapothaki str., Thessaloniki, Tel. 2310 243 737

Quick bites:

This place is almost worth the plane ride north! The food is excellent.

Late on Sunday night, after the Salonica wine show, Hartes ton Gefseon, the winemaker Vangelis Gerovasiliou invited us to dinner at a place he promised we’d like: Aris. The city had already begun to feel and show the shock waves from Saturday’s police killing, which occupied conversation even as Gerovasiliou’s wine flowed and the waiter brought out plate after plate of excellent food prepared by one of northern Greece ’s most talented chefs, Aris Aslanoglou, who also runs a summer restaurant in Nikiti.

Aris is relatively small, a long narrow space in the Ladadiko area, with a simple, almost neutral design. White, bare walls, simple fixtures and furniture, a place that either by intention or accident lets the food shine more than anything else. And shine it does.

We sampled some fine appetizers. The stronger plates were those with a Greek point of reference, such as the grilled artichokes with fresh, almost juicy, bits of botargo placed over each. It was simply dressed with a little olive oil. The sesame-studded goat’s cheese Saganaki was elegant, if simple. I was surprised by the chef’s choice of accompaniment for this relatively high-fat starter: 5-cm wide strips of xoiromeri, lots of them. The octopus carpaccio was cut into relatively thick rounds and served with spoonfuls of black caviar. I liked it a lot; there was a certain sensuality to the combination, the octopus all succulent and fleshy, the crunchy caviar counterpoised with characteristic salty opulence. Chef Aris served forth several slices of rare foie gras coupled with sweet potato balls and a very sweet sauce. I almost never say no to foie gras but I thought it was out of touch with the excellent array of modern Greek dishes that made up the rest of the meal. The starters ended with the best of them all: perfect marinated tuna with the lightest dressing that kept us guessing: olive oil, basil, pignoli nuts and, according to the chef, a touch of his homemade vanilla salt.

After this sumptuous beginning, the main courses turned out to be happily on the same level. The tuna was perfectly grilled, such a rare feat for most Greek chefs who have the tendency to kill it. It came served with a light, smoky eggplant cream quenelle. The mushroom risotto, while not a main course, was excellent, creamy and with a rare depth of flavor. The steak with soft, delicious roasted potatoes and grilled mushrooms was a classic that lives up to every carnivore’s high standards.

We were impressed. Aris Aslanoglou manages that rare marriage of creativity with a clear sense of Greek and Mediterranean earthiness. His food is delicious.
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