Loading...

Cine...Gefseis

Friday, October 16, 2009 0 comments
One Friday night, I thought it would be fun to take a friend who’s in the film business up to the place called Cine…Gefseis. I don’t know exactly what I imagined—a place whose menu comes from meals we’ve seen in movies? A place with old Greek movies playing in the background, loops of dining and cooking scenes? Was it a novel concept, like the dinner theater called Rouf Train, which is something of a food cult experience in Athenian dining circles?

Cine…Gefseis is in the main square of Kefalari. It turns out that just a few months ago, this restaurant was something else, different name, different concept, one to which the chef Yiannis Baxevanis had lent his name and menu ideas (MoMo). That apparently didn’t work and so a face lift ensued.
The long, deep space is modern and neutral in design. No great transportive feeling like the one you get from watching a good movie, takes you over here. Instead, it’s very well-lighted. I felt the way I sometimes feel when I walk into a small Greek clothing store with the salesperson hovering nearby, watching your every move. The names of each item come from movies of Greek cinema glory days. Stella fyge, kratao…("Stella, Get Out of the Way, I'm Holding a Knife") for example, is a boiled vegetable salad. The kitrina gantia ("Yellow GLoves") is fava (Greek yellow split pea puree). Mia Italida ap’ tin Kypseli ("An Italian Girl from Kypseli") is grilled vegetables. That's about the extent of the movie industry's influence on the menu. 
The titles might be humorous to a Greek who knows them, but the food is boring in every language. A salad of fresh greens, dried fruit, and pear vinaigrette was drenched in dressing and busy. The grilled talagani cheese, a new cheese from the Peloponnese, was hard to mess up: a disk of cheese slapped on the grill. OK. H Kori mou y Socialistria ("My Daugher the Socialist") is a plate filled with small Cretan greens pies (hortopitakia) and these were ok but far from homemade. A braised lamb dish seasoned with rosemary and Mavrodafne wine sounded promising but disappointed because the flavors were bland.
So, Cine…Gefseis is hardly a show worth watching. Whoever is directing this performance doesn’t have a clear idea of what he wants to do. The plot's not interesting. If menu items are the cast in a restaurant, then the actors need rehearsing—better delivery is badly needed.

Cuisine: Greek
Athens Area: 
Northern suburbs, Kifissia
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Neutral modern
Service: 
Fine
Wine List: Small, mainly Greek, with some Italian labels
Prices: 35-40 euro a person
Address: 
37, Kolokotroni str., Kefalari, Kifissia, tel. 
2106234074
Read more »

Noor

0 comments
I loved the wallpaper! Vivid scenes of the Taj Mahal in all the reds, yellows, and oranges of India adorn one entire wall at Noor, a small, odd little restaurant in Metaxourgeio, a gritty neighborhood in downtown Athens. Indian (or Pakistani?) television shows aired on two flat-screen TVs overhead. As we dined on vindaloo, subcontinent dancers bobbed and wiggled to the flow of Indian pop music, with partners who would make Tom Jones proud. Noor, which means light in English, is one of a number of “authentic” Indian-Pakistani restaurants in a part of the city that is home to a budding population of Asian immigrants.
Let’s get this straight: Noor is not the kind of place you’d take your parents for Sunday brunch, but it is the kind of place you might go with a few adventurous friends, especially if they’ve spent time in the UK and are inured to the spicy, aromatic foods of Pakistan and India. The clientele was unusual for Athens. Several Greek women in the company of the owner, a table of American women, possibly students, with whom the owner, in lilting but very good Greek and equally good English, sat most of the night. And us, four middle-aged Greeks and one English long-time Athens resident, discussing the Greek elections on its eve. The décor is a hodgepodge of stuff put together more out of need than driven by a sense of aesthetics. Noor is a classic immigrant restaurant, the kind my grandparents would have opened two generations ago in an equally seedy part of New York City. The food was decent and the prices amazingly cheap.
All the classics of Indian Export cuisine are on the menu, with dishes slathered in thick tomato-based sauces each of which looks exactly the same but varies in degree of heat. The samosas filled with vegetables were a little on the heady, oily side. I liked the raita, the Indian/Pakistani yogurt dip similar to tzatziki minus the garlic. The papadam, thin wafers of spicy fried cracker bread, were a little greasy, but not bad. The nan, a kind of pillowy pita bread, was great for sopping up those sauces of varying spiciness.
The owner was honest in what and how much we should order, steering us away from too much. A few appetizers and three main courses for five people turned out to be perfect. I liked the pashwari nan, a thin flat soft bread filled flavored with sweet onions, sugar and cinnamon. The sweetened pilaf, with pistachios and a hint of orange, was pretty good, plainer than other versions I’ve had but somehow “real.” We ordered a spicy lamb vindaloo, doused in thick sauce and spicy without being anywhere near overwhelming. The madras chicken looked kind of the same but tasted a little more tomatoey. The tandoori lamb came with a side sauce of curry.
At the end of our meal, and after more than a few carafes of box wine from Thebes, the owner brought us a plate of Pakistani sweets, shaped like eggs and bright as Neon. These are too foreign for my baklava-honed palate to enjoy.
Noor isn’t the best “authentic” Indian restaurant I’ve been to in downtown Athens. The fun here wasn’t so much in the gastronomic experience of eating exotic food prepared by a native, but rather in eating it on the eve of a pivotal event in an area of Athens that epitomizes the changes this city and society have undergone in the last decade. As we walked back to the Metaxourgeio train station, someone had just gotten stabbed on the sidewalk.



Cuisine: Subcontinent specialties in a classic immigrant restaurant
Athens Area: center, Metaxourgeio metro station
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Islamabad meets Metaxourgeio
Service: Fine for what it is
Wine List: 
Wine and beer
Prices: 
15 euro a person
Address: 
43, Deligiorgi str., Metaxourgeio (close to the Metaxourgeio Metro Station), tel. 
2105246644

Read more »

Vardis

0 comments
It’s not every day I splurge on a meal at Vardis, one of several Michelin-starred restaurants in Athens, but I did a few nights ago with friends. I had been wanting to try the cooking of the young chef Asterios Koustoudis for a while, having heard lots and even written some about him.
On a Wednesday night in this nervous, tired pre-election town, Vardis was pretty quiet. Nine of us in total occupied the stately dining room. Our meal started with a glass of champagne and a plate of small amuses-bouche that included a chick pea “button,” a small, crisp, frilly tyropita (cheese pie), and a fish tidbit that seemed to me like a tiny take on the classic psari magioneza (fish with mayonnaise) that once probably ruled dining rooms in the nearby vicinity.
An offering from the kitchen arrived next: foamy but thick eggplant “soup,” with a dollop of yogurt. It was a tad too sour for my taste buds, but I am one known to add a pinch of sugar to most eggplant dishes, so the comment might be a purely personal one. We ordered a range of starters and main courses that covered fish, meat, and vegetables.
The eggplant, tomato, mozzarella tart was strange to me and less refined than I expected: shaped into a large mound, about the size of a hamburger, and looking a little spongy, covered with a layer of cheese. The pastry base was, indeed, not the crunchy kind promised in its description on the menu, but soggy and dense. It didn’t work for me. I tried the homemade pasta with calamari and chutney made with salami from Lefkada. The combination intrigued me and it actually worked, but again the plate was more rustic in its appearance than I expected. It was not a beautiful dish. The interpretation of a Horiatiki salata (Greek village salad) was much prettier and tasty.
We ordered two fish and one meat main course. My fish came out lukewarm: a good sized sfyrida (grouper) nicely presented with a spoonful of roasted eggplant purée and a very tasty tomato confit. I just wish it had been hot! The grilled fillet of sole with avgotaraho (botargo) and vegetables was not the winner we had hoped, a little bland but artfully grilled, no easy feat I suppose for such a delicate fish. The gourounopoulo (piglet), a hefty portion for a restaurant of this caliber, with bulbous caramelized onions, was tasty.
I was surprised by a few other things on the menu, for example, the mention of “agourelaio” (early-harveste olive oil) in at least one dish. How can that be—it was late September! If it’s last year’s it’s not agouro (immature) any more, but, well, “aged.” Ditto on a few other ingredients, such as zucchini blossoms, that belong on an early-summer menu. Maybe I am nitpicking, and I don’t want to because the chef is so simpatico and so earnest and devoted and serious and humble, all things that don’t make me feel good about writing what I feel!
Desserts: these were good, especially the Mastiha ice cream with ginger over the thinnest, crispest layer of kantaifi pastry. I loved the super bitter summer chocolate dessert, despite its very wintry richness. The lemon sorbet and the orange sorbet with honey were delicious. The lemon cream more staid.

Cuisine: 
Refined Greco-Mediterranean that the Michelin man likes!
Athens Area: Northern suburbs, Kifissia
Decor-Atmosphere: Stately, refined, very quiet
Service: 
Very good
Wine List: 
Very good
Prices: 
très cher! 60 to 70 a person sans vin (wine)
Address: 66, Diligianni str., Pentelikon Hotel, Kefalari, Kifissia, tel. 
2106230650-6 

Read more »

Pasional

0 comments
Some restaurant locations just seem jinxed. These venues can't seem to house a business for more than a few months. I have one friend in the business who promised himself years ago he’d never open a place where another had failed.

But then there are exceptions.

Pasional, on Κapodistriou Street in Filothei, occupies a space that two other restaurant operators tried to succeed in but didn’t. Somehow, this place feels different though. On a recent Tuesday night, not a great night for eating out anywhere in Athens, Pasional was pretty busy. They’ve done a great job of renovating the place and have managed to create an atmosphere that’s totally in sync with the concept: Argentina. The décor is pleasantly baroque, done up in black and burnished gold, with ornate mirrors, waiters donning black ribbon ties, and pictures of an Argentina that captures our imagination. They’ve created a feel that works. The finishing touch is the grand piano replete with a singer who serenades well into the night as couples dance.

I liked the fact that whoever designed the place and the menu had something very specific in mind and stuck with it even through the wine list, which is 100% Argentinian and ranges in price from the low 20s to more than 150 euro. Something for everyone.

Considering the area, which is on the periphery of one of Athens' poshest suburbs, the place is reasonably priced. Three of us shared appetizers, one huge 700 g piece of beef, and a 32 euro bottle of Malbec for about 33 euros each. Prices go up the more carnivorous your leanings. (Meat runs between 15 and 30 or so euros per portion).

We started with the empanadas, which are like Greco-Turkish boreks, filled with ground meat or chicken. They were competent, but not especially memorable (a little dry). The provoleta, a plate of tomatoes and melted cheese was what it promised to be: meltingly attractive to this cheese lover. The salad Pasional was an overflowing plate of all sorts of vegetables, including hearts of palm.

Argentinian barbecue – parilla – plays prominently on the menu and we went for the 'oura kilotou' (rump), a piece of boneless meat the size of Argentina, which was cooked exactly to our specs (medium rare) but a little underseasoned (it needed more salt).

I liked the simplicity of the menu and its small size, which to me always means a conservative, careful approach to the food that is coming out of the kitchen. Carnivorous northern suburbanites beware: Pasional is poised to become the neighborhood steakhouse.


Cuisine: Carnivorous pleasures from the land of the gauchos
Athens Area: northern suburbs, Filothei
Decor-Atmosphere: Argentinian concept, black and gold, baroque and inviting, piano and singer
Service: Good
Wine List: Argentinian wines only
Prices: 35-50 euro a person
Address: 54, Kapodistriou str., Filothei, tel. 2106800200
Read more »

Selene

0 comments
It’s a sad fact that residents of Santorini have done more to destroy the island than earthquakes ever could and sadder still that they continue to rip the soul out of this magical place by erecting ever more spectacularly ugly buildings. Get rid of the tour buses that choke local roads, scale things down to the island’s natural pace, and take a lesson from one of the few local business people who have managed to retain both a sense of exquisite taste and refinement for more than two decades now: long-time restaurateur Yiorgos Hatziyanakis, whose 25-year-old Selene is better than ever.
Hatziyanakis is one of Greece’s first professional “locavores,”—someone who sought out the island’s foods and food products long before it was fashionable to do so and with those simple foods he forged a gourmet restaurant that remains one of this country’s gastronomic destinations. This year he brought in one of Greece’s most talented young chefs, Constantina Faklari, who seems, in just a short time, to have understood the pared down essence of this island and manages to manifest it in her cooking. In a two day visit, during which time we sampled almost everything on the menu, one dish was better than the next.
Selene is blessed with a stellar view of the Caldera, sunsets to croon over, and cocktails to set the mood for things to come. I loved the pepper-studded Tselepos champagne (by a respected producer in Mantineia, Peloponnese), but was even more impressed with the soumada-vodka-mint-crushed ice creation of longtime hostess Yeorgia. It was delicious.

Our meal began with a selection of starters. The sea urchin and grilled artichoke was a favorite. The artichokes, crunchy as a pumice stone, paired beautifully with the unctuous texture of the sea urchin. Both were tempered by a smooth as silk fava cream and an airy lemon foam. The octopus carpaccio, shaped like a mound over smoky eggplant puree, was another sensuous pleasure, a marriage of taste and texture that I could have savored all night. Faklari marries the common with the eclectic, like her raw zucchini “spaghetti” with botargo jelly, an exercise in reining in the natural unctuousness of the botargo with nature’s most water-filled vegetable. The cold tomato soup with ice cream made of Ios goat’s milk is superb—the chef likes ice creams of all sorts and plays with them artfully. We tried two dishes that were remakes of stuff she was doing at Urban, her last post in crowded downtown Athens: a take on shrimp Saganaki with feta panacotta and a giant bean and cured fish salad. The shrimp Saganaki was presented in an almost painterly way and was a masterful approach to this often stodgy dish, but the giant beans with home-cured lakerda (salted tunny) were Greek food at its best: minimal, earthy, direct. A fava tart has been on Selene’s menu for a long time, but was definitely rougher around the edges before the chef’s intervention. Now it’s playful but classy, with a sunnyside up egg baked into the golden tart. She marries it with a succulent smoked quail.
Those, dear readers were the starters! Main courses that we sampled included a simple but elegant briam baked in phyllo with xinomyzithra quenelles. The seafood ravioli, which comes as two separate pieces of large pasta between which are nestled finely diced summer vegetables, fennel and seafood, is luxurious but also simple. The monkfish and langoustine orzo is another simple, elegant dish that won us over. The cod—that was among my favorites. Crisply fried without a trace of oil and served with three painterly mounds of smoked eggplant and tomato sauce. The piglet, a slow-cooked tender as a baby’s bottom piece of meat comes with an intoxicating side of apple-vyssino (sour cherry) purée.
I could go on, but room won’t permit, so I’ll mention but one of the handful of desserts: a milk chocolate Semifreddo wrapped in sweet white eggplant preserves and served with a fantastic vanilla-arbaroriza (rose geranium) sauce. That dish speaks tomes for both Hatziyanaki’s and Faklari’s culinary aesthetics: respect local foods and make them shine, excel at the art of seasoning with Greek herbs, and stay grounded while flying high.

Cuisine: Greek cooking befitting the magic of this island
Area: 
Cyclades islands in the Aegean
Decor-Atmosphere: 
A jewel in every way
Service: 
Excellent
Wine List: 
Paean to local wines as well as to Greek wines
Prices: 
70+ euro a person
Address: 
Fira, Santorini, tel. 
22860 22249 
Read more »

Santa Fe

Thursday, October 15, 2009 1 comments
All it took was a nudging from my budding 16-year-old gastronome bemoaning the fact that she had never had Mexican food to book a table at one of the oldest Tex-Mex restaurants in town, Santa Fe. Athens is not exactly Mecca for south-of-the-border cuisine but Santa Fe has been around for a long time and serves up competent food that appeals to the under 50-kilo crowd. The margaritas are pretty good for us in the 50-year-old crowd.
The restaurant is on a back street in a popular suburb, Halandri, set in what was once a typical neighborhood house. The garden is lovely. Most Mexican and Tex-Mex food in Athens is prefab, with things like chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, chiles rellenos and more coming more or less already prepared (frozen) with little for the kitchen to do but pop them in a deep-fryer. That’s mainly because it’s virtually impossible to find the gamut of authentic ingredients necessary to prepare real Mexican food, which is a truly exotic cuisine rich in fish, pounded sauces, exotic flavors, and a rainbow of chiles and herbs that spice up and season almost everything.
Dinner started with—what else—a bowl of nachos and a little salsa, followed by a guacamole, the pounded or pureed avocado dip that is to Mexican cuisine what tzatziki is to us Greeks. It was ok, a little on the bland side, but fresh. The avocado shrimp salad was mild, soft and buttery from the fattiness of the avocado and the dressing. My dining companion liked it! Liking heat and wanting it, despite the mercury, I ordered a prefab plate of jalapeno poppers—jalapenos stuffed with cheese and deep fried. OK. Beyond the heat there isn’t much flavor in anything standardized, right? What was surprisingly decently prepared here was the steak, not a T-bone (which is on the menu) but the Rib eye, which was very large, thick, juicy and nicely charred on the outside. Enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and burritos, the flagship dishes of Tex Mex cuisine which have crossed every border to make it all the way to the Mediterranean, were also, of course, on the menu. We tried a sampling of them in the combo platter, which comes with classic refried beans and rice. The portion was Texas-size.
If I were 20 and wanted something “exotic” I’d love this place. But several decades down the line make me yearn for stuff that’s not prefab or nuked in a microwave. There once was a real Mexican restaurant in Athens that served some of the country’s most unusual foods, but it didn’t last. Santa Fe has, for years. So, who’s right, the reviewer who wants real food or the restaurant operator who’s survived, even flourished, on something in between?


Cuisine: Prefab Tex-Mex “classics” from guacamole to fajitas
Athens Area: Northern suburbs, Halandri
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Pleasant, fun, nice garden in the summer
Service: 
Good
Wine List: 
Ok, with some Mexican beers too Prices:25-30 euro a person Address: 30B, Ag. Georgiou str., Halandri, tel.2106859690
Read more »

Piperia

0 comments
I am often caught between wanting to go to every new place and wanting to go back to places I like, in order to see, if nothing else, whether I still like them. Piperia, a friendly, busy seafood meze place in N. Psychiko falls into this latter category. I had been there a little more than a year ago and I have recommended it numerous times to friends. This time, though, I was mildly disappointed.
The place itself is handsome, all white, light, and pleasant, with old-style wooden cafeneion chairs painted white, white floors, big white lamp shades and butcher's paper on the table. The general feel is one of tradition gone slightly upscale. The menu has changed in the last year with an unwelcome (by moi) tilt toward more international fare and more gentrified Greek fare. Translation: the food has lost some of its character. For example, the taramosalata, made from white tarama (fish roe), pungent and fairly dense, comes served with homemade tortilla chips. We tried the black- eyed pea salad with ouzo vinaigrette, a version of which was on the old menu, too. This time around the salad was quite acidic, mainly because too many tomatoes threw it off balance. The fried squid with spicy sauce, also on last year’s menu, came out rubbery. But, we loved the fava, which had a beautiful presentation and a delicious, silky texture. It comes served with cracked black pepper and a smart combination of thin, raw sliced onion rings and sweet caramelized Stifado onions, which mellow the whole plate. Concentrating on starters, we also sampled one of the salads with arugula, spinach, and a creamy dressing based on honey and mustard. The salad itself is large and studded with dried figs, pomegranate seeds, and several pieces of crostini around the edge that are smothered in the soft goat's cheese, katiki. But the dressing is a little overwhelming. My pet peeve with most restaurant kitchens: please don’t let the salad greens swim in their sauce!
The main courses were less interesting. The pork loin (psaronefri) for example, stuffed with arugula and provolone and served with mustard sauce, is very tough, maybe because this normally tender piece was grilled. We loved the fried potatoes, which are cut thick and fried with their skins and served with a soothing yogurt sauce. The thin salmon fillet had no flavor and it came drenched in a syrupy teriyaki sauce that camouflaged everything on the plate.
Piperia’s menu includes, of course, lots of things we didn’t try, such as a selection of risotto and pasta dishes. Risotti included one with shrimp and zucchini and with mushrooms and black truffle pesto. There is at least one regional pasta dish, supposedly from Skyros, with spaghetti (!), and ouzo-sautéed prawns. The meze selection runs a gamut that I can only describe as Mediter-asian, with choices like salmon tataki and squid sautéed with ginger, chili, and soy sauce. The best stuff seems to be the stuff that’s closest to home. The seafood mezedes are plentiful and main courses include fillets of sole, guilt head bream (tsipoura), sea bass (lavraki), and more.
The drinks list includes a few choice ouzos, decent house wine and a small but competent wine list that is mainly Greek but also dotted with some Italian labels.


Cuisine: Mezedes from the sea and more, a Greek-Mediter-Asian mixture
Athens Area: 
northern suburbs, Neo Psychiko
Decor-Atmosphere: 
all-white, light, upscaled tradition
Service: 
Just fine
Wine List: 
Greek and some Italian labels, ouzo, beer, etc.
Prices: 
30-40 euro a person
Address: 
8, Agg. Sikelianou str. & Adrianiou str., Neo Psychiko, tel. 210 6729114


Read more »

Peccati Di Gola

0 comments
I have to stop going out with the wrong people! People who are a head taller than me, the same sex, and who have stayed steady at around 50 kilos (100 pounds or so) for most of their adult lives. These same people who can indulge in seemingly endless quantities of carbohydrates with no obvious affect on their silhouette.
With one such person I made the mistake of dining just a few nights ago, at a trattoria of her choice, one I had not been to before, in downtown Glyfada: Peccati di Gola. All said and done, it was a carb overload of a night with mixed reviews and a finale for dessert that made me fear the scale the next morning.
Peccati de Gola, is a small, modern trattoria run by the daughters of the late (and great, for those who remember him) Vincenzo. The pace is light and airy, simply but tastefully appointed, and, so far, law-abiding. We sat in the NONSMOKING section! Dear readers, understand, this is a first for Greek restaurants. The law baning indoor smoking is actually effective. It was great.
The menu here is a who’s who of beloved Italian dishes, from pizza to pasta to risotto, as well as a few newcomers with an Italian passport. We started with a filling, classic salad of arugula, lettuce, walnuts, green apple and Parmesan. I was pleasantly surprised with the dressing, which was balanced and not cloyingly sweet. So many chefs in this town over do it on the balsamic reduction, serving forth salads dressed with syrup. The involtini di melitzane (stuffed, rolled eggplant slices) is another classic. It is rustic here, a full plate, not particularly artful in its presentation but comforting and tasty. Most of the rest of the antipasti were in the carpaccio, salumi, and bread categories (focaccia etc.).
Starch came first in the form of a pizza and we opted for another classic, the simple margarita with fresh buffalo mozzarella. The crust was very good, the pizza light despite the oily runoff from the melted cheese, and the tomatoes fresh, small, and sweet. My dining companion had way more than she should have! The next dish wasn’t such a success: I ordered the black, squid-ink risotto with radicchio and shrimp. It was so salty I couldn’t eat more than a forkful and so black it was a little scary. There was way too much ink in there. I expected to see the radicchio braised or sautéed, which would have added a nice bitter counterpoint to the rice, but instead it was raw and finely chopped, which meant it just got lost in a black mountain of Arborio. My friend’s papardelle with sausage, mushrooms, and cream was much tastier. The sausage was very good and the cream sauce light.
Then came dessert. It weighed about the same as a small child and looked to be about the same size. A jumbo calzone stuffed with Nutella and topped with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. I am embarrassed to say that we finished it, despite the pangs of guilt. But then, I washed that all away with my last sip of Prosecco, which was what we opted instead of still wine.

Cuisine: Viva Italia!
Athens Area: 
Southern suburbs, Glyfada Decor-Atmosphere: Simple, modern, cozy trattoria
Service: 
Friendly and competent
Wine List: 
Decent Prices: 30-45 euro a person Address: 50, Kyprou str., Glyfada, tel. 210 898 1511

Read more »

La Rocca

0 comments
We set out with the best intentions and—important—the highest hopes when heading to La Rocca. I had read praise after praise and looked forward to spending a night at the dinner table with friends in a beautifully appointed old house in Makryianni, in the shadow of the Parthenon. The house took the owner around 4 years to renovate, according to our waiter. La Rocca promised to be delicious.
We had a small balcony with just one table, which made the atmosphere cozy and intimate. The Acropolis, visible upon twisting one’s head slightly and tilting back in the chair, helped fix the mood. Memories of a recent trip to the fabulous new museum made the whole thing seem somehow propitious. Our waiters, especially, helped the mood by being two of the most accommodating, polite, and enthusiastic servers I’d encountered in a long time. The main one recommended dishes that were “excellent,” an adjective we dared not question as they mentioned with near adulation the chef-owner Giorgio Muskens and his considerable culinary talents.
The classic Italian menu made our mouth water. Unfortunately, most of what we ordered made our veins clog, though, because almost everything came either drenched, swimming, or drowned in butter. Pools of it, glowing yellow like the moon over the Parthenon.
Vitello tonnato, thin slices of boiled veal in a smooth, creamy tuna sauce with capers, is one of my favorite Italian dishes and here it lived up to expectations, nicely presented and, despite the richness of the sauce, the lightest thing we ate. Another favorite Italian dish of mine is arancini, deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella, which oozes out irresistibly when you bite into the ball. You might be thinking that anyone inclined to order such a thing is numb to the notion of light food. Not so. These, however, had no flavor. In fact, the most overriding flavor was the oil—old?—into which they had been dropped and abandoned.
We stuck to fish, risotto, and pasta for the rest of our meal, and none of them was great. The best dish we sampled was the pasta and pesto, one of the day’s specials. Indeed, as the waiter promised, the pesto tasted homemade. A classic risotto ala Milanese was OK, not too strong and a tad too bland. We could hardly taste the saffron. But it was heavy, heavy, heavy on the butter, which coated tongues, palates, throats, and God knows what else after the first few bites. A seemingly simple sfirida (grouper) fillet arrived having swum first in the sea before being trapped in the freezer, whence it arrived with its full panoply of scales intact and which no one had bothered to carefully remove. From freezer, this sad fish ended it up in a shallow lake of butter on my dining companion’s plate. Finally, the plate that seemed the most classic, aristocratic and refined came drowned in the flood of butter: delicate sole cooked in a crust of almonds (also fatty).
I rarely meet an Italian dish I don’t like, and even more rarely leave food unfinished on my plate. Sadly for this beautiful restaurant with its excellent wait staff and promising aura, I put my fork down long before the wine was over. That, a delicious semi sparkling Italian white, went down with ease. So did the desserts: a chocolate crème brûlée and homemade ice cream.
Alora, what to say about La Rocca. I want to like it, I want to go back and enjoy my favorite Athens neighborhood, I want to taste la dolce vita and dream of a trip to Roma. But I cannot.

Cuisine: Italian classics
Athens Area: 
Under the Acropolis Decor-Atmosphere: Beautifully renovated house in Makriyanni
Service: 
Enthusiastic, accomodating, informed Wine List: Viva Italia
Prices: 
45-65 euro a person
Address: 
1, Aggelikara str. & Ratzieri str., Acropolis, tel. 210-9223620 
Read more »

Jaipur Palace

0 comments
One of the challenges of going out to eat these last few weeks is that my usual dining companion fasts. There are only so many seafood tavernas you can go to before they all start to seem the same. But Indian is different. Just the variety of spices and unusual ingredients in every dish, and the wealth of rice, vegetables and seafood dishes, make Indian cuisine attractive both during Lent and during the whole year. The trouble is that until fairly recently it was almost impossible to find decent Indian food in Athens.
Jaipur Palace was one of the first Indian restaurants, but when it opened several years ago, I recall not liking the food very much. Back then it seemed both too grecophied and too “prefab.” That is definitely no longer the case. We had a really good meal here last week.
The kitchen, which you pass upon entering the trinket-filled, colorful dining room, was abuzz with guys obviously from somewhere on the subcontinent chopping, frying, cooking, and searing on the inside of a tandoori oven. That oven provided two of the most memorable dishes we had: a deliciously succulent chicken tandoori, pleasantly natural in color (most tandoori chicken in Indian restaurants from here to L.A. are literally dyed red with anato, a natural coloring agent. It makes the food look scary.) The chunks were spiced beautifully, lean, and tender. I loved the large shrimp tandoori, too, which were also deliciously spiced.
A roasted eggplant dish provided us with something sort of familiar—a kind of Moghul melitzanosalata, seasoned differently and very good. The array of breads, onion-filled nans, garlic-filled nans, buttery chapatti and more helped sop up at least one fiery sauce, my shrimp vindaloo, which I ordered extra spicy and which those subcontinent cooks obligingly prepared. Pilafs aromatic and gold with saffron, spinach paneer (cheese), mimosa filled with spiced chick peas, and other Indian specialties made us all yearn for a trip to Delhi.
Jaipur Palace is a vast improvement over what it was just a few years ago. A meal here isn’t Central-Market cheap: Those shrimps in the tandoori were a 35 – euro entrée, that’s about 5 euro per shrimp! Ouch.


Cuisine: Indian fare
Athens Area: 
northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Colorful with all sorts of trinkets, furniture, etc. from India
Service: Good
Wine List: 
Good Prices: 35-50 euro per person
Address: 
Ag. Konstantinou str. & 73, Themidos str., Maroussi, tel. 2108052762-3
Read more »

Hell's Kitchen

0 comments



I didn’t exactly grow up in Hell’s Kitchen New York City, but I knew plenty of people who had, many of whom later became well-known Greek restaurant people. Here in Athens Hell’s Kitchen is just a restaurant, not a whole neighborhood, but it couldn’t be situated in a more apt location, in the ever-changing dark heart of Athens, near the old Town Hall (Dimarheio) just off Kotzia Square, where junkies sadly crouch and prostitutes hover in doorways.
We visited on a Saturday afternoon for lunch, no reservation in hand because I never in a million years imagined I’d need one. The place was jammed. There are two floors, but, crowds notwithstanding, they don’t serve food on the upper floor. They will, however, let a table be occupied at the busiest hour of the day by a couple of guys nursing coffees. It a policy that’s definitely not cost-efficient! We waited at the bar until the waiter eventually managed to squeeze our party of five into a table space.
Hell’s Kitchen is fun, the food is more than competent, the prices are made for a youth budget, the menu is huge, the wine list totally foreign and the service well-intentioned but harried.
The décor is simple and pretty minimal. A long counter with high stools occupies the middle of the room and a handful of tables crowd the periphery. The bar takes up a fair amount of space, too. A mural depicting abstract buildings decorates one wall. The napkins are a very un-feng-shui black!
Salads, sandwiches, pastas, burgers, omelets and more serious main courses make up the menu, which is a potpourri of Greco-Mediterranean and American (Texas burger, BLT sandwich, Caesar salad, etc.) fare. There are two kinds of fries, the classics and the “village” fries, which have been boiled before hitting the hot oil and are soft, not crisp. But they’re good.
We liked the lentil salad, with its crumbled goat’s cheese, arugula, and sweet balsamic dressing. The green salad came with a large choice of dressings. We opted for the Mediterranean, which had a nice, slightly sweet flavor. The chicken saltimbocca with mushroom risotto sounded more interesting than its execution—the chicken, rolled with sage, parmesan and prosciutto, was dry. The risotto was competent. The pasta with saffron and shrimp is a simpatico mélange of tagliatelle, saffron sauce and small shrimp, an easy dish for lunch or dinner. Two of us ordered medium-rare burgers. Mine, a cheeseburger, came out well-done. The Texas burger was a more faithful rendition of “medium”. Both could have been a little juicier.
I am glad Hell’s Kitchen isn’t hell. Even though I really dislike noisy restaurants, and bemoan places that are so cramped that the waitresses can’t reach your table easily, Hell’s Kitchen fulfills its mission: it’s a trendy place with more than decent food that young in body and spirit seem to flock to with abandon on Saturday afternoons and beyond.



Cuisine: 
Mediterranean-American dishes
Athens Area: 
Center, Kotzia square
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Simple, minimal decor. Trendy, noisy, fun. 
Service: 
Harried
Wine List: 
A limited selection of French, Italian, and American wines – nothing Greek
Prices: 20-30 euro a person
Address: 
13, Klisthenous str., Kotzia square, tel. 210 524 1555


Read more »

Filitsa

0 comments
Here in Ikaria, the opening of a new taverna is a major social event, especially if the opening is in mid July, when the Ikarians from Athens and beyond have begun to descend on the island, still restless with urban energy. Filitsa’s was the opening of the season here in Raches, on the northern side of Ikaria.
Located in Karidies – or Karies, as it’s pronounced—Filitsa’s is the result of a father-son team of professional chefs (the father retired after a 30-year career at the Intercontinental; the son runs two restaurants, in Athens and in the local port of Armenistis). Karidies is a couple of kilometers further up the mountain from Christos, the village of all-night fame. We were there on one of those recent 40-degree searingly hot days, but here in northern Ikaria, and especially in Karies, the nights are cool and comfortable. The place is appointed with local objects d’art! Amazing sandstone “sculptures,” carved by the wind into wavy, hole-ridden pieces of abstract art, act like walls closing off the front garden. A thatched roof covering provides shelter. The rest is fairly simple. The family hopes to run this place even during the isolated months of the long Ikarian winter and are in the midst of setting up a bakaliko in the space, too.
The food is a combination of grilled meats and good souvlaki, and more modern offerings that have a certain urbane flair without going too over the top for standards of this low-key, casual island. We tried a cheese pie starter wrapped like dolmades in kataifi pastry and served with some kind of berry fruit sauce. That was just about the most daring dish. The fried zucchini, cut not into rounds but lengthwise almost like thin fingers, is a house specialty. The fava, with or without seafood, is smooth and competent.
The pasta dishes are the mainstay of the menu at Filitsa’s and they are all pretty good. My personal favorite is the spaghetti with arugula and garlic. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an Ikarian specialty, but the pleasantly bitter taste of the roka married with the strength of the sautéed garlic makes for a great combination. The Carbonara is rich with cream and bacon, not exactly a rigorously authentic version but tasty nonetheless. The Yiouvetsi was a winner for all who ordered it, a filling portion of slow cooked lamb in tomato sauce and a heaping portion of orzo to go with it.
Filitsa’s is a bit of a trek if you’re staying along the northern coast of Ikaria, but it’s a nice change from the throngs of people in Christos any night of the week (after 11 pm, that is!) and from the sometimes psychologically distant environs of Armenistis.


Cuisine: 
Greek and local specialties as well as a big array of pasta dishes
Area: North-eastern Aegean, Ikaria island Decor-Atmosphere: simple yard with some local color
Service: still needs smoothing out
Wine List: Local, local, local and beer
Prices: 
15-20 euro per person
Address: 
Karidies (Karies), Christos, Rahes, Ikaria 


Read more »

Elia

0 comments
It was a friend’s idea to go urban on a Friday night, girls’ night out. We all live within a 4 km radius of the Athens neighborhood, Ambelokipi, so Elia, Greek for olive, a place I hadn’t been to in a long while, seemed like a logical choice, especially since one of the group had recently been there and “approved.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have exactly the same opinion. Some of that difference has to do with better memories of an earlier visit; some of it has to do with memories of the same plates, a menu almost unchanged over time, which to this palate means that the kitchen needs to freshen itself a bit.
For one, cheese and fried dishes seem to be overwhelmingly present on Elia’s menu in dishes such as: pitakia anthotyrou (small pies with anthotyro cheese), flogeres me tyri kai zambon (phyllo flutes with cheese and ham), striftopita(coiled pie) with tomato and feta cheese, parmesan croquettes, yams with cream cheeses, eggplant cheese pie, meatballs with mozzarella, red peppers filled with kopanisti cheese. That’s a lot of cheese! I have always felt that one of nature’s great gifts to mankind--cheese!--has to be savored and used sparingly. It’s an easy way out for any cook to add a little cheese and make something banal taste a little better.
We tried a sampling of some of the cheese-laden specialties. The pies filled with anthotyro, a soft, mild cheese, were good. We sampled the meat pies with yogurt, with the yogurt mixed into the filling; these were an OK dish, nothing terribly memorable, but nothing to hamper the night either. The croquettes were heavy. Both the zucchini and tomato fritters were fried dark and had soaked up the deep fryer oil like a sponge. We tried to temper the richness of so much dairy and fried foods with a spinach salad, which was good but a little too wet. We liked the classic grilled stuffed squid, stuffed with—what else—feta cheese!
I wanted something on the lighter side as a main course and so went with the salmon in basil sauce, which was not very sexy! The salmon was a little overcooked and the basil in the basil sauce had somehow gotten away. The rump steak that a friend had was decent.
Elia seems a little tired these days and so do its waiters. There is a strange system here—an electronic bell—for calling the waiter to bring one of several things: water, a menu, to take an order and, finally, to bring the bill. But it depersonalizes the service. It also doesn't guarantee the imminent arival of a waiter. When we pressed it half jokingly the waiter arrived several minutes later, annoyed that he had been called to duty. If he was actually on the floor watching he’d have noticed sooner that we wanted to order.
The décor is as tired as the food. It hasn’t changed over the years. Overall, it felt to me like Elia could use some sprucing up.

Cuisine: Mediterranean banal 
Athens Area: 
near the center
Decor-Atmosphere: 
contemporary and a little impersonal
Service: 
Not “saved by the bell”!
Wine List: an OK Greek wine list
Prices: 
30-40 euro a person Address: 28, Mylopotamou str., Ambelokipi, tel. 2106910100



Read more »

Cookounari

2 comments
The name, Pine Nut in Greek, is cute, the location refreshingly off the radar screen of the masses (i.e. Psyrri, Glyfada, etc.) and the food surprisingly good. Cookounari, a small, new casual restaurant off a small plateia in the northern suburb of N. Erythrea is one of a growing number of eateries that aim to be both reasonably priced and interesting. In this case, the interest comes from the Italian cadence of the menu, which is executed by an Italian chef named Astrid Sperantza.
The restaurant was a little rough around the edges when we went—a sophisticated menu offset by a relatively unsophisticated waitstaff who was still learning on the job. But they were polite and enthusiastic, communicating a sense of excitement that was a nice change from typical dour-faced waitstaff in so many of this city’s eateries.
I liked the fact that chef Astrid has filled her menu with simple, easy choices but with not much that is easily found elsewhere. She takes some inspiration from the traditions of her adopted country, in dishes like very Greek keftedakia made with very unGreek beef cheeks, served in a basil sauce. Octopus, so much a part of our own culinary vernacular, is here cooked with an ancient variety of potatoes, which happen to be even darker and more purple than the octopus. Visually, the salad needed something to brighten it up, but the flavor was there, earthy and satisfying.
Pasta is the thing to come here for, both because the prices are so accessible and also because the pasta is a break from the typical selection in other trattorias around town. Sure, there are classics, like rigatoni alla Amatriciana. But there are innovative dishes, too, and those beef cheeks smiled in one of them, braised and married with a hard wheat pasta that looked a little like rigatoni. Unfortunately, the day we went the kitchen was out of one of the classic greats of Italian cooking, papardelle with rabbit ragout. The ravioli stuffed with shrimp that I ordered as a replacement was delicate and elegant, served in a bisque like sauce. We loved the fusilli with chewy slices of avgotaraho (botargo) and tomato confit, too.
Pasta evaders might find solace in some of the protein on Cookounari’s menu, including a T-bone, ribeye, bifteki, and grilled chicken breast. But these are options for the faint of heart and plain of taste. The flare is in the other stuff.
The desserts had a share of finesse, too. The yogurt cream crumble with fresh fruits and the chocolate cake with a strong hint of rosemary were delicious. All time favorites like tiramisu are well executed. The crème brûlée with grappa sorbet was a little disjointed but interesting.
I like this trend. I like going to reasonably priced restaurants that don’t aim to be the next BIG THING, where the food has some flair and honesty and the whole endeavor seems real and accessible to ordinary folks who, even in these hard times, still like to eat out.

Cuisine: Trattoria fare with flair
Athens Area: Northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Easy going casual trattoria off the radar screen of the masses
Service: Still learning
Wine List: 
Interesting
Prices: 30-35 per person without wine
Address: 28th Oktovriou Square (ex Tsakpini Square)Nea Erithrea, tel. 
2108002025 

Read more »

Cocina Povera

0 comments
I have this thing about flocking to restaurants that have been the darling of a fickle press for all of a month or so. Such is the case with Cocina Povera, a hot new place opened by alumni of the late, great 48 restaurant, Giannis Kaimenakis and chef Kleomenis Zournatzis. For all its hipness, attractive prices, cool but simple design, hot spot on a historic pedestrian street in Pangrati, and excellent wine list at very good prices, I fear that the name divulges more truth about this restaurant than its owners intended it to. The food at best was mediocre.
Supposedly, the chef hits the market daily and decides the menu accordingly. I am curious to know where he found pumpkin and pomegranates on a hot June 9th, when we visited. OK, so you can find Chilean pomegranates at the local super market and maybe some sharp-eyed grocer managed to save a pumpkin or two from last fall, but surely 10-month-old Fall vegetables and fruit that makes a very un-eco journey half way across the world to land on a table in Pangrati somehow defeat the whole purpose of daily forays to the market. Isn’t that supposed to imply seasonality, especially when the owner goes out of his way to inform you? My second sense of something being amiss came after reading through the menu and seeing that fully half of the 20 items offered contain cheese, for me a telltale sign that a little imagination is in order in the kitchen.
What we did order, cheese-filled and not, was ok but nothing more. We started with a very simple ladotyri Saganaki, which was easy and fine. Next came the plasto, a traditional Epirote wild greens pie (what’s wild in June besides Vlita-- amaranth??) with a cornmeal crust. The pie was very dry and the cornmeal crust, which should be nutty and comforting, was instead grainy and brown, like the color of a rainless summer field. The tuna with fava sounded promising but was the most disappointing of all. The tuna still had some fine bones left in it and it was cooked but in a way that turned the core into sponge, the color of dried blood. The fava was overwrought with roughly cut tomatoes and peppers and an over eager sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The dish failed clumsily. A mille feuille of eggplant sounded like a baked dish of thinly sliced eggplant, tomato and ricotta but instead came in the form of three large oval slices, so over breaded that you couldn’t taste the eggplant or feel it in your mouth. Massive lumps of ricotta and a pale pink tomato concasse completed the dish, which tasted ok but lacked anything close to finesse. The risotto was a little better, even though it was terribly sweet, surely not solely from the addition of that Fall pumpkin? The salmon was well prepared, grilled to a juicy finish, but served with a boring, busy potato salad that would have been better off with a sausage and beer.
We tried another mille feuille for dessert, with pastry cream and strawberries, which was ok, a little on the rough side like everything else, but tasty. The only thing going for Cocina Povera is the pricing, which comes to about 20-25 euro a person without wine. But I wonder, isn't that a povera excuse for not thinking through the menu, its execution, and presentation a little better?

Cuisine: menu changes daily, Greek cuisine
Athens Area: 
Pangrati, close to Kolonaki
Decor-Atmosphere: 
In the general “taverneau” category of places designed to look like modern day grocery stores, right down to the wooden wine crates turned into side tables and holding bins
Service: Friendly
Wine List: Very good list and very good prices
Prices: Around 20-25 per person without wine
Address: 13, Eforionos str. & Eratosthenous str. (pedestrian street), Pangrati, tel. 210 7566008 
Read more »

Barbounaki

Monday, October 12, 2009 0 comments
Barbounaki is a fish taverna you almost have to go...fishing for…to find. Despite its central location literally across the street from the Kallimarmaron Stadium, Athens first Olympic Stadium, it’s small and slightly hidden from both pedestrians and cars. A friend and Pangrati native who walks past there all the time, had never seen it.
Barbounaki, Greek for red mullet, tries to evoke the timeless, casual, friendly atmosphere of a quintessential island taverna. White straw-seated chairs and tables, and simple island themes make up the décor. The tables are a small problem, even for our group of women all of medium height. Our legs hardly fit under the table because of a panel beneath the surface that makes sitting uncomfortable.
The menu is small and fairly ordinary. A bread basket comes with an accompanying raw salad of fresh tomatoes and onions. There is a classic selection of various fried fish, grilled octopus, fried and grilled squid, the standard array of dips and salads. We sampled the more “exotic” offerings, such the octopus Stifado, which is perfectly competent but lacking in anything that makes it memorable. That’s more or less the summation of all that we ate. The fried shrimp were limp and greasy, with nothing of the salty crunch that makes this simple dish so great when it’s done well. The same holds true for the grape leaves stuffed with seafood. If you’ve ever had this dish done well, it’s delicious. Here it was served cold and unattractively as just a handful of rolled grape leaves placed on a plate with a little yogurt. What sounded like the most interesting dish, karavidosoupa (crayfish soup), was a watery tomato-based broth with crayfish still in the shells sitting in the middle of the bowl. It’s not an easy thing to clean the shells off dripping crayfish claws; this is something the kitchen should do before the soup is served. The best thing on the menu that night was a squid salad, tossed with vegetables and simply dressed. We enjoyed a few plates of horta (greens), sipped a carafe of wine, but opted out of the spoon sweets for dessert.
Barbounaki is not this city’s most inspired fish taverna, that’s for sure, but it’s too bad. Obscured by the Stadium and nestled in an area better known for its bars, I hope this small place stays afloat. It would help, too, if the owners were more sensitive to the onslaught of cigar smoke from surrounding tables in a room not much bigger than the average living room. After 16 years of writing restaurant reviews in this town, I have still not been able to figure out why people are allowed to smoke cigars while other, equally good paying customers eat, even if they are seated in the smoking section.

Cuisine: Classic but uninspired seafood
Athens Area: Kallimarmaron Stadium, Pagkrati, close to Kolonaki 
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Tries to look like an island fish taverna 
Service: Friendly
Wine List: OK
Prices: 
25-30 euro a person
Address: 
Barbounaki Vas. Konstantinou 2, Kallimarmaron StadiumTel. 6948 759119 
Read more »

Aneton

0 comments
 There has always been something, let’s say, comforting (the English equivalent for the Greek word aneton) about Aneton, the small, well-known gourmet hot spot in Maroussi, where chef Vasilis Kalidis cooks up some of the most original Greek food in town. The setting, like a Greek living room right out of the late 1960s, has remained a constant source of fun every time we visit.
I don’t get here as often as I’d like. The last time was about a year ago, with a group of friends, on a Friday night. My most recent visit found me there in the fasting days before Easter, tempted into carnivorous ways with little regret. The first thing we ordered was one of the best plates I’ve tasted in a long time, a velouté of fresh grape leaves. The color was like freshly cut grass in a bowl and the aroma and flavor tinged with the delicious acidity endemic to grape leaves in general. But the chef tempered this with a little potato and some yogurt. Soup lovers like me have a hard time finding good bowls to slurp in Greek restaurants, since Greece is not a soup-loving country. This was superb, original, refined, and memorable.
It’s not every day I can devote a whole paragraph to a bowl of soup, but alas I want to leave room for some of the other dishes we tried. The grilled spring onions with avgotaraho (botargo) was an interesting idea, potentially elegant but lacking the chef’s characteristic flair. The thick lemony sauce overwhelmed the grilled spring onions, but the botargo paired perfectly with them. I would have preferred great olive oil, a little grating of lemon zest and some black pepper to bring out the natural flavors of the season’s young onions. We loved the chick pea croquettes with fresh herbs and tarama (fish roe). For one, they looked and tasted nothing like the revithokeftedes (chick pea fritters) most of us have either had at home or in tavernas. These were plump and tender and crumbly, with delicious herbal undertones, and served artfully on a long plate. I couldn’t resist the Pontian pasta stuffed with meat and served with yogurt sauce. The dough, spicy meat filling, light tomato sauce, yogurt and touch of smoky paprika all make for an irresistible quartet at least to my comfort-sensitized palate. They were out of the peinirli (dough boat) with Armenian soutzouki (spicy sausage) and kasseri cheese, a classic gone upscale for sure at the hands of this able chef. But the shrimp souvlaki (skewer) and the soupies (cuttlefish) yiahni with spinach made up for it. The shrimp, medium-sized and grilled to perfection, not too dry, not too flaccid, were deliciously seasoned with eastern spices and served with zucchini and basil pesto. The soupies (cuttlefish) were also very good but even better was the hand made squid ink pasta they came with.
I can’t decide what I liked most at Aneton, but the desserts are up there in terms of favorites. Best of all was the childhood memory inducing “krema” (cream), a concoction of pear velouté, politico ice cream, and crumbled petit beurre cookies, This was an adult dessert with totally baby flavors and we loved it! The tahini mousse with strawberries and chocolate sauce came in a close second.
Aneton was one of my favorite restaurants a few years ago when it first opened, and it was comforting to feel the same surprise and pleasure at all of Kalidis’ original creations. I want the recipe for that grape leaf soup!

Cuisine: Some of the most original new Greek food around
Athens Area: 
Northern suburbs
Decor: 
Home circa 1965
Service: 
Professional and friendly
Wine List: 
Good
Prices: 
45-55 euro per person
Address: 
19, Strat. Lekka str., Maroussi, tel. 210 8066700

Read more »