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To Ouzeri tou Mitsou

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 0 comments
Can misery be fun? That is the question when you set out for an Italian restaurant of some repute in downtown Halandri, a well-known suburb north of Athens, on a rainy Wednesday night, after having called just a few days earlier, only to discover that in the course of 72 hours said restaurant has gone out of business. Hmm. Where to go with two girlfriends for a final tipple and some tidbits before we all separate for Christmas? It was then that I remembered the lines, out the door, indeed, on most Saturdays when I happened to pass by a tiny hole in the wall right behind the main church on restaurant row in Halandri. The place: to Ouzeri tou Mitsou, a narrow, old-fashioned taverna with old-fashioned clientele: older guys with worry beads and retsina and cigarettes clustered in small groups, a few oddly modern couples, replete with pierced body parts and tatoos and chemical hair, and then us, three young-at-heart middle-aged ladies out for an easy meal and some wine-induced cheer.
I know this sounds strange, but this little ouzerie is, well, pleasantly miserable! I mean sooo simple and basic, with service and a menu to match, recalling the innocent, taverna-stuffed days of my youth. The food was fine. Decent fava (yellow split pea puree) come served warm (how to tell decent fava: it should be creamy and not pasty, and, yes, it is best served slightly warm). A classic plate of boiled zucchini came boiled to just the right point where al dente meets softness. The saganaki (fried cheese) was totally old-world style, encased in a thick batter before it hits the fryer, properly oozing within, with no extraneous “creative” additions that sometimes embellish but also sometimes mar the pure pleasure of indulging in artery-clogging food. Horta (greens) came as horta should: soft and pillowy and deep green, with a good dousing of our national treasure, olive oil, generously soaking it. Lemon on the side, of course.
We had the bakaliaro skordalia (fried cod with garlic dip), which was not an abridged version! Plenty of garlic in a dense, textural bread-based skordalia (garlic dip), the old-fashioned kind. A plate of fried small shrimp that were plucked out of the waters of Evia earlier in the day or week were more medium-sized than bite-sized and so needed to be purged of their heads before eating.
Mitso’s Ouzerie is a simple, rustic place, fitting, perhaps for these times, when we still want to go out, but just can’t afford to! I am beginning to long for the foamy days of yore when fava was infused with truffle oil and bakaliaros-skordalia was just a name open to interpretive cooking!
Cuisine: classics meze dishes to accompany with ouzo
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor: narrow, old-fashioned taverna, a bit rough around the edges but pleasantly retro
Service: ok
Prices: 12-15 euros a person
Address: 
8, Eleftheroton square, Halandri, tel.: 210 6840229
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ManiMani

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We had guests in town and wanted to go somewhere fashionably…inexpensive. ManiMani turned up on my radar screen, a place I’ve wanted to return to after visiting it when it first opened a few years ago. I am always interested in places that showcase the cuisine of a particular region, in this case the dry, majestic southern Peloponnese, known for its exquisite olive oil, meagre but essential cooking, and tough locals.

There is definitely a lot more from the Mani on the menu today than there was a few years back. Singlino (cured pork in olive oil), talagani (a lovely grilling cheese from Messinia, in the Pelop.), various local pastas, and more are among the ingredients that crop up all over the menu. Orange and lemon, so important in the flavor palette of the southern Peloponnese, grace many dishes. The space, an old house near the Acropolis Museum, is lovely, well preserved, and simply but pleasantly appointed, the kind of space most of us can easily fantasize living in.
Despite the numerous things in its favor, ManiMani disappointed us a little. The main reason has to do with where the emphasis is in the kitchen and on the menu: making the plates look impressive but not tending as carefully as possible to the actual flavors in each dish. A trilogy of cold dips (fava (yellow split pea puree), tyrokafteri (spicy cheese dip), melitzanosalata (eggplant salad)) comes in annoyingly small portions. Ditto on the trilogy of saganakis (fried cheese), one with haloumi cheese, one with talagani cheese, one with manouri cheese. There were four of us, and it wasn’t enough to go around. Looked good, though! The homemade ravioli filled with chard, myronia(wild chervil), kafkalithres (Mediterranean hartwort) and served with feta cheese sauce seemed anemic. I expected a really flavorful filling and a pungent sauce and what I got were a few insipid half-moons barely filled with greens and a sauce where the cheese had either been left out or was so little that it was indiscernible. The greens salad with a round of grilled manouri cheese, served as an upright cylinder, looked great and tasted fine.
We ordered three mains. The rooster with noodles was very salty, and that noted from a palate that adores salt. I liked the fried salt cod a lot, although I thought there was a little too much going on on the plate between the bed of greens and the various inter-flowing sauces in different colors. The lavraki (sea bass) with fennel cream was perfectly pan-seared, crisp and tender; the fennel cream could have had more personality.
We skipped dessert but indulged in two bottles of wine.
A little refinement is what ManiMani needs. If they achieve that, customers will come a-running, mani-mani (in greek this expression means quickly)…


Cuisine: Specialties and inspirations from the Southern Peloponnese
Athens Area: Athens neighborhood (Acropolis metro station)
Decor: simple, cozy, Greek
Service: good
Wine List: good
Prices: 25-35 euro a person
Address: 10, Falirou str., Koukaki, tel.: 2109218180

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Hatskar

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Cheap but not chic, delicious but not beautiful. These are the words I’d use to describe Hatskar, a small family restaurant in the northern suburb of Maroussi that serves very good, homemade Armenian dishes.
The waiter calls out to the chef after I ask him a question: “Mama, what’s in the pasous dolma (bean-stuffed pickled cabbage)?” Mama, the chef, is a kerchief-clad, plump very good cook who personally brings over the dish. We enjoy every bit of it.
Hatskar refers to a cross carved into wood. The restaurant is small, bright, and very plain. If there were a few cozier touches and a little less light the space would be much more pleasant and would do the food, which is delicious, justice. If it looked better, I'd even recommend a taxi ride north, for those adventurous and curious diners who want to taste the ethnic places that local love.
The menu is filled with dishes that were new to me. For example, lahmatzoun, the paper-thin small round pies typically topped with spicy ground meat, here come in the well-known version but also in another with spinach. The hatzapouri is an open-faced cheese and yogurt pie, which was very good. I loved the garlicky ground-walnut-filled eggplant rolls, which were so filling it seemed they had meat in them. The pickled cabbage dolmades filled with mixed beans came as two large rolls in a light tomato sauce. They were very good. So was the Armenian chicken salad, with mushrooms, pomegranate seeds and walnuts, dressed in a mayonnaise sauce. It was surprisingly light. The Armenian kebab, ground meat pressed around a long skewer, came with ample raw onions and chopped tomatoes and a generous portion of the very thin flatbread that also came in the beginning, with a spicy red pepper dip.
I don’t know if I would come back here to enjoy a lingering meal but I’d certainly order out because the food is real, homemade, delicious, and cheap. The Armenian wine we tried, Areni, wasn’t exactly the Caucasus Cabernet, as our enthusiastic waiter promised! Sip a beer instead.
Cuisine: tasty homemade Armenian dishes
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor: small family restaurant, bright and plain
Service: ok, the waiter was very enthusiastic!
Cava: ok
Prices: 12-15 euros per person
Address: 40, Irinis Ave., Pefki, tel.: 210-8064770, 210-6126823

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Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino

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If your'e near the Acropolis and wise enough to steer clear of most of the area's tourist traps, then head to this cozy little Italian place that local Athenians love. The last time I visited this restaurant was with a good girlfriend many years ago. It had just opened, she had just gotten back from Italy, and we were both in the mood for a long talk over something easy, with good wine to match. The most recent visit was also with a good girlfriend, neither of us having just returned from pasta land, but dreaming about going.
Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino, right around the corner from the Acropolis train stop, is the perfect restaurant for the times: very reasonably priced, warm and cozy, just the right size, relatively quiet, with a menu that is mostly pasta and other favorite Italian fare. Why doesn’t anyone every get tired of eating Italian food?
The waitress is also the owner, a sweet, enthusiastic guide to the best things on the menu. The service was a tad slow. “Everything is made to order,” was the excuse. Everything we ordered was worth waiting for: An interesting bruschetta (grilled bread) topped with mozzarella, anchovies, tomatoes, oregano and olive oil, worked, despite what I thought might be disparate ingredients; the curly red lettuce salad with fresh mushrooms came embellished deliciously with pine nuts, raisins, parmesan and a tasty dressing; The spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and pepper was perfectly seasoned, a simple dish that speaks tomes about the good Mediterranean Diet, with just the right amount of heat to satisfy this spice-loving palate. My dining companion went for one of the specials, spaghetti like me but with a delicious sauce made with salt cod and tomatoes. Dessert was a choice of classics like tiramisu and crème brulee and more. We opted for a light, lovely lemon cream, the perfect end to an easy, comfortable dinner. Wines: the list is small and well-priced, with a handful of good Italian wines, too, including a Valpolicella and a Barbera d’Alba. We went with the restaurant’s own bottled Nemea, a classic red from the Peloponnese, which was just fine. 
Cuisine: mostly pasta
Athens Area: downtown Athens (Acropolis metro station)
Décor: Cozy, a little dark
Service: Friendly but a little slow
Cava: Small but good
Prices: 25-35 euro a person
Would I come back: Si, si, si
Address: 13, Porinou str., Makrygianni, tel.: 2109211801
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Varoulko

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 0 comments


Crisis time may not be the ideal season for visiting one of Greece’s finest and priciest restaurants, Varoulko, but a friend was taking me to dinner and offered to take me there. How could I say no? It had, indeed, been several years since I had savored the foods of one of my favorite chefs, Lefteris Lazarou.
Lazarou has stayed steady by Varoulko, the restaurant he began as a small, humble fish place in the boondocks of Piraeus and elevated to a temple of haute seafood cuisine, moving the restaurant once within Piraeus and then again during the Athens boom years to the Hotel Iridanos on Piraeus Street. Now, in addition to his role as chef, he has become the avuncular presence on one of this food season’s spate of food tv shows, Master Chef. The guests even try to emulate him in their own cooking “styles”.
TV has done him good, businesswise. On a Monday night, typically the toughest restaurant night in any city, Varoulko was packed and the crowd was decidedly casual, with more than a few 30-somethings in T-shirts. Is this the power of TV boosting business? I would think so.
The food, as always, was accomplished and refined and clearly portrayed a chef at the height of his technical skills. Some things worked better for me than others.
The first dish looked like a minimalist painting and paean to feminine-masculine balance: a neat straight row of overlapping slices of golden, fresh botargo on the left side of the dish countered the soft vanilla-cream sphere, roasted tomato bed and parmesan cracker on the right. Despite its beauty, for me the components seemed like mere neighbors with no real relation to one another.
The next dish though was redeeming and it was Absolute Lazarou at his Absolute Best: fish soup. Not just any fish soup but an intensely flavored dark reddish brown “essence” of the sea that came even more alive when you swirled a thin phyllo cigar into it and tasted the saffron cream in the bowl’s center. It was delicious and a siren’s call to his more sensual food of meals past.
Next came another great-to-look at dish that also had notes from the past but of a different order. Years ago, when the chef was cooking one summer near the marina in Piraeus, I sat in awe as he presented me with delicate strips of filleted sardine that had been adhered to a thin slice of bread and fried to perfection, all this served with eggplant cream. It’s a dish I’ve seen reverberate all over the city by others, but found it again on his current menu albeit “gourmet-ified.” Bream replaced the sardines, the eggplant cream stayed on, and the whole thing was tied together, sort of, with a raspberry sauce. It was great to look at but a little odd. I am not a great fan of confusing dessert flavors with savory flavors, but I know this is a trend now.
We loved the fish keftedes with Lazarou’s barbecue sauce, a fun, easy, comfortable dish that countered the austerity of some of the other plates.
Our meal ended with another redrawing of the boundaries between sweet and savory. Dessert. This was a delicious, smooth, richly flavored chocolate olive oil mousse with vanilla ice cream, served with a very salty cracker and an arugula leaf.
Maybe I just didn’t get it.
Cuisine: creative haute cuisine (fish and seafood) by a well-known chef
Athens Area: 
Athens neighborhood
Prices: 
60-80 euros per person
Address: 
80, Pireos str.tel.: 2105228400
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Ta Tria Asteria (Three Stars)

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I had almost forgotten the pleasures of a good kebab—not something I, personally, indulge in too often—until a recent visit to one of Athens’ oldest (and best) kebab places, Ta Tria Asteria, reminded me of how delicious one could be. I remember first visiting this place, on Plastira square in Nea Smyrni, sometime around the mid 1980s. That a restaurant can change generational hands from parents to kids, renovate so that it looks young and fresh and modern, and yet serve forth the same high-quality food consistently well for more than two decades is a feat worth lauding. I can only think of a very few such restaurants in Athens.
No surprise then that the place was packed. Despite that, the service was excellent, so much so that, when we got lost after making a wrong turn in the area, they actually sent a kid on a motorbike to come and guide us to the restaurant.
The room is understated and contemporary, done up in beiges and woody browns, with pictures on the walls, a neutral design that somehow conveys warmth.
The menu is as large today as it was in 1986, a kind of who’s who of mezedes and kebabs with something for everyone. A waiter still brings out a large tray of meze offerings, appealing to both eye and belly.
We started with an excellent, very basic politiki melitzanosalata (eggplant salad) that was dense and smoky, with not a trace of bitterness and no seeds. Next, we sampled another eggplant dish: thick slices of fried eggplants, with skin, each piece so thick it was like a little cup. These were topped with what is described on the menu as ketchup. Could it be? Maybe. The sauce was very plain and basic and could have used some flavor. I liked the idea and the presentation. Next, we bit into triangular slices of lahmatzoun, thin pieces of baked pita topped with a dry, flavorful ground meat mixture. The lahmatzoun was very good, especially if you sprinkled it with some of the dried tomato flakes, raw onion and lime that are on the plate. A small plate of spicy red pepper and tomato salad came next, which was terrific.
I NEVER eat kokoretsi (skewered, grilled mixed innards) unless I have personally known the animal who gave away his innards for our pleasure. Here it’s a house special and I felt compelled to try it. No regrets. It was clean and as gentrified as kokoretsi can be. I did, however, save my favorite, the buttery, crisp pita kaisarias (pie with pastourma) that I remember as slightly larger from years ago, as the last of the mezedes. It was a tiny bit underbaked, but delicious.
We moved with full awareness of how many calories we’d already consumed onto the main course kebabs, opting for the kasserlit kebab, a long twist of ground meat and kasseri cheese wrapped around a skewer, grilled, then slipped off. This was garlicky and tangy and wonderful, especially with the standard side of raw onion and roasted tomato. The fine bulgur-tomato pilaf that comes with it is tasty.
Could we leave without cutting into a crisp round of shredded wheat pastry (kataifi) hiding a layer of mild cheese, sprinkled with pistachios and doused in an aromatic syrup? No way. I am talking about the kunefe, which I can still remember from 20 years ago because the first time I ever had it was at Tria Asteria. It’s even better today.
Three stars for The Three Stars! Bravo.
Cuisine: Some of the best kebabs in town and a whole array of politika specialties 
Athens area: Nea Smyrni
Decor-Atmosphere: fresh and modern, warm and neutral
Service: excellent
Wine List: good
Prices: 20-30 euro per person
Address: 1, Melitos str.
 & 77 Plastira str., Nea Smyrni, tel.: 2109358134

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The Prime Grill

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Dinner with my daughter, all of 17, is becoming increasingly more interesting. We actually set out for a new burger place in N. Psychiko, a northern suburb, but upon parking outside and looking in, we had little desire to go. Instead, we ended up across the street at the Prime Grill, on what has become a restaurant-heavy crossroads (Places include: Piperia, Far East, a good souvlaki place, the burger joint, within 100 meters of each other). I hadn’t been here in a few years and was glad to come back, for a decent steak and a pretty good burger.
     Prime Grill is one of many steak houses that opened in Athens when the country still felt like it was on an up-hill course, when meat, the de facto food of affluence, was on everyone’s mind! Greeks still lean toward the carnivorous, but maybe with slightly less frequency now that lentils have become part of the working-man’s weekly diet again.
     Prime Grill has a simple, accessible menu. We liked the sautéed mushrooms, which were light (translation: no cream!)  and flavored with tomato and tarragon. They were cut chunky and cooked al dente. Other appetizers included the increasingly talagani, the popular, mild cheese from Messinia in the Peloponnese, which is best served grilled; grilled haloumi and vegetables; keftedakia (meatballs), and pretty good Greek fries, a little heavy on the salt but crunchy.
     I really was in the mood for a burger, a good representation of which is not the easiest thing to find in Athens. I ordered the barbecue burger (other options were the texas double, a pizza burger with tomato and parmesan, and the New York, with cheese and bacon). The bbq burger had bacon, too, lots of it, which definitely helped give the meat the necessary fat to make it juicy. (I removed it before eating, conscious of my diet, heart, and middle-aged middle.) The sauce was commercial bbq sauce, but the whole thing was just fine. My 17-year-old, whose appetite is impressive, managed to savor every last bite of veal chops (brizolakia apo moscharaki), which were cooked as she likes them, medium. (No one in this food critic’s family dares eat a well-done steak!) We shared a spinach-arugula salad, which was a little limp and very wet from too much dressing. The house red was quite nice. I refused to buy the kid a beer, though!
     All in all, we had a pretty good meal here, low-key, medium priced, and totally competent. The service was friendly and accommodating.


Cuisine: burgers and grilled meat
Athens area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: simple
Service: friendly and accommodating
Prices: 25-35 euro a person
Address: 46, Adrianiou str., Neo Psychiko, tel. 2106753934
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Polly Maggoo

Monday, October 11, 2010 0 comments
A small menu—15 items in total—that includes offbeat items such as liver, snails, trahana (pebbly pasta with a sour taste) and kavourma (spiced, preserved pork, beef or buffalo) is a sign that someone in the kitchen has a point of view and is willing to stand by it. Indeed, the kitchen master behind the stove at a relatively new, small, hip place in Metaxourgio, Polly Maggoo, is good at what he does: cooking up haute fare with flare and a sense of grounding.
Polly Maggoo is a not-so-classic French restaurant in a totally Greek neighborhood in the historic heart of downtown Athens. The décor is simple, almost bland, I’d say, but the food shines. If you are new to Athens, the area is worth discovering.
The best dish we had was the simplest: a plate of perfectly cooked al dente lentils in a tangy mustard vinaigrette that comes capped with a perfectly poached egg. The snails are of the French persuasion, shelled, that is, so you don’t have to hassle with them, and served in a tasty tomato-herb-garlic sauce. I learned something I didn’t know before about the charcuterie of Greece: that Drama produces pastrami, which here comes in thick, wide slices partnered with soft, warm goat’s cheese over a generous bowl of salad greens.
Main courses apparently were limited, as evinced by the fact that four out of six of us ordered the same plate, a beautifully prepared fresh cod fillet served with warm potatoes, capers, and parsley. Aioli, a kind of garlic mayonnaise, is served on the side. It was very good. The saffron-scented fish soup, not unlike a bouillabaisse, was also very good. I was tempted by the pennes with spicy kavourma, capers and cream but the summer’s lingering heat got to me and it seemed too warm for such indulgences.
Desserts we bypassed altogether, not for the lack of them but for the good of our waistlines. Would I come back to Polly Maggoo: O, yes, gladly.
Cuisine: French but simple
Athens Area: downtown Athens
Decor-Atmosphere: 
a little too minimal for moi
Service: a little slow, with just one waiter in the room
Wine List: good list with reasonable prices
Prices: 30-40 euro a person
Address: 80, Leonidou & Salaminos str., Metaxourgio, tel. 210 5241120
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To Kalosorisma tou Antoni

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The prospect of savoring a goat-meat makaronada/pasta on a pleasantly chilly night sent me from the comforts of my apartment to the fringes of Kifissia, Athens' well-known northern suburb. Destination: a large, pleasingly busy (it was a Wednesday night) restaurant called to Kalosorisma tou Antoni, which, roughly translated, means "Antoni's Welcome." The building, at first sight, set me aback. It looked like an 'exohiko kentro' (sprawling, family taverna), the kind of place you take your inlaws on a Sunday afternoon or hold the reception for a christening. But the garden is alluring. It is filled with heavy, white, metal furniture, lots of greenery, and waiters from a slightly passe era.  The service at this high-end taverna, which morphed from a longstanding humble place called Spyro's in Kypseli, a downtown neighborhood, into this northern suburb hot spot, was impeccable. Antoni, of course, was there, as gracious and friendly a host as could be, with the consummate outgoing personality of a good restaurateur.
The food was very good. No fancy fare here is to be found here, just straightforward home cooking with absolutely NO attitude. Our meal started with a simple medley of boiled vegetables, including runner beans, ambelofasoula in Greek, cooked as a cold salad with whole zucchini (a Greek summer classic). The portion was generous and nicely laid out on the platter. The dish needed a little salt, but so did most things we sample. I liked the homemade zucchini pie, the filling of which was more like a soufflé of zucchini and cheeses than a pure medley of veggies and herbs. I liked the idea that they have “palikaria” on the menu, an ancient dish of mixed beans and grains from Crete, which dates back to the ancient offerings of grains during harvest fests.  
The main courses were very good, too. A generous, homey dish of that goat-meat makaronada consisted of a chunk of tender shank, meat falling deliciously off the bone, thick tube spaghetti and coarsely grated myzithra cheese, a common hard, whey cheese that Greeks use like parmesan. We loved it. The stifado (stew with whole small onions) of wild boar, hunted at the very civilized Farma Fotiades (Fotiades Farm) in N. Greece, was deceptively light, the onions cooked to perfect sweetness, still whole, and not too caramelized. The tomato sauce was a little lighter and looser than I like it to be in this classic Greek dish.
Dessert was on the house: excellent vyssino (sour) cherries strained for liqueur and spooned over mastiha ice cream and a dark, rich, unctuous, chocolate mousse. The watermelon, while sweet, was totally overpowered by them.
We would gladly enjoy another welcoming meal at Antoni’s.
Cuisine: Greek classics at their best (Greek Cuisine Award for 2009)Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
nice decor, but the garden saves it all
Service: 
very good
Wine List: 
ok
Prices: 
A little steeper than I anticipated, at around 30-35 euro a person (with house wine)Address: 41, Georgiou Lyra str., Nea Kifissia, tel. 210 8017869 , 210 8018457
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Ouzadiko

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With friends in town from overseas, we were out and about in the center of Athens, looking for an iconic Greek place for lunch. I had been to Ouzadiko but once since its founders, Stella and Takis, sold it two years ago, so I was curious to see how this standard bearer of excellent meze fare was holding up.
Ouzadiko is located in the atrium of the Lemos Center in Kolonaki. We got there a little early for lunch a la Grecque and the place was relatively quiet. Ouzadiko, for those who don't know it, is the hangout of upper-crust intelligentsia, Athens style. 
The décor hasn’t changed since the takeover. Several tables were reserved but we found one easily.  As the place filled up it was sort of comforting to see that this small classic place still attracted its usual array of Athens power brokers, from famous heads of newspapers to financial and lawyer types in need of some Greek home cooking.
The menu, like the décor, has remained almost exactly as it was under Stella’s rein. I always have a strange sense of foreboding in restaurants that “buy” the whole package, down to the recipes, and carry on someone else’s legacy. The only other place like that is Edodi, which I haven’t been to in years but was for a long time the carrier of another chef’s fame.
The torch at Ouzadiko flickers; I wouldn’t say that is shines as bright as it did when Stella oversaw the kitchen. The edge is missing.
For example, a simple greens salad, Mihalis’ salad, was dead on arrival, having left the kitchen with more than a few wilted and brown lettuce leaves, an indication that the attention to detail is lacking now. One of my favorite Ouzadiko classics, black eyed peas with greens, used to be an ode to Ladera (olive oil based dishes), deliciously textured, sweet, and soothing. The version we sampled was competent and maybe someone unfamiliar with the dish would not have noticed, but I found it bland and spiritless. The flatbread sticks of yore so delicious with Ouzadiko’s still good smokey eggplant salad, were soft and old.
We ordered a plate of grilled sardines, which were ok; the fried gavro (anchovies) were much better, crisp and fresh. So were the “orphaned” meatballs that my 9-year-old son approved of in the first bite. Still juicy and succulent after all these years. A grilled haloumi meze was exceedingly small in portion size.
Ouzadiko is still a popular place and the food is decent, maybe even better than many other Kolonaki haunts. But I still have vivid memories of exceptional meals here. The attention to detail seems somehow to have dulled. What about just trying a few dishes that are new and personal, and not just the watered down continuation of someone else’s legacy?
Cuisine: classics unchanged over time
Athens Area: center, Kolonaki
Decor-Atmosphere: 
buzzing power place still popular after all these years
Service: 
good
Wine List: ouzo and wines to satisfy a wide range of palates
Prices: 25-30 euros a person
Address: 
25-29, Karneadou str. (Lemos center)tel. 210-7295484


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P-Box

Friday, October 8, 2010 0 comments
P as in Peskias, or P after the Pi-shaped (Π) kitchen that is the main architectural element in chef Christoforos’ Peskias’ cool northern suburb restaurant? (He just opened a second P-Box in Kolonaki, as yet to be reviewed.
P Box indeed is very small, as its enigmatic name implies, but  the flavors are big.
The best place to sit in the restaurant is around the kitchen on high stools (not made for a food lover’s derrier or a big, fat Greek one either!) where you get a pretty good view of what Peskias, one of Greece’s most celebrated chefs, is up to. The ergonomics are impressive in his little P-Box. Three people move around one another inside this tiny, visible kitchen, aware, of course, that it has, at all times, to look clean and neat. They move in harmony, dancing their own kitchen ballet each night, careful, literally, not to step on each other’s toes. A lot of the food is pre-cooked sous vide, a technique that Peskias has long been fond of and that serves him well here. One thing irked me a little: sous vide is food sealed in plastic bags and cooked long and slow in special ovens. A lot of what you see is the chef opening plastic bags and emptying contents into the skillets that occupy all of four small modern burners. (No flames flicker in P-Box’s kitchen.) But the plastic, lots of it, seemed counter-intuitive to me as a cook and consumer living in the age where such things seem more and more wasteful. Anyway, if the chef reads this he will probably assume the critic just needs something to say…
Mainly what I have to say is that the food is very good. How can a meal not promise to be excellent when the chef serves forth a heaping plate of spicy plate of beef hearts, sliced into strips and cooked to delicious intensity? Mr. P is a meat lover, as evinced in the quality of his jamon, which melts in the mouth without losing any of its aged nuance. He serves that with dice-sized little cubes of jelly made from Pedro Jimenez sherry and a dark, earthy cream of green apples. The “vromiko” (dirty in Greek) of the northern suburbs, the name of one dish, made me think of other things. What arrived was heart attack food of the most mischievous, delicious kind! A sausage cut up and cooked with greens and served with a whole soft-boiled egg in the center, just for fun. By watching a dozen of these leave the kitchen, I learned how to serve a soft boiled egg the Peskias way, by lobotomizing the top of the shell and pouring out the contents without breaking the yolk. It’s a popular dish. I adore the peinirli (dough boat) because it is poor man’s food dressed up for Sunday. Peskias’ is crunchy and buttery and filled with a superlative dose of foie gras and siglino (cured pork) (again, a double dose of heart attack food, just in case some of us meat lovers didn’t have enough!) Wow was that good.
The Cypriot ravioli filled with haloumi cheese come served in a delicate chicken broth, which is the best part of the dish. I wanted to try the other two pasta dishes, especially the pennes with gorgonzola, Limnos Muscat, pepper and lemon. With great difficulty I refrained. The eight main courses are nicely balanced: two pork dishes, two chicken dishes, tuna, grouper, shrimp and a vegetarian specialty that I plan to try next time: prasoselino me avgolemono (leeks and celery with egg-lemon sauce and pan-fried manouri cheese). It sounded so unusual.
The desserts were extremely good. I have a weakness for meringues. But P-Box’s, which is so clean and architectural and flavorful, is one of the best around. The cream inside is a coconut flavored pastry cream. Strawberries layered between it and the stiff meringues give it the brush stroke of irresistibility. The chocolate tart is pure heroin for this chocolate addict.
Peskias is in his element here. His humor comes out as he chats with guests and does his chef’s dance in the kitchen, preparing the food he loves. Clearly he seems to be enjoying himself and we his food. It’s a win-win situation!
p.s. The sommelier is excellent and the wine collection impressive. Oddly, P-Box aspires to be a kind off hybrid Greco-Spanish tapas bar; lovers of Spanish wines will find much to sip here.
Cuisine: modern
Athens Area: 
northern suburbsDecor-Atmosphere: small as a box, Π-shaped, with a visible kitchenService: good
Wine List: 
very good, Spanish wine collection impressive, excellent sommelierPrices: 40-50 euros a person
Address: 
11, Levidou str., Kifissia, tel. 210-8088818
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To Mageriko tis Nagias

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Nagia doesn’t accept kids and closes the kitchen at 10.30, despite her Ikarian DNA. (Ikaria, for those who don't know, is the Aegean island where time stops and most people live at night.) “When Ikarians show up, you know, late, I say, hey, look, let’s go somewhere. I am done in the kitchen.” 
I discovered this tiny taverna on a side street in Kallithea, about a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown Athens, thanks to a friend (not from Ikaria) who passed along the word from another friend who had just been there. It’s not completely unknown or even completely unpublicized, but it does have the distinct feel of a place off the radar screen despite the fact that the food here is delicious. The décor is very personal, a reflection of Nagia, who loves her space and takes pride in the character she exudes. I might describe it as filled with old photos and the patina of age, despite its three meager years on the Athens restaurant map, but it is filled with spirit that words can’t capture. There are about five tables in the whole 50-m square restaurant. The size of the space and the even tiner kitchen don't seem to make one dent in the consciousness of either the cook, her helper, the musicians who play here on occasion, or the crowd, a mix of intellectual types who seem to know what good food is all about. Damn good food, I’d say. Nagia is the perfect “crisis” restaurant, just right for these times. It brims unapologetically with all the values whose loss we are currently mourning:  honesty, value for money and, good, solid Greek food that happens to be very, very flavorful and original. Nagia serves forth Greek cuisine that is traditional in its approach but is also the result of a learned hand who knows just what’s right. My grandmother cooked soupies (cuttlefish), for example, but they were nothing like Nagia’s, which are patiently simmered with capers, green olives, and tomatoes and are absolutely down to earth and heavenly at the same time.
The menu consists of a large array of standards, such as feta ladorigani (with olive oil and oregano), horiatiki (village salad), meltizanosalata (eggplant salad), haloumi cheese on the grill, revithia sifneika (chick peas from Sifnos), which were thick and soothing and tres delicious, pork tigania (in a skillet) with mushrooms and mustard and more. 
We loved the pitakia (small pita bread) with goat’s cheese, honey and sesame. The stamnangathi (spiny chicory) salad was exceedingly fresh. She boils it as for horta (greens) and doesn’t serve it as a raw salad. One of my favorite dishes is the hilopites (pasta) with caramelized onions and xinomyzithra cheese, a take on an intoxicating pasta dish from the islands of Kassos and Karpathos, but with Nagia’s touch. I think the most delicious and regal dishes on this unique menu of classics and personalized tradition is the kritharaki (orzo) with smoked eel and fennel. It was such a sympatiko combination of flavors, at once very unusual and very soothing.
There wasn’t room to try more. But dessert did fit. In this case a cheese cake (Nagia’s own), with a dried fruit compote.
Cuisine: delicious home cooked Greek food with a personal flair
Athens Area: 
Kallithea
Decor-Atmosphere: 
a koutouki to calm us in the crisis
Service: 
friendly
Wine List: 
Tsipouro, ouzo, xyma krasi (house wine) and two organic wines, plus beers
Prices: 20 euro a person
Address: 
Evaggelistrias str. & 1, Galatias str., Kallithea, tel. 210 9517230
Nagia’s is the 21st century reincarnation of a great koutouki. And for all of the above, and more, our check came to 20 euros each.
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O Kipos tis Edem

Thursday, October 7, 2010 0 comments
Sometimes eating out for a living spawns the need for some plain old comfort food, the need to revert to much-loved restaurant dishes and familiar environs. I couldn’t think of a more apropos place to head for a meal to bridge the seasons and comfort my end-of-summer blues than the aptly named Kipos tis Edem (Garden of Eden) in Halandri, one of the most accessible and happening suburbs of Athens. If only the kipo (garden) part were a little more Eden like, this place would be so much better!
Nonetheless, this longstanding Lebanese restaurant serves all the classics from one of the Middle East’s most delicious cuisines and does so while proffering a water pipe for whoever wants to partake. Don't misunderstand: this is not a hookah bar! The décor speaks Arabic, too, in classic, of slightly heavy, shades of red, artisanal plates, copper briks and the like.
I come here for the things I have grown to like, from kiounefe (the cheese-filled kataifi-shredded wheat-pastry), to hummus served warm and topped with pine nuts. I can eat mountains of that, it’s so soothing. The Armenian salad is like our own horiatiki (village salad), but with a hot chili pepper added to it. The taboule is lively with the flavor of fresh chopped parsley and in-season tomatoes. I love the Arabic eggplant salad, with tahini, and the falafel, chick pea fritters, also served with tahini sauce (not as good as the ones I crave when on the go near Omonia, at Fat Boy, but just fine nonetheless). The stuffed grape leaves are not like our plump ones, but longer and thinner and lemony, and the tzatziki-like labne, a yogurt dip in other words, is a little runnier than what we Greeks are familiar with. The kibbe, meatballs in a bulgur crust, are crunchy and tasty but a little on the heavy side. The oil? Maybe it was the heat or maybe the desire to just eat less meat, but we stayed away from most carnivorous offerings, such as the various cooked lamb dishes and kebabs. There was still plenty to sate even the most diehard vegetarian, and plenty more for all you meat lovers out there who have yet to see the light!
Kipos to Edem is one of the oldest Lebanese places in Athens, still maintaining standards after all these years. That’s a good thing.
Cuisine: Lebanese
Athens Area: 
northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
classic Arabic, on the slightly heavy side
Service: 
good
Wine List: 
good
Prices: 
25-30 euros a person
Address: 
9, Konstantinou Paleologou str., Sidera Halandriou, tel. 210-6853580, 2106826105
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Oinothira

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Determining which restaurants one likes and doesn’t isn’t an exact science. Food, service, the glamour element (or lack thereof), atmosphere, decor and what I call the comfort zone—how good you feel in a place at a given moment in time and how easy it is to experience the same feeling upon subsequent visits—are all factors that go into the liking or not of a place in which we perform one of our most personal, fundamental activities, eating, of course.
I like a place called Oinothira, which is just a neighborhood taverna in a small, hidden plateia (square) behind a church off Eth. Makariou and Hrissostomou Smirnis streets in Kaisariani. We visited on a Monday night, and, with a slap in the face to the crisis, Oinothira was packed. Good sign. I like this place for two main reasons: it is quintessentially Athenian and it serves forth some very good fish and an excellent linguine with clams and garlic, the aromas of which waft straight to whatever part of our brains makes us instantly hungry.
The spinach-shrimp salad was decidedly elegant for such a low-key neighborhood place. Our roasted eggplant salad with red peppers and scallions was lovely. All the usual taverna suspects are on the menu, from fava (yellow split peas), skordalia (garlic dip), boiled seasonal vegetable salad, and tyrokafteri (spicy feta spread) to cheese fritters and bekri meze (pork with peppers and wine). A few stand out, among them: the feta-stuffed peppers on the grill and the seafood and bulgur appetizer fragrant with basil and lemon. I loved the simple but well-prepared grilled sardines but more than anything else I lapped up a filling plate of bavette with vongole (tiny clams) that was very good.
This is crisis food at its best with prices (around 15-20 euro a person) that obviously bring people out of the house on a hot Monday night. One caveat: Don't expect even the remotest air of glamour here; this place is just a down-and-dirty neighborhood taverna.
Cuisine: comfort food at its best
Athens Area: 
close to the center
Decor-Atmosphere: 
neighborhood taverna
Service: 
good
Wine List: 
ok
Prices: 15-20 euros a person
Address: 13, Ethn. Makariou str. & Hrissost. Smirnis, Kaissariani square, tel. 
210-7258428
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Alsoupoli, Y Gonia ton Gefseon

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 0 comments
A place that serves haute cuisine at taverna prices is always welcome, especially in these tough times, even if that means taking your passport and heading north across the border of Nea Ionia into the wilds of Alsoupoli. Fear not. It's just a 20-25-minute cab ride that won't cost more than 10 euro. Awaiting you there is Stathi, the chef-owner of Alsoupoli Y Gonia ton Gefseon, who holds court among a steady flow of devoted fans who come for the array of delicious fish carpaccios (salmon, gavro/anchovies among others, marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, a rainbow of peppers and more.) I loved his white taramosalata (fish roe salad), which looks a little like Rossiki (russian salad) thanks to the creaminess and the shredded carrots he adds. A seafood-vegetable pie was absolutely delicious, with a variety of greens that lent a sweetness that worked beautifully with the sweetness of the shrimp and other seafood.
The chef has a way of working with seafood and starch which hits notes of near perfection. My favorite dish was a dark, delicious mound of orzo, the color of amber, topped with a few shrimp. The orzo had absorbed all the briny esssence of the seafood and approached that deeply satisfying place the Japanese call umami. Another favorite was a molded dollop of wild and regular rice served on a shiny black plate, sprinkled with paprika like stardust. It was the most beautifully presented plate. A truffle risotto came out a little on the salty side and somewhat out of sync with everything else, but it was tasty. Two pieces of baked fagri/sea bream arrived a little while later, cooked perfectly and very fresh.
Stathi, in a starched black uniform and soldier’s posture, checks the tables of his diners regularly. He suggests dinner options even though there is a pretty large menu to chose from. His fish comes from a few key places around the Aegean, not least of which is my home island, Ikaria.
Alsoupoli cannot make any claim to aesthetic prowess. The «design» is about as simple as it gets, a sparse garden that’s lean and spare, clean, orderly, and neutral. This place is totally about the food without fanfare, a welcome return to solid values in an era that desperately needs them. That’s not to say that a few frivolous treats aren’t on hand, like the delicious balsamic-marinated strawberries with black pepper and a bottle or two of Moscato D’Asti.

Cuisine: haute without the fanfare
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
simple, neutral
Service: 
good
Wine List: 
good
Prices: 
25-30 euro a person with wine
Address: 28 Messinias & Dodecanissou str., Alsoupoli, tel. 210-2777065



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PicNic Bar, Multi Ethnic Grill, Food & Swing

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What happens when an experienced bar owner, who happens to be, like moi, from the island of Ikaria, opens a small place with a friendly name and pretty good food on a quiet plateia (square) in Erythrea? A core of Kariotes and their vast network of mojito-loving friends, not to mention more than a few neighborhood locals, turn an otherwise sleepy plateia into a lively late-night scene.
PicNic Bar is more than a bar. The Food & Swing in the title refer to a full menu of treats with a decided Eastern flair. The music is perfect for folks my age (whose memories of youthful vices are still intact). The food is exactly on target for these times: inexpensive but hardly boring. Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern fragrances perfume most dishes. A Tandoori oven is the piece de la resistance in the kitchen, from which emerge fresh breads a la minute (naan) and a coral-colored Tandoori chicken that is very good. The chef, Mihalis Boskos, spent a decade in London, where he learned to love and cook many of the cuisines of Asia.
We sampled a very good hummus; generous and very tasty ground meat kebabs; chicken with Thai peanut sauce (sate), and various dishes with yogurt, which inspired me to rethink its many uses in the kitchen. The couscous and beets both have hints of orange.
Most starters and salads are in the 4-5 euro range and most main courses around 7-8 euros.
But it’s the energy I liked most here: relaxed but hip. Just what’s needed to awaken a quiet plateia (square) when most party animals head to the over crowded coast or crowded downtown Kifissia, which is nearby. Even the Greek Prime Minister is said to be a customer here.
Design: PicNic Bar is no high-tech mixologist’s court, but rather a comfortable, small place with a few Eastern brush strokes meant for folks who just want to enjoy that age-old pastime: sipping a drink with some friends and sharing a few plates of very decent, inexpensive food. Simple pleasures for complicated times.
Cuisine: multi-ethnic
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Eastern pot-pourri, simple and comfortable
Service: good
Wine List: 
Full bar with cocktails between 7 & 9 euro plus full wine list
Prices: 18-22 euros
Address: 
1, Nikolaou Plastira str., Nea Erythrea, tel
210 8077501
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Sushi Bar

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On a hot summer night, too lazy to make my way to the sea around this city, I head to the next best thing. That, for me, is the Sushi Bar, specifically in Neo Psychico, a northern suburb that happens to be near home.
The Sushi Bar has been around for years and while it’s not the crème de la crème of sushi in Athens, there is always something new and unusual on the menu. The place is busy, which is always a good sign in any restaurant that serves fish, for the faster they sell it, the fresher it is. Service is good and friendly and the selection includes something for everyone, from all-time classic combo plates to more fusion sushi that marries a world of influences in every bite.
I love the spicy tsipoura (snapper) ceviche: paper thin slices of farmed snapper in a hot, perky marinade. One of my favorite dishes is the maguro shogi, a mix of raw and cooked tuna, in yet another spicy sauce. The seared tuna “Nagao” with jalapeno pepper and coriander is a great example of the fusion of flavors that make the food on this globalized menu work. The salmon tartar puts a Japanese spin on the Scandinavian classic gravlax.
I always order a salad here and my favorite is the Nori, with seafood. The vegetarian rolls that I tried this time around were so light and summery. Try the cucumber, pineapple and mint or the asparagus-avocado-mint trio. The selection of other, more classic but also creative maki, is large enough to please a wide palette of tastes. The Mediterranean roll, another fusion fantasia, with tuna, sea bass, scallions, avocado and cucumber will cool off anyone on those sweltering Athens nights. Mayo, pineapples, herbs, jalapenos, and more from around the world come into focus in the rolls and other menu items at the Sushi Bar, making it fun to nibble here. But my all-time favorite nibble is the Dragon Eel, with smoked eel, avocado, and the restaurant’s “special” sauce.
A few Kirins or Saporos to wash all these nibbles down, and even the searing city summer nights seem cooler.
Cuisine: sushi classics and sushi fantasiasAthens Area: northern suburbsDecor-Atmosphere: modern
Service: 
good and friendlyWine list: enough of a selection for all tastes, including saki and Japanese beers
Prices: 30-45 euros
Rating: ***
Address: 
38, Georgiou Vlahou str., Neo Psyhikotel. 210-67 29 333


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La Cantina

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I can’t think of the last time I spent a night in a Kolonaki restaurant where the most expensive dish on the menu was 15 euro. Signs of the times are pointing to a reshuffling of the restaurant order. This is surely the year that all things haute will deflate like a failed soufflé and most things cheap and chic will attract hipsters between the ages of 20 and 70 who know a good deal when they taste one.
La Cantina, on the upper level of the Lemos Center, is a perfect example of such a place. The restaurant specializes in pizza (which is pretty good, on a cracker like crust), pasta (we tried the casarecce with eggplant, tomato, pecorino, and basil—a little underseasoned believe it or not, but better than most), more than a handful of salads and a few iconic Italian desserts. The setting is simple. A bar on one side of the floor serves dinner, too, but on tres uncomfortable seats and small tables; the restaurant seating is fine, the décor amicable and Kolonaki-rustic, with garlands of sun-dried vegetables and cinnamon sticks dangling as if from the rafters of someone’s Tuscan larder. The service is slow.
Try the bufala pizza or any of the other 9 choices, including a classic margarita and a lovely pie topped with fresh arugula and anchovies. The arugula salad with gorgonzola dolce and walnuts is tasty but a little over dressed. We opted for a salami turco for dessert, otherwise known as kormos, which came dressed to kill in a generous dousing of confectioner’s sugar. It was very chocolaty and very good, nothing like the stuff I mix together in haste at my kids’ birthday parties!
La Cantina is casual, sexy, simple and cheap. A meal for two, with half a carafe of house wine cost us 43 euro.
Cuisine: Italian, specializes in pizza
Athens Area: Kolonaki, downtown Athens (metro Panepistimiou or Syntagma)
Decor-Atmosphere: simple setting, amicable and rustic
Service: slow
Wine list: ok
Prices: 20-30 euros
Address: 28-30, Alopekis str., Kolonaki, tel. 
2107299133
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Kuzina

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Aris Tsanaklides is one of the best-known chefs in town and his talents extend to several restaurants, from the Pasteria chain to Pasaji, a meze-tapas restaurant behind the Grande Bretagne Hotel, to Kuzina. The latter is one of my favorite places both to take foreign friends and also to enjoy a night out over smart mezedes. It also happens to be one of the best places in town to people-watch, if you sit outside.
The restaurant is light and airy, decked out in whites and one of the first of a recent crop (over the last five years or so, that is) to be designed to remind one of a bakaliko (grocer's shop). Shelves are lined with jars of house-cured vegetables, spoon sweets etc., the kitchen is open and the best table inside is the long one that is located right in front of chef Tsanaklides’ burners.
On a recent visit, he had just changed the menu for the spring-summer.
I loved the stuffed vegetables “bougiournti” filled with spicy feta and apaki, the Cretan smoked pork. This is not a diet dish to be sure, dripping with salty melted cheese. It’s great with a glass of ouzo.
I like Tsanaklides’ approach to Greek meze traditions, which is to alter them just enough to add some playfulness without going too far. His Horiatiki (village salad) is a classic example: the only thing he does differently is to add chunks of Salonika Kouloura (bread ring from Salonika). The sweetness of the bread ring and the nuttiness of the sesame blend beautifully with the salad and provide…instant papara! Other classics such as fava are classics here with little intervention.
A menu signature is Kuzina's Agioritiki melitzanosalata (eggplant salad inspired from Mount Athos ), an open-faced, dramatically presented dish that looks and tastes great.
Tsanaklides has lived and worked in the Caribbean and Pacific Rim, and calls upon his years in Hawaii and elsewhere to inspire him when it comes to fish and seafood recipes. His pickled octopus, cut sushi-like, and served over a carpaccio of fennel bulb has the lightness of a dish one might be served on the deck of a pedigree yacht. The octopus loses its dense earthy feel and is transformed into something much finer. The pairing of this favorite Greek sea creature with fennel is not new, but Tsanaklides presentation is pleasingly fresh. His home cured lakerda (salted tunny), called by the very non-Greek sounding Hamachi, is also delicious.
The sea beckons but the land sates. So it goes that my personal favorite are his Greek sausage rolls, made with ground lamb and seasoned with sumac. He serves these spicy little knobs with a tangy yogurt sauce. Even on a hot spring day, it hit the right spot. 
Caveat: Sometimes the food is uneven. I've ordered many of these same dishes on various occasions and while most times they're very good, there have also been a few misses.
Cuisine: Greek meze traditions with a playful twist
Athens Area: center, view at Thissio and Acropolis (metro Monastiraki/train Thissio)
Decor-Atmosphere: light, airy, white touches, reminds of a bakaliko
Service: good
Wine List: good
Prices: 30-40 euros
Address: 9, Adrianou str., Thissio, tel. 2103240133
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Thalassinos

Friday, May 14, 2010 3 comments
Thalassinos is well-known fish and seafood taverna in Tzitzifies, behind the Onassis Heart Hospital. Its been the darling of gourmandes in this town for a little more than two decades. Prices here have remained steady over the past few years, but fish and seafood are dear. Nonetheless, for the quality of the raw ingredients and the friendly, accommodating service, I have always felt that Thalassinos is a good deal. Lately, though, I’ve seen a slight downturn in what the kitchen prepares. I don’t know if it’s a phase. I recall better meals here, where the zeitgeist was utter simplicity. Some of the dishes we sampled on a recent visit were a bit muddled. Nonetheless, what is always the piece de resistance here is fresh shell fish and the all-Greek fish, grilled and super fresh. Other recommended dishes include: plump medium-sized Greek sardines, cooked up Salonika style, on the grill and sprinkled with raw onion and boukovo (hot pepper flakes), perfectly prepared; roasted chunky eggplant salad, with specks of green pepper and tomatoes; a potato-smoked herring salad with chopped carrots; rice and octopus salad, with a briny aftertaste that makes it perfect for ouzo; spanakorizo (spinach rice pilaf) mixed with bits of shrimp and raisins, served with a drizzling of saffron-orange sauce; seafood dolmades stuffed with rice, raisins, pine nuts and a medley of chopped seafood. Dessert is simple at Thalassinos: signature chocolate soufflé and shredded wheat pastry (kataifi) filled with cheese and topped with mastiha-favored ice cream are the best things to order. Cuisine: all the fruits of the sea. Famous fish taverna, with imaginative strokes and great ingredients. Decor: cozy and comfortable, bright room with less clutter and a summery lightness, beige walls, shutters and woodwork a seafoam green. Service: Excellent. Wine list: Excellent. house wine, Greek wines, beer, ouzo. Prices: 35-50 euro per person. Address: Irakleous and 32, Lysikratous str., Tzitzifies, Tel: 210-9404518
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Vinoterra Resto & Cava

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It was one of those nights when reviewing a restaurant seemed a lot more like a chore than a pleasure. Our choice for the evening was either a new pasta place on Panormou or a wine-bar on Marinou Antypa in Herakleion. I live north and didn't want to stray too far from home. Wine Bar it was, and so we discovered to our pleasant surprise a place with good food, a laid back atmosphere, a happening bar filled with civilized people sipping bulbous glasses of wine, and decent prices. Vinoterra.
The space is simple and modern. A glass panel in the front of the restaurant makes it feel almost like a cafeteria or café and less like a restaurant and the modern but neutral furnishings bring it close to nondescript. The design could have more character. It falls into that category of cosmopolitan bland. 
I liked the small menu. That’s almost always a sign that the kitchen is careful, has thought things through and decided upon a few offerings that are done well. That is certainly the case here. One thing that needs improvement is the timing, not only between courses but also between the wine service and food service. Our first plate had arrived but the sommelier, who was knowledgeable and accommodating, had not yet come to the table to take our order. Then, wanting a second glass of an Aivali Nemea (a red from the Peloponnese), which I had never tried, we had to practically flag him down from across the room.
The first thing that came to the table was our salad, a delicious medley of escarole, endive, hazelnuts and chestnuts. This might sound ironic, but salads are often one of the worst things in a Greek restaurant, something literally tossed together, drenched in dressing, and pushed out of the kitchen. Not this one. It was made with care, beautifully balanced, and delicious.
My reviewer’s heart pushed me to try something that went against all my culinary instincts, a risotto with sour cream. But the waiter assured us it was really good, and I trusted him. My instincts were wrong (not about the waiter but about the dish). It was, indeed, very good. Surprisingly so. He mixed the dollop of sour cream into the vegetable risotto at our table, then served it—a delicious, creamy, lusciously tart but comforting dish of pillowy risotto. What a nice change from the porcini-studded, truffle-oil-drizzled, goop that comes out of more kitchens than I care to remember. This was a high starch night. Our next dish was a ragout of beef, broccoli and pecorino, woven among the slurpy pieces of gaganelli pasta, something like the twisted Cretan schioufichta pasta, if that means anything to more traditional Greeks. It was very tasty. I wish there had been more cheese in the plate. But we lapped it up like hungry children, finding it hard to resist almost any pasta dish.
A more serious dish of sea bass (lavraki) over selinoriza (celery root) purée was also lovely. The lavraki “blackened” had a sweet edge to it, and the selinoriza purée with saffron sauce acted as a lovely foil.
We sipped away at various wines by the glass, and mulled over dessert, which was an orange tart with chocolate ice cream. I liked the intense flavor of the orange and that combo—chocolate and orange—is one of my favorites.
Someone in that kitchen can cook!
Cuisine: Small and elegant, with Mediterranean touches
Athens Area: Herakleion
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Modern, sleek, a little impersonal, but with a happening bar scene made for civilized adults
Service: 
A little disorganized and a little slow, but accommodating and polite
Wine List: 
Excellent (The restaurant is actually part of the cava next door)
Prices: 
25 -30 euro a person without wine
Address: 
74-76 Marinou Antypa str., Neo Herakleion, tel.: 210-2792100 
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