Ta Tria Asteria (Three Stars)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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