Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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
60-80 euros per person
80, Pireos 2105228400