Tuesday, February 2, 2010 0 comments
I embraced this quaint little restaurant on Mantzarou Street in downtown Athens when I visited it a year or so ago, liking the homey, cozy feel of the space and the artful but down-to-earth cuisine. A recent visit, however, left me with a less enamored feeling.
We sat downstairs, in what essentially is the imiypogio (semi-basement), which was partly my fault for making a reservation at about 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. The space, while cozy thanks to a warming, working fireplace, is cramped, so cramped that five of us could not sit facing one another round the table, but rather in a Pi (Π) formation, because the only other table downstairs was too close for chairs to sit back to back. I felt a little like a bridesmaid in a wedding party!
Cilentio’s menu is a potpourri of Mediterranean and Greek dishes, with items like bresaola pouches, carpaccio (sooo last decade!!), grilled vegetables, and more making up the bulk of appetizers. A lot of Greek-Med combinations of flavors define the menu, in dishes like katiki cheese-jamon Serrano-Zucchini tart (an appetizer) and greens salad with grapes and manouri cheese. Other items are more hybrid—rooster stuffed with graviera cheese, spinach and bacon, salmon-broccoli “crumble”, black cod with Greek fava (split pea purée) are a few such examples. Some things are silly and out of place, like the 95 euro Wagyu fillet with Port sauce and truffled mashed potatoes. I wonder how many orders of this come in a night.  This is a plate that belongs to fatter times, when people spent money with less hesitation.
Every meal starts here with a warm bowl of velouté. Ours was a base of celery, drizzled with olive oil. It had all the right soothing elements. A spinach-haloumi (cheese) salad was tasty and generously portioned. I liked the sweet and savory combination of flavors in those bresaola pouches, which come served with fig jam.
Main courses were pretty good. I ordered the duck, a weakness of mine when the mercury drops, as it had that night. It was a little over cooked for medium rare, as I had ordered it, and was tougher than I like it. On a scale of one to 10 I’d probably give it a seven. The wine sauce was tasty. Friends ordered the black cod with fava and wild mushroom sauce. The fish was nicely prepared. This dish is well composed and nicely presented. A rib-eye marinated in olive oil and seasoned with Himalayan salt (Messolonghi or Greek island seas salt isn’t tasty enough??) was competent.
I wasn’t thrilled with the desserts, which seemed a tad pretentious, especially the “modern” cheesecake, which was a cave-like mound of white cheese (cream cheese and whipped cream?) whose center was blood-red with a compote of berries. It looked like the sculpture of a small volcano rather than a soothing dessert. The coffee mousse with caramel foam, fried chocolate bits and cookies was ok, a little self-conscious and obviously anxious to impress.
I remember a better meal here the last time around. Maybe the key is to keep things just a little simpler.
Cuisine: Mediterranean and international pot-pourri
Athens Area: Downtown Athens
Decor-Atmosphere: Cozy, warm, low-key
Service: Good
Wine List: Good
Prices: 30-35 euro a person without wine
Address: 3 Mantzarou str. & 54, Solonos str. (paved walkway), Kolonaki
Tel.: 210-3633144

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Gefseis me Onomasia Proelefsis

I hadn’t been up to Kifissia to catch up with chef Nena Ismirnoglou at Gefseis in close to two years. One recent visit on a Friday night made me angry at myself for not being hungry enough to savor more of this lovely restaurant’s delicious food. Nena, gourmet earth mother, takes the comforting flavors and dishes of Greek cuisine and brings them to an almost ethereal level. Hers is a female approach—to nourish, warm the soul, and provide delicious flavors in every dish; what a great welcome for the intellectual approach to Greek food that took over this city for a while.

This chef loves chips. And she made us love her versions of high-end beet chips (served beautifully with a silky dollop of Santorini fava) and classic potato chips, served artfully over a mound of grilled calamari strips and smoky eggplant cream. The beets retained a surprising flavor and the fava (split pea purée), garnished with volvous (bulbs) and roasted olives, was delicious. I loved the contrast between the chewy but tender calamari and the thin crisp potato chips in the second dish.

The winter cabbage salad at Gefseis brings an otherwise pedestrian cold-weather dish to new heights. Shredded cabbage and celery root are tossed with soft bits of the sweetest red pumpkin and countered with the subtle sharpness of green olive-bergamot confit. There is a pinch of boukovo (hot pepper flakes) somewhere in the dressing that magically holds the whole thing together. It’s one of the nicest salads I’ve sampled in a while, not too wet, perfectly balanced, pleasantly acidic.

We had a warming fish soup, a touch sharp with acid, but filled with chunks of cooked langoustine. The soup is tomato-based and is an elegant rendition of the classic Greek island fish soup.

So far so good. Light, healthy fare. Then came the peinirli (dough boat). I’ve never met a peinirli I didn’t like, but one that is mignon, dripping with butter, billowing with melted feta, and dotted with avgotaraho (botargo) is just impossible to resist. I loved it.

My favorite dish was the one I almost didn’t have room to eat, a perfectly prepared seared tuna in mavrodafni sauce. I wish I had had the stamina and space to savor a few other of Gefseis specialties, such as the turkey “like stifado” and the politico pilafi that accompanies Nena’s juicy keftedes (meatballs). The goat cooked in bitter orange sauce with mashed-potato galaktoboureko sounds like something to order next time, too!!

Cuisine: New Greek classics by Nena Ismirnoglou
Athens Area: Northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: Civilized and pleasant. A great old house filled with tasteful antiques that I could live in forever
Service: Very good
Wine List: Very good
Prices: 45-60 euro a person
Address: 317 Kifissias ave., Kifissia
Tel.: 210-8001402

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We visited Athiri on a pre-holiday night, when the weather was uncannily balmy and the anger over a smoking ban no one is enforcing hot (at least to me). That said, I was delighted to see that Athiri, a small restaurant for which abiding by the antismoking regulations must have cost a chunk of cash (building a separate glass-enclosed, well-ventilated room), was totally legal! The room is in the garden, quasi attached to the rest of the restaurant, with a view of the door leading to the kitchen.
Greece is the  bad boy of Europe when it comes to enforcing the smoking ban. Restaurateurs egregiously dismiss it and use the economic crisis as a crutch. Enough said. What most of us are concerned with are the food, service, ambience, etc. Athiri gets lots of brownie points in all those areas, since chef owner  Alexandros Kardassis is one of the most talented young Greek cooks around. 

Athiri is pricier than I had expected at about 50 euro a person. There is a definite artfulness to everything presented here and some things appear on the plate with a delicacy that belies their rustic roots or hearty, robust flavors. The fava (split pea purée) is a prime example, gorgeously plated with slivers of silvery anchovies and strips of red pepper waiting to be mixed into the velvety purée. The taramosalata (carp roe salad) with skate (salahi) is a plate worth photographing, so beautiful and refined in its appearance, so delicate in flavor. The dill oil marries it all together like silk thread on a fine cloth. We loved the giant beans with herbs and mushrooms and especially loved the fact that the kitchen was willing to serve them forth without the kavourmas (cured beef, like confit) that’s listed on the menu (one of us in the group was a vegetarian). The trahana was another winner, with crabmeat, chives and another flavored oil, this one bright green with parsley.
The main courses were not as strong. The scorpion fish (skorpina) risotto with lime and ginger seemed to have a slight identity problem, cool with the lime and ginger but lacking in the comforting tones of a more traditional Italian risotto. I ordered the marinated duck leg crusted with figs and served with apple salad, which was very tasty, rustic, but also elegant. The lamb leg sous vide in thyme sauce was tender but not as exciting as I anticipated.
Desserts are a delicious blur! Well, not really. The three flavors of crème brûlée, a restaurant signature, is as tasty as ever, with caramel, Greek coffee, and orange cardamom options. The kormos (chocolate ‘trunk’) is what every child dreams of at the age of 50…
I like Athiri. For all the compliments, though, I couldn’t help but feel that the restaurant had somehow plateaued—reached a certain level and is a little bit stuck there. Maybe it’s time to spend a season away behind the stoves near one of Europe’s or America’s many masters, to renew the spirit and give a jolt of freshness to a menu that has changed a little too cautiously, if at all, since this lovely restaurant opened its doors a couple of years ago.

Cuisine: New Greek cooking by Alexandros Kardassis and his able team
Athens Area: Kerameikos (metro station)
Decor-Atmosphere: lovely old house off Piraios Street, the kind that makes urban life…livable
Service: Competent and attentive
Wine List: Good
Prices: A little steep for these times, at around 50 euro a person
Address: 15, Plataion str., Kerameikos
Tel.: 210-3462983

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Arcadiani - Oi nostimies ton giagiadon

A weekend in the Peloponnese might include many things, from visits to the wineries of Nemea and Mandineia and elsewhere, a tour of the archeological wonders, a stop in Nafplion, to a jaunt down to the Mani or a stroll through one of the region’s beautifully preserved villages, like Levidi, Stemnitsa, and Dimitsana. The one thing it should definitely include, at least from the perspective of a self-respecting food lover, is a drive up the winding road to the village of Psari in Arcadia, where Makis Papoulias has put together a small but impressive workshop where local women produce some of the best spoon sweets I have tasted, local pasta products, and some delicious desserts, including the very local karydokourambiedes (walnut Easter cookies). He is an ardent collector of antique cookery books and other home kitchen tools and the small but well-organized museum is a walk through time. But even more impressive than the sight of a few women scraping off the peels of bergamots, grapefruits, and oranges to make the workshop’s famed sweets (that’s what they were in the midst of doing when we arrived), is the restaurant that Papoulias has organized in the space. I had one of the best meals in recent memory in this lovely untouristed village, real home cooking made from obviously top-notch, fresh ingredients, with nothing on the table that was out of season.

Our simple meal—prepared by a couple of local women who work at the facility—started with a basket of home-made bread. Good sign. Next came a delicious tyrosalata, a creamy blend of feta, yogurt, diced green peppers and parsley. A plate of mapa (cabbage) with local sausages puts to shame the best wurst and sauerkraut concoctions. This was sweet from slow-cooked cabbage and tangy from the orange-flavored local sausages. One of my favorite regional dishes in all of Greece is the black-eyed peas and greens of the Peloponnese. Slowly cooked, as comforting as a down cover, healthy, and unsparing on the olive oil, which gives it its final, soft texture. Here, this dish was divine. We feasted on other small plates to start with, too. One of the best was the dark, grainy skordalia (garlic purée), made with both bread and walnuts. We sampled Arcadiani’s own homemade singlino, which is nothing like the stuff we find cryovacked in supermarket refrigerators. This was a piece of pork tenderloin that had been cured. It was sweet instead of numbingly salty. Excellent. A home-made squash pie was also excellent: light, flavorful, just the right thickness.

Why would a Greek lunch stop here? The main courses were yet to come! These included a soul-warming plate of straggistes (strained) hilopites (egg noodles) for our vegetarian companion and an absolutely delicious country braised lamb dish served with hilopites in tomato sauce. The lamb literally fell off the bone.

We drank a modest amount of Ktima Spyropoulos, thinking of the drive back, and we feasted on excellent yogurt topped with bergamot spoon sweets, and a heaping plate of sugar-dusted karydokourambiedes, which were spiced with cloves and gave me just the right sugar kick to have the energy to walk around the village afterwards. It was all worth it.

Cuisine: Regional dishes made with care and absolutely delicious
Area: in the Peloponnese
Decor-Atmosphere: Country comforts in a gorgeous setting with a view stretching all the way to Megalopolis
Service: Friendly
Wine List: Local, mainly Ktima Spyropoulos
Prices: 15-25 euro per person
Address: Psari Trikolonon Gortynias, Arcadia
Tel.: 27910-27161/27162
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Ep' Avli

So we’re all on the lookout for pleasant places to eat on a Saturday night (or any other night for that matter) that won’t cost us an arm and a leg, especially as the country teeters on the verge of bankruptcy and international humiliation. If there is a view of the Acropolis to remind us of glories past, all the better. If the food is more than edible, we’ve got a winner on our hands. In the case of Ep’ Avli, a convivial taverna in the heart of Metz, all of the above criteria are met.

When the weather is warm enough to sit outside the rooftop view is soul – sating. The food is simple and simpatico, the prices right. In winter, though, when there is no view but the rooms themselves and the faces of your company across the table, it’s actually hard to see them. Why? Because the smoke is thicker than the fog on a hot July day. It makes me burn with fury that Greeks just can’t abide by the law. It pisses me off even more that restaurant operators have no qualms about giving you some stupid story excusing themselves from what is very clear: It is illegal to smoke indoors in public spaces. Illegal, got it? I just created the one-woman smoke police and I will out the abusers in this space!

Now onto the reason most of you read this column: to eat here or not to eat here.

Ep’ Avli, which is housed in a great old house and is simply appointed with plain rooms of pale yellow decorated with a collection of black-and-white plates, offers up a menu of Greek taverna classics for prices in tune with our ever-shrinking buying power. The fava (yellow split pea puree) is of the chunky not velvety variety, and tasty, with a touch too much salt. It comes topped with capers and parsley. The taverna litmus test for me is melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), which here comes right out of the fridge, cold but velvety and pleasing smoky despite the chill. We sampled the pumpkin fritters, shaped oblong and a little over-fried (dark brown), but not bad. I liked the tigania (fried pork) with retsina. The wine was subtle, the meat tender, the whole dish flavorful as a good meze should be. We weren’t charmed by the eggplant imam or by the dolmades, both of which came with wiggles of yogurt edesma piped over the top in an attempt at plate design. Better to keep it simple in my humble opinion. The dolmades have a filling of rice, onions, and dill. They were competent, but nothing stellar. Ditto on the stuffed eggplant, whose flavor was clouded by the pillowy pile of yogurt on top. Obsessed and angry at the smoke, I somehow missed this place’s claim to fame, a baked feta dish, which I hear is good.

Desserts were pretty standard: a nest of kataifi filled with scoops of mastiha ice cream and topped with vyssino (sour cherry), and a chocolate brownie-like cake with a heavy dose of syrup. There was something less than homemade about them. Again, given the simple environs and the taverna air, a straightforward dessert like great homespun halva might work better here.

Cuisine: Classic taverna fare
Athens Area: near the center
Decor-Atmosphere: cigarette smoke clouds the simple rooms in this old, neoclassic house
Service: Friendly, competent
Wine List: Xyma only, although the owner did come to our table and say he could “get us a bottle” if we really wanted one
Prices: 15-20 euro per person
Address: 14 Arhimidous str., Pangkrati
Tel.: 210-7014836
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Matsuhisa Athens (Nobu)

I don’t know if it’s against the current spirit of the times to write about places that are, well, très cher. On the other hand, most of the recent meals I have had in restaurants that are more pedestrian, spruced up tavernas, really, are getting tired. The menu in most of these joints is pretty much the same with a few personal “twists”: fava (split pea purée), fries, soutzoukakia, maybe a pita of the day, some salads with nams that usually promise a lot more than they deliver, etc. Then there is Matsuhisa. It was amazingly crowded on a recent Friday night, absolutely delicious.

I had refrained from going, mainly because I feared that I’d like it too much!

The space is not quite what I had anticipated. Nicely appointed in lively browns, Matsuhisa stakes no claim to zen calm. The decor is busy and the place bustling and noisy. The wait staff does an excellent job of initiating customers into the world of Nobu Matsuhisa’s empire, by explaining specials that are specials in every restaurant, by suggesting the complex tasting menus for two, by suggesting dishes for novices and more experienced palates alike.

We started with a fabulous plate of “new” sashimi, tongue-sized pieces of very tender salmon that had been flash seared and served forth in a delicious sweet sauce swirled with another sauce made of what I think was smoked eel. The presentation is stunning. The tuna in jalapeno sauce was less spicy than I had hoped and the tuna marinated to the point of being thoroughly cooked. It was very good. The blackened cod, a house special in Nobu restaurants all over the world, was arguably the best piece of fresh cod I have ever had. It was perfectly cooked, seared and crusted with a sweet sauce, and served with an artful pencil-like piece of pink pickled ginger. The fish flaked off like a puffs of cumulus clouds, so light and tender and just delicious. The rolls were very good, but rolls are rolls, even the special Matsuhisa roll with several different kinds of fish and a sprinkling of crunchy roe. For me, one of the great dishes of the night was neither sushi, sashimi, or fish at all, but an unlikely, extremely simple, delicate, and earthy wedge of cabbage! Yes, cabbage, cooked in the wood-burning oven that stands tall as soon as you walk in and peer into the open kitchen. It as dressed with a few flakes of black truffle and a drizzling of truffle oil. It needed a little salt, at least for my palate, but it was absolutely surprising and original and the kind of thing I am inclined to try, granted in a more pedestrian version, in my own kitchen. The fresh salad with tuna slices was delicate and tender and the sauce amazing: a concoction of finely chopped onions and sesame oil that united the entire plate.

Desserts were to die for here, too. The chocolate bento box came with a piece of dense chocolate ganache cake and a side of green tea ice cream. They played off each other beautifully, the deep, dark, overwhelming power of the chocolate tempered by the cool aloofness of the ice cream. We also loved the espresso mousse in a shot glass with Suntori whiskey foam.

Matsuhisa was fabulous, totally outrageously priced, but the kind of meal that you remember well past the next morning. And, hey, it’s the holidays. We indulged...

Cuisine: Contemporary, artful Japanese fusion
Athens Area: Southern suburbs, near the sea
Decor-Atmosphere: Zen with a happening buzz
Service: Very professional and informed
Wine List: Excellent wine list and sake list
Prices: Close your eyes and take out the plastic (120+ euro per person)
Address: Astir Palace Hotel, 40 Apollonos str., Vouliagmeni
Tel.: 210-8960510

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